By Xavier LeBlanc
Throughout the course of cinematic history film has undergone vast growth and evolution, spanning generations in truly remarkable ways . An invaluable medium through which audiences have seen different worlds, cultures and people. From the development of silent films to the progression to sound; black & white to color; film to digital and much more amidst a myriad of breakthroughs. So too, has society simultaneously grown and adapted since the invention of motion pictures.
However, one particular sector within American film and television seems to be less susceptible to change. This being the dated and often stereotypical representation of minorities on screen. It’s not to say there haven’t been notable improvements these past decades, Yet many mainstream productions still retain rudimentary depictions, exploitation and misconceptions.
Black and Latino characters in particular are still commonly portrayed as gangsters, drug dealers and generally demeaning characters. While it may be true that inside society these elements do exist as with any race, they by no means represent the whole. Which is why one of the greatest problems lies in the lack of equal representation. It would seem logical that character depictions should more logically reflect the rich variety and types of people found in day to day life. Yet in 2014 two of Hollywood’s, arguably most successful Latino actors, Benicio Del Toro (Paradise Lost) and John Leguizamo (King of Cocaine), will be portraying infamous Colombian drug boss Pablo Escobar in two separate films? To the uninformed viewer, given the low ratio of Latinos in leading roles and nature of characters portrayed, one might gain the impression this type of role represents Latino in general.
Adding insult to injury these or similarly unsavory roles portrayed by minority actors are often the performances that receive awards or nominations. Denzel Washington famously won the Best Actor Academy Award for portraying a gangster corrupt police officer in Training Day. While Mo’Nique won Best Supporting Actress in Precious for playing an extremely abusive mother; and Halle Berry’s win for Best Actress after playing sexually deprived wife of a Death Row convict in Monster’s Ball. Within the last three years some of the most popular US films featuring Black actors in lead roles have included portrayals of slaves, maids and a butler. In 1987 director and actor Robert Townsend directed a comedy film that satirized some of these very same stereotypes of African Americans in film and television. It was called Hollywood Shuffle and many would argue that the topics covered in the film still remain just as relevant nearly 30 years later.
In November 2013 media outlet USA Today was the subject of controversy and headlines when it published an article titled “Holiday Nearly Beat Thor as Race Themed Films Soar”. Referring to the opening weekend gross of romantic comedy Best Man Holiday ($31 million) against big budget comic book blockbuster Thor: The Dark World. Bewildered and upset by the article many people pointed out that while the film’s cast is mainly African American the picture’s plot is actually focused on relationship and family. This brings to the surface a difficulty the media has with non-Caucasian characters featured prominently in theatrical films.
This among other instances begs the question, ‘why are these racial tropes still prevalent in today’s modern cinema’? The ensuing negative reaction to USA Today’s article across social media platforms and the public at large resulted in multiple revisions to the article’s controversial title. Perhaps if general movie audiences were equally vocal about the portrayal of minorities on film we might witness a more significant shift in representation. Until then, those within the film and television industry currently aware of these issues might consider helping to gradually create a more diversified and equal playing field.
Fortunately, some have already begun taking this initiative. Among them, respected actor Harry Lennix who some may recognize from the recent blockbuster film Man of Steel and the new hit TV series The Blacklist on NBC. During an interview with the NY Daily News on the subject of Black roles Lennix was quoted as saying “I won’t play roles that demean people. I won’t play a butler or slave. I want to show success, with dignity and grace”. Lennix is also executive producer and star of H4, the first Black Shakespeare film based on King Henry IV parts one and two. “It examines contemporary African-American issues through the lens of Shakespeare” says Lennix. It screened at the 2013 International Chicago Film Festival to a warm reception and will be released to the general public in 2014.
A young Latino in Hollywood currently making waves with his cinematic work is Guatemalan and Cuban actor Oscar Isaac. The actor has performed in notable roles such as Prince John in 2010’s ‘Robin Hood’ and was said to be “Robin Hood-movie’s show stealer” by publications like Empire Magazine. Though he is also seemingly aware of the stereotypical roles Latino actors are often relegated to participate in. “After finishing high school in 1998 Isaac began to explore acting in the theater, dropping his surname (Hernandez) at auditions to avoid being type-cast as a ‘Latino gangster”, according to The Telegraph. He was recently nominated for a Golden Globe and gaining Oscar buzz for his critically acclaimed starring role in the new Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis. Performing his own vocals in the title as a folk singer the actor’s portrayal was heralded by the Washington Post as a “poignant, mesmerizing breakout performance”.
Though not all Latino actors are fortunate enough to carefully choose or be granted roles that enable them to display their talents to the widest range. Those struggling to excel in careers as actors must often sacrifice their creative integrity to accept stereotypical roles in films and television. A challenge many minorities in Hollywood have had and continue to face.
Established Mexican-American actor Michael Peña who has appeared in popular films such as American Hustle and Tower Heist has also expressed his perspective on these topics in the past. While speaking with IndieLondon the actor said; “I’ve always viewed acting as when you start off there’s always kinds of stereotypes like the gang banger of the week. I spent three years doing that! I was like: “Haven’t you got anything different from the gang banger? How about a kid from college? I’m a nerd man!” Yet in a different interview with Fox News Peña also added that; “You can’t let the initial shock of Hollywood destroy your dreams. You’ve got to know that it’s part of the game.”
Although many professionals in the industry may share opposing views, most acknowledge that a significant portion of roles and stories still contain stereotypical material in regards to minorities. In the future one would hope audiences and industry professionals alike both become equally demanding for fair representation. Yet only time will tell if the face of minorities on screen finally matches the level of growth filmmaking itself has experienced. What do our readers think?