Thursday, January 26, 2012


I am going to post a review of the new movie Red Tails (and one of the still relatively new Shame) soon, but watching the film it dawned on my yet again that Hollywood, by which I mean the entire constellation of people, institutions, structures, and the system of and for mainstream filmmaking in the United States, still has no sense, even after being a century into its development, and over 400 years since black people first arrived on the shores of what is now this country (or 500+ in this hemisphere), of how to portray us on film. But it's not only us, and it's not only Hollywood. So often when I read about black people, or other people of color, people who're not male, not wealthy, not Christian, not straight, not documented immigrants or holding citizenship-level papers, whose lives emerge from anything other than the most normative scenarios, I note how stunted the discussions of these folks tend to be, which I attribute in part to the absence of having someone--journalists, scholars, etc.--writing who have any real familiarity or depth in relation to such folks or topics.

I'll hold up on discussing black folks and Hollywood for now, but I came across an article in the Times that provoked these thoughts anew. By Mireya Navarro, who has written extensively it's titled "For Many Latinos, Racial Identity Is More Culture Than Color," and she traces how the US color=race binary (down to terms like "biracial," so beloved of so many nowadays), bureacratic pigeonholes, and related conceptualizations of identity lead many latinos to choose differing ways of thinking about themselves. One point that Navarro notes is one I rarely hear noted anywhere: on the US Census, for some time now, a majority of latinos have self-identified as "white."  In fact, in most discussions of latinos and certainly in many depictions in the mainstream of latinos, there is no nuance when it comes to race; instead, latino registers as a racial category, and the history and complexity of being a latino in the US gets reduced to and reinscribe racist stereotypes of and commonplaces about who latinos are in the US. With regard to Hollywood and TV as well, I still see not just white-outs in terms of casting and storylines, but when latinos do appear, as in HBO's recent series How To Make It In America, they're cast in the same sorts of stereotypical roles (in the case of this show, all of the latinos, including one of the show's protagonists, played Dominican-American actor Victor Rasuk, were linked to drugs, selling and using) that are for me just maddening.

Fortuitously I came across a January 2012 article, in the Huffington Post, about this very topic concerning latina actresses; titled "Hollywood Typecasting: Some Latina Actresses Are Forever  Relegated to Roles as Maids and Abuelas," it notes the extremely narrow casting range available for most latinas in Hollywood; they are either domestics, sexual spitfires, or grandmothers. One incredibly talented actress, Lupe Ontiveros, has been cast as a maid more than 150 times! She doesn't turn down the roles because she wants to act and has bills to pay, but it's so telling that these tend to be the only roles she can get. As I read this article I though of the irony too the two black actresses nominated for the 2012 Academy Awards, Viola Davis for Best Actress and Octavia Spencer for Best Supporting Actress, were cited for playing domestics. No other black actresses, or other actresses of color, including no latinas, white, black, other, or otherwise, for that matter, playing any other roles over the last year, were nominated for Oscars, and many an actress of color waits for a role other than the stereotypical ones.

Navarro's article also brought to mind the clip below, which I first saw on the Monaga site (h/t Anthony!), of latinos in Hollywood talking about having to choose between being black and being latino; most of them do not and won't, meaning that while they do get parts playing African Americans (or, in some cases, black people of indistinct ethnicity), they often do not get cast as latinos, since the idea of black latinos is too complex for many in Hollywood to grasp. (I have said it before but I'll say it again: there are more black latinos outside the US than there are African Americans within our borders. All African Americans are black, but not all black people are African American.)  In Red Tails, two of the actors, Andre Royo (best known as "Bubbles" in the exceptional HBO series The Wire) and Tristan Wilds (who also starred as a child actor on The Wire and has since gained fame on the new version [why?] of Beverly Hills, 90210) have Latin American roots but are--consider themselves--black Americans. They are black and latino.

Discussions around race and latinos led two younger latinos, Alicia Anabel Santos and Renzo Devia, to film a documentary, "Afrolatinos: The Untold Story," a clip of which is below, to address this issue. The clip also notes that Bianca I. Laureano and others specifically created a blog, The Latinegr@s Project, to take up this topic.

This is an issue not just in the US, though. Last November on Fly Brotha's site, he peeped a documentary by Panamanian-American filmmaker Dash Harris entitled Negro on identity, race and racism among latinos in the US and Latin America. Here's a little taste:

None of this is new or news, of course--at least to most readers of this blog, I'm sure. What I do wish, though, is that more journalists would take up some of the realities Navarro, for her part, particularly concerning the 60% of latinos in the US who are of Mexican ancestry, and the actors and actresses in the black and latino in Hollywood clip for theirs portray, and that there were more folks making films and TV shows who had a grasp of the world that didn't consist in the same tired stereotypes I have been seeing my entire life. (Or that my colleague Ramon Rivera-Servera explores in his work on latinos, race, class, and performance, just to give one example of a brilliant scholarly exploration of these ideas.) Don't films like Quinceañera or Real Women Have Curves have any effect? Don't they suggest that maybe there are more stories out there than the ones we see over and over?  Or, to take two TV examples, if the Steve Harvey Show and New York Undercover, both shows from the 1990s, could cast latinos--and in this case, Afrolatinos--in roles (Merlin Santana in the former, Lauren Vélez in the latter) that depicted them as latinos and went beyond stereotypes, why are we going backwards now?


  1. Great post J. I saw Red Tails and I can't wait for you to dissect that boiled down to no more than exaggerated posturings without any meaningful depth..and you can't forget that inappropriately mismatched soundtrack that attempted to melodramatize scenes that should have/could have been carried by a serious script. Anyway the treatment of Latinos/Hispanics in America is just another example of how entrenched we are in hierarchies that do no more than dumb down our worldview. America wants to run the world without taking the time to get past the fact that the world is more than black and white. Its sad that this is still going on and even sadder that the intra-conflicts among Latinos/Hispanics have as much life as it does.

  2. I am also waiting for your review of Red Tails! And thanks again for your take on the black and latin discussion.

  3. Rc and SDCZA, thanks for commenting. I also do plan to get to that Red Tails review soon enough....