James Franco Controversy Spotlights Hollywood’s Perpetual Blind Spot

Last week actor John Leguizamo voiced strong opposition to the announcement that James Franco had been cast in the role of Fidel Castro in the upcoming independent film, “Alina of Cuba”, based on the life of Castro’s daughter Alina Fernández. 

“How is Hollywood excluding us but stealing our narratives as well?” lamented Leguizamo on an Instagram post last Friday. “I don’t got a (problem) with Franco but he ain’t Latino!” he added. Fernández told Deadline she supports the casting, and lead creative producer John Martinez O’Felan told the publication that “finding and convincing James Franco to play Castro” was “a fun and challenging process,” citing efforts to “comb through the entire ranks of actors with Latin roots in Hollywood” and noting Franco’s “close physical resemblance” to the Cuban leader.

Leguizamo is drawing attention to two distinct but related problems around Hollywood’s representation of Latinos in film and television. First, there is a long history, going back to the early 20th century greaser films that continued with the street gang stereotypes of the 50s, of Anglo-American producers, directors, screenwriters and actors, controlling narratives about Latinx in the US and Latin Americans abroad. 

The second problem is what many have referred to as “brownface,” or the practice of using White American actors to portray US-born Latinx and Latin Americans. Some of the many examples were Natalie Wood as María in the original production of “West Side Story,” Charlton Heston as Detective Vargas in “Touch of Evil” and Al Pacino as Tony Montana in “Scarface.”

Leguizamo even refers to growing up in an era when “Latin people couldn’t play Latin people on film.” Yet the circumstances around “Alina of Cuba” are substantially different today. Most of the cast, including Mia Maestro and Ana Villafañe, who play Alina’s mother and Alina herself, respectively is of Latin American descent. The two screenwriters, Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, and Puerto Rican screenwriter José Rivera (“The Motorcycle Diaries,” “On the Road”) are US Latinos, and the director, Miguel Bardem, who is Javier Bardem’s cousin, is from Spain. 

The main bone of contention here is Franco’s casting in the lead role, a move clearly designed for box office potential, which is often a rationale that has stymied the development of Latino Hollywood stars, and that has a negative impact on the development of Latino-focused movies and televisions series. When Leguizamo claims Franco is “not Latino,” he means that, although Franco has partial Portuguese roots, many advocates argue that Portuguese and Spaniards are not suitable to play “Latino” roles, which is the reason some objected to the Spaniard Javier Bardem being cast as the Cuban Desi Arnaz in last year’s Academy Award nominated “Being the Ricardos”.

Leguizamo also points out that Latinx are also not often cast in “White” roles, although Cuban-born Ana de Armas’s upcoming turn as Marilyn Monroe in Neflix’s upcoming biopic, “Blonde,” is an exception. Yet there’s a limit to how lighter-skinned Latinos can be “seen” as White, since there has already been social media pushback about Armas’ perceived Cuban-Spanish accent

Still, the lack of Latino representation in films remains a significant problem. A 2021 study by the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that from 2007-2019, the percentage of Latino characters was stagnant at 5%, and the percentage of Latino characters in lead roles for the same period was 3.5%, with only 6 total lead/co-lead roles held by Afro-Latino actors. A University of California, Los Angeles report published last year asserted that despite making up 18.9% of the population, Latinx actors made up only 6.3% of roles on television shows in 2019 and 2020. 

Last week there was an uproar over the canceling of the movie “Batgirl,” which starred Dominican actress Leslie Grace (“In the Heights”) in the lead role. Even director Kevin Smith, not well known as a Latino representation activist, thought it was an “incredible bad look” for Warner Bros. studios. (CNN is a part of Warner Bros. Discovery.) Variety reported the move was the result of a new corporate strategy to prioritize theatrical features (the film was going to be released on HBO Max). Variety also reported that a tax write off was another reason for the studios to drop the $90 million film. Mediocre scores on test screenings were also blamed, but those don’t always indicate the eventual success of a film. (A spokesperson for Warner Bros. said, “The decision to not release ‘Batgirl’ reflects our leadership’s strategic shift as it relates to the DC universe and HBO Max.)

In March, Latino advocacy group Unidos US expressed outrage that the pending merger of Warner Bros and Discovery, which was completed earlier this year, would not include any Latinx members of the merged company’s Board of Directors. After the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Urban League met with Discovery leaders, the newly formed company expressed that it is committed to diversity, naming Asif Sadiq as the company’s chief global diversity, equity and inclusion officer.

This week, pop-reggaetón Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio), who topped Bloomberg’s Pop Star Power Rankings last month, made his Hollywood debut in the Brad Pitt vehicle film “Bullet Train,” though his appearance is very brief, with almost no speaking lines. However, he is slated to star as “El Muerto,” a Marvel universe movie based on a Mexican wrestler character featured in the Spider-Man story. Bad Bunny will become the first Latinx actor to headline a Marvel movie. And just recently it was revealed that Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta will play the role of Namorin the upcoming “Black Panther” sequel, “Wakanda Forever.”

Still, despite being someone who grew up reading Marvel comics, the incessant parade of superhero movies becomes fairly mind-numbing and has diminishing returns, with diverse representation or not. Bloated big box office projects have effectively erased the world of independent film making that, back in the 1990s, represented a moment of hope that a Latinx film space could be created. Films like “Raising Victor Vargas,” “I Like It Like That,” and “Mi Familia” created vibrant portraits of urban Latinos that were not swallowed up by endless explosions and choreographed fight scenes.

These were films that harkened back to the work of Spike Lee, who did so much to create marketable African American stars like Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes and Halle Berry. For some reason that never happened with Latinos—with the exception of Rosie Pérez, Lee’s muse in “Do the Right Thing”–despite the brief success of directors like Gregory Nava, León Ichaso, and Joseph Vasquez, whose film “Hanging With the Homeboys’” starred a young John Leguizamo.

While it’s not counterproductive to see Latinx in big-budget roles, the key to sustaining visibility still lies in seizing the story-telling machinery and establishing narratives and star performances that can’t be erased by Hollywood’s bottom line.

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