Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Four guys enter a dark movie theater: a Salvadoran, a Brazilian, a Persian and a Japanese guy. Their median age is 27 and they’ve just paid $40 to see the latest Judi Dench flick “Philomena.”
They look around and notice that they’re by far the youngest in the audience for the near sold-out show. They’re also the only minorities in attendance, but realize it’s no big deal, because who doesn’t love a British feel-good movie with 78-year-old dame Judi Dench as the lead?
However, the Salvadoran dude who’s a voracious film lover and spends hundreds of dollars on movies yearly, found a recent study conducted by the University of Southern California that states Latinos go to movies more than any group yet represent only 4 percent of roles onscreen.
What few roles do exist only perpetuate stereotypes, according to the study. Since 2000, only five Latino performers were nominated for Oscars, not including Spaniards (Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz with six nominations and two wins).
Those nominated played an undocumented gardener, an undocumented nanny, an undocumented drug mule, a former convict turned religious zealot and a corrupt police officer. The only historical figure portrayed on this short list is Frida Kahlo — thick unibrow included with the price of admission.
So the Salvadoran guy wonders, “When am I portrayed on screen?” He isn’t, because he doesn’t represent the typical young Latino depicted on celluloid as the East L.A. cholo with bullets to spare and not an ounce of dignity.
He did shoplift a copy of “Chocolat” in junior high, though. Clearly he has a thing for Judi Dench, but is that worth a lifetime of unfavorable roles?
Apparently, and yet he still attends movies religiously. AMC, the second largest theatre chain in America, has noticed and Chief Executive Gerry Lopez has gone on record to say that the company specifically builds new auditoriums in predominantly Latino populated neighborhoods because the return on investment is lucrative in a time when overall attendance is gradually down since 2011.
The exception is Latinos who have actually gone to the movies more since 2011 and propel the industry, according to the study. Regardless, Latinos clearly won’t stop attending movies and they shouldn’t. But at this moment it’s worth to be aware of these trends because Hollywood producers need to acknowledge with their checkbooks and casting decisions that we know.
It’s easy to blame the lack of roles for Latinos on economics, but any concerns that movies headlined by Latinos are a costly gamble for studios should be rendered irrelevant after this study.
Why wasn’t the lead role of the true life, heroic, Latino CIA operative Tony Mendez in “Argo” played by a Latino actor, but by Ben Affleck instead? Sure, he directed the movie, but let’s not be greedy. It could’ve gone to the Guatemalan born, Juilliard trained actor Oscar Isaac.
Why wasn’t the saintly single mother and love interest to Ryan Gosling in “Drive” portrayed by a Latina actress, as originally intended in the script, but instead given to British ingenue Carey Mulligan?
How about the real-life Spanish family who survived the 2004 Thailand tsunami portrayed in “The Impossible?” Well that script was changed to a British family and the lead roles given to Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts.
Black filmmakers in particular are enjoying a stellar year with exceptional portrayals, albeit still stereotypical, in Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station” and “12 Years a Slave” to name a few. Hollywood took a chance and the cash registers went ka-ching.
Latino filmmakers had a brief moment renaissance more than a decade ago with art house fare like “Amores Perros” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” Alfonso Cuaron, who directed the latter, went on to make hit films “Children of Men,” “Gravity,” and arguably the best Harry Potter entry, “The Prisoner of Azkaban.” Latino actors are nowhere to be seen in those subsequent, big budget films produced by Hollywood.
Perhaps appropriation, a watering down effect and a system reluctant to change are at play here despite hard evidence that suggests they have nothing to fear financially. Whatever the case, the Salvadoran guy has since paid $14 for the latest “Hunger Games” film and eagerly awaits the new Meryl Streep flick out Christmas day, but now asks “When will Latino filmmakers and actors be given a proper chance?”