Aside from supporting roles by Michelle Rodriguez in Furious 7, Oscar Isaac in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jennifer Lopez and Ryan Guzman’s lead roles in The Boy Next Door, very few mainstream films featured Latino actors. Even worse, of the four performances mentioned above, only one actor, Rodriguez, actually portrayed an explicitly Latino character.
Yes, there were few Latino roles this year, but there were even fewer Latino-themed mainstream films. In fact, as Flavorwire points out, 2015 saw an equal number of films about Latinos and about monkeys.
The most high-profile Latino-themed film of 2015 was probably McFarland, USA starring Kevin Costner as a running coach who teaches a team of Latinos to rise above their socioeconomic status through sportsmanship. The movie didn’t fare too well and was dismissed as saccharine sports-movie schmaltz. In crime drama Sicario, Latino actors were mostly unnamed drug dealers and cartel members.
When Latinos are cast on screen, they often have to deal with identity erasure. So a big-screen role for a Latino actor may not necessarily be a huge win for the community. For instance, both Lopez and her co-lead Guzman have Latino names but are presented as white in The Boy Next Door.
“They’re presented in code,” Felix Sanchez, chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation of the Arts, told Mic. “We know their ethnicity. Their names reveal their ethnicity, but the portrayal is completely absent the ethnicity.”
Sanchez said this is a case of studios trying to benefit from casting Latinos without calling them Latinos. “It’s a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ mentality,” he said.
Diversity conversations seemed to reach a fever pitch this year. In early 2015, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag showed the lack of diversity among the Oscar nominees and the larger problems of diversity in the Academy’s racial makeup. While most of the tweets were aimed at its lack of black representation — the Academy has a dismal 2% black membership, the Los Angeles Times reported — even fewer Latinos are at the table in the Oscar conversation. A Latino actor hasn’t won an Academy Award since Benicio del Toro won for 2000’s Traffic.
In her Emmy acceptance speech, Viola Davis said people of color can’t be recognized for their work if the roles don’t exist. And without that infrastructure, there is an unclear road to stardom for many Latino actors. Julia Roberts rose through the Hollywood ranks from Mystic Pizza in 1988 to Academy Award nominations for 1989’s Steel Magnolias and 1990’s Pretty Woman, but those opportunities don’t seem to exist for Latino actors.
“She did Pretty Woman, and she became a name,” A.B. Lugo, associate director of the Hispanic Organization for Latino Actors, told Mic. “Where are those opportunities for us? Why are we stuck playing maids? There’s nothing wrong with being a maid, and I’d understand if that was one of many forms of representation, but Latinos are doctors, Latinos are lawyers, Latinos are maids, Latinos are everything. So why can’t we say that?”
In a Hollywood that is increasingly risk-averse and reliant on sequels, prequels and reboots, the status quo doesn’t bode well for Latinos. And it’s likely only hurting Hollywood studios and their bottom lines.
Currently, Latinos make up 17.4% of the U.S. population but over-index when it comes to heading to the theater: They were 32% of frequent moviegoers in 2013, and Latinos made films like The Lego Movie a success. They also go to see movies on opening weekend more than the average moviegoer — 47% vs. 37% — and they go to the movies six times a year on average, as compared to four for the non-Latino population.
“Hispanics are far and away the most important consumer at our cinemas,” John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, told a Los Angeles crowd in June 2014, according to the Wrap…”