Conversation continues… did Argo casting whitewash? There are Latinos who disagree.
By Luis Reyes
There has been a lot written about Ben Affleck’s Oscar award winning film Argo and his playing of Latino real life character Tony Mendez.
I am of the mind that an actor is an actor and should be cast to play any character that he or she can play, judged solely on their ability and talent or lack of it. Daniel Day Lewis, an Englishman played Lincoln, Marlon Brando who was not Italian played Don Corleone in The Godfather. But the real world is not like that and films are not only an art but a business as well and reflect the politics and values of the society that makes those films.
Making films is a crapshoot and the risks are enormous not only on a financial level but artistic one as well. To make a good movie is one thing, to connect with a large audience and be a hit is another. I am sure Affleck who also directed and produced the film, would not have been able to do so, if he did not play the lead character of Tony Mendez to help ensure box-office. Mendez’s ethnicity had nothing to do with the story being told in the movie and as such there was no need to go any further with his ethnicity. Latinos are white, black, Asian, mixed race, some grow up in a Latin environment and speak Spanish and some do not.
But we are all Americans.
What is the physical, performance or acting criteria that define what are the elements that make up a Latino on screen? Affleck was also able to receive backing from Oscar winning actor/producer George Clooney, who along with Grant Heslov, co-produced the film. And, probably would not have been able to have Argo financed with him as director if he did not star in it.
American Latinos constitute 16% of the population and 25% of the movie-going audience.
Since the Oscar-winning Argo is a hit at the box-office, a large percentage of the audience who went to see the film are American Latinos and did not have a problem with his portrayal. Affleck put all the pieces together and had the right to make the film he wanted to make. And, apparently Oscar agreed by handing him the coveted top prize of Best Picture Award! But, next time hire an American Latino in a key role. It’s a win-win… box-office revenue and superb talent.
American Latino Filmmakers must do the same thing and start networking and building alliances with each other and with other filmmakers and funding sources. They also need to develop and produce movies that people want to see and that make money. Yes, there has existed and still exists a double standard where Latinos in Hollywood don’t get the same opportunities to explore different lead roles in films or get to direct a major film. Interesting, uplifting stories about positive Latinos need to be produced. American Latino producers and stars must develop films that people want to see and that meet an ever expanding international entertainment and business criteria. Producers and filmmakers need to form alliances. It took a Mexican film company partnered with actor John Malkovich to finally get the long gestating Cesar Chavez labor leader film off the ground with Michael Pena in the title role and Diego Luna as director.
Mexican Guillermo Del Toro lent his name to an aspiring filmmaker and financed the box-office hit horror film Mama. We have a lot of talented artists but very few are proven box-office stars and the generous list is short, Jennifer Lopez, Zoe Saldana, Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas and perhaps Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Benicio Del Toro and Andy Garcia.
Films do not always need a star name but the film must entertain and grab the attention of audiences as with the case of Bridesmaids that certainly touched a responsive chord in audiences worldwide to the tune of $200 million dollars. That film could have easily taken place with an American Latino family.
There are countless contemporary American-Latino heroes whose stories are waiting to be told. One of the heroes of Argo that is not mentioned in the movie is U.S. Marine Jimmy Lopez, who held off the crowds invading the embassy and was held in captivity. His story and picture made the cover of Life Magazine. Sonia Sotomayor’s story as a disadvantaged Puerto Rican youth from the south Bronx who made it despite the odds to US Supreme Court Justice just recently wrote her autobiography. The late Victoria Soto, the young teacher who sacrificed her life to save her students at the Newtown shootings would make a compelling drama. Perhaps most commercial of all would be the life of the late Diva of Banda Music Jennie Rivera, a life filled with enough dramatic turns that would make the various film versions of A Star Is Born fade in comparison. It would make an ideal vehicle for Jennifer Lopez. Lopez has the business clout, acting and singing chops, the right age and physical resemblance to Rivera. You would think Jennifer Lopez, as a producer and actress would secure the rights to a personage she could easily inhabit as an actress that would give her the second role of a lifetime, much like Selena, which catapulted her to stardom.
Robert Rodriguez is one of the few Latino filmmakers who has created his own successful niche and can get projects financed because his films make money. Early in his career, Rodriguez formed relationships with Miramax financier Harvey Weinstein and fellow filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. Rodriguez helped make stars of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Alexas Vega and even Danny Trejo. Rodriguez films, from the humble beginnings of El Mariachi to Desperado, from the Spy Kids Franchise to Sin City, have all made money. Machete Kills, the sequel to the hit Machete, will be out this fall with an all- star cast. Rodriguez also executive produced the Sci-Fi film Predators. Personal films, correcting stereotypes and diversity of roles are elements all present in Rodriguez’s films under the guise of popular entertainment.
Luis Reyes is co-author of Hispanics in Hollywood, writer and journalist who has three decades of experience working in Hollywood.