Enough is Enough: Miscasting of Latino Roles in Hollywood

By Kirk Whisler, NALIP board member and president of Latino Print Network. To read an article on this same topic by Moctesuma Esparza, click here.

While many aspects of Hollywood have made major changes in the past two decades in terms of providing roles in front and behind the camera for Latinos, problems still exist. Hollywood has one tradition that only seems to get worse with the years: Allowing non-Latinos to play Latinos in key roles. 

I've been working far too many hours lately with on political campaigns. After victories for the propositions I was working on November 6th my wife, Magdalena and I went to see the movie Argo. The movie is very well made: excellent script, great cast, moving story... At the end of the movie they have individual cast photos next to each individual cast member. The producers have done a great job of getting actors who like the real persons they are portraying, except with one role: the lead character of real life CIA technical operations officer Tony Mendez that is played by Ben Affleck. 

Here's ten reasons this is wrong:

1. Talented Latino actors are overlooked.  Big budget films want lead actors with name recognition. In 2012 it's fortunate there are dozens of Latinos that have earned key entertainment industry awards and have had leads in high grossing films. For the role of Tony Mendez couldn't the producers have called an award winning actor like Benicio del Toro, Jimmy Smits, Edward James Olmos, Tony Plana, Andy Garcia, or Esai Morales, to name a few possible actors that could have excelled in this role. SAG-AFTRA, the Screen Actors Guild, has over 6,000 Latino members for casting directors to choose from so there is no lack of Latinos to cast into roles. 

2. Awards. Argo will win many movie industry awards in the coming months, but none of these will go to a Latino because NO Latino was cast in the lead role. The same is true for many of the other films listed in this article. 

3. Role Models. When Latinos are not cast in these highly visible, POSITIVE ROLES a MAJOR opportunity is lost to provide meaningful Latino role models. While Hollywood has NO problem casting Latinos in negative roles as gang members, drug users, and maids they continue to have a problem casting Latinos into highly professional roles - even when it's real characters. 

4. Successful films are viewed by millions and last for decades.  Successful films like Stand and Deliver have been viewed by millions of people over the past three decades and hundreds of thousands of young Latinos have been motivated to stay in school and go onto college by the impressive and talented Latinos in the cast. Would the film have the same impact if Jaime Escalante had been played by someone other than Edward James Olmos? I sincerely doubt it. 

5. It's not just for Latinos.  Films and television are the most common ways than many non-Latinos see the roles that Latinos are playing or have played within American society. When those roles are played by non-Latinos MAJOR OPPORTUNITIES ARE LOST FOREVER. Going back to Argo no one is going to say the role played by Ben Afflack is a great Latino role model - and the movie will never show non-Latinos the true Latino hero that Mendez was.

6. It has happened before - and will again.  Please keep in mind that I have no problems with any of these actors, only when they are cast in roles that should be going to Latinos. Here's a few key examples of how this has been happening for too many decades in movies and television shows like: 

a. In 1934 MGM's Viva Villa featured Wallace Berry as Pancho Villa. While I've enjoyed Berry's acting in other movies, if you're looking for real history, please skip this one. Result: The movie got 4 Oscar nominations and the world got a lousy history.

b. In 1939 Paul Muni starred as Benito Juarez in Warner Bros Juarez. Result: The movie got 2 Oscar nominations and the world lost an opportunity to see a Latino play Juarez. 

c. Marlon Brando's Emiliano Zapata in the 1952 movie Viva Zapata from Fox. Result: Oscar nomination for Brando and an Oscar for Anthony Quinn as Emiliano's brother Eufemio. 

d. 1961's West Side Story by United Artists, saw Natalie Wood and George Chakiris in award winning Latino roles. I'm just glad they were smart enough to include Rita Moreno in the cast. Result: Ten Oscar victories including ones for Chakiris and Moreno. 

e. In 1968 Yul Brunner played Pancho Villa in Paramont's Villa Rides

f. In 1969 Fox gave us Che with Omar Shariff as Che Guevara and Jack Palance as Fidel Castro. What were they thinking?

g. NBC gave us the TV movie Evita Peron in 1981 with Faye Dunaway as Evita. 

h. Few will forget Al Pacino, nor his lousy accent, in Universal's 1983 Scarface

i. In 1993 all the key roles on the Uruguayan soccer team were played by non-Latinos like Ethan Hawke in Paramount's award winning biopic movie Alive. Result: The movie won one Oscar and was nominated for four others. 

j. 1996 saw Warner Bros offering Anthony Hopkins as Pablo Picasso in Surviving Picasso

k. The big budget film in 1997 Evita, distributed by Buena Vista Pictures (Disney), features Madonna as Argentina's Eva Peron and Jonathan Pryce as Juan Peron. 

l. In 2001 another biopic was released that went on to earn many awards and generate hundreds of millions in revenues. A Beautiful Mind was well received and yet most viewers had no idea at all that the lead character's wife to be, played by Jennifer Connelly, was based upon the real life Alicia Lopez-Harrison de Lande, born in El Salvador. The character's ancestry was completely white washed and forgotten. Result: Connelly got an Academy Award - the Latino community got NOTHING.

m. In 2010 NBC created a role of a Cuban American as President of the USA in the TV series The Event. The problem was they cast Blair Underwood as the Cuban American. They actually said they couldn't find a Latino to play the role. 

n. While 2012 has given us Argo to be concerned about, more misrepresentations are being cast as you read this. 

7. Other communities would NOT tolerate this.  In the 21st Century no studio or producer would dream of casting in a real life drama a white actor as an African American or Asian American - just would not happen. Cries of RACISM would be heard everywhere. Why does it happen so often with meaningful Latino roles? THIS MUST STOP NOW. 

8. Dozens of biopics or hundreds?  In Hollywood today we've seen more big budget biopics funded about South Africans than we have about Latinos born in the USA. Over the past three decades we've seen over a hundred African American biopics filmed for theatrical and television release. These African American projects are wonderful and the Southern African ones are motivating - I just wonder when we'll see a more realistic number of Latino biopics.  

9. Latinos Buy Movie Tickets.  While Latinos in the USA now represent 16% of the USA, they purchase 22% of all movie tickets at theaters - and represent 24% of all frequent movie goers. 

10. If we truly want to change America and offer accurate picture we MUST DEMAND that Latinos play Latino characters. While working in 1982 with my compadre Edward James Olmos on the movie The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez I learned first-hand the enormous power film has over audiences. As Eddie likes to point out as the lights go down the involvement and connection increases. Let's work to make sure that the power of film is correctly used. Compromises are no longer acceptable. 

I'm sure that many of you can come up with equally important reasons why MISCASTING is unacceptable - and I sincerely hope that you'll share them and other stories with me. Writing is not my strongest skill - but I'm extremely proud of the words that I've put upon this paper. If you agree with what I've shared here, please email me at kirk@whisler.com with your thoughts.

Kirk Whisler is the president of Latino Print Network. He served as the founding President of the National Association of Hispanic Publications in 1982 and currently serves on the boards of Latino Literacy Now, an organization Kirk co-founded with Edward James Olmos that produces the Latino Book & Family Festivals; the National Latino Media Council Board; and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers.