Latin thesps blast biz ‘bias’

WASHINGTON — If there is anyone in Hollywood who thinks Esai Morales can’t do a credible job playing a Jewish character, then they might want to get ahold of his testimony Tuesday in front of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“I want to play a Jew,” declared Morales, adding with a credible Hebrew accent, “Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam.”

But as most aspiring creatives know, prayers in Hollywood don’t always get answered. Before demonstrating his Moscow-influenced Russian, Morales told the sympathetic panel that Hollywood unfairly pigeon-holed Latino actors according to their ethnicity. “It’s just ignorance, just plain ignorance.”

Morales testified side by side with Jimmy Smits and Sonia Braga, who also lambasted the movie industry for dragging its heels when it comes to employing Americans of Latin descent.

Smits testified that while total employment in Hollywood was up 16% last year, Latino representation remained flat. Smits, who currently plays a detective of French and Portuguese decent on “NYPD Blue,” said roles for Latino/Hispanic actors have increased by only 1% — from 3% to 4% — since 1994.

“Some of us have been more fortunate that others, but the salient issue remains: Why can’t more Latinos participate in this industry at more senior and significant levels,” testified Smits.

Smits told Daily Variety that he hoped his testimony, along with that of Braga and Morales, would spur Hollywood to make a more aggressive effort to reach out to Hispanics. “It’s time for the studios and the rest of the industry to step up,” said Smits.

Braga noted that her Brazilian heritage and citizenship are not her only disadvantages when it comes to casting. “I know firsthand how strong Hispanic women must be to achieve success in our profession — especially if we are 46 years old, short, dark-complexioned and speak with an accent.”

Braga also testified that any real breakthrough must come through television, not the movies. “That is where you are exposed to the largest audience,” Braga said.

As Braga, Smits and Morales made their case directly to reporters outside the hearing room, Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti offered the industry’s counter spin. During his testimony, Valenti noted that several studios, including Universal, MGM and Sony, offered financial support to dozens of Hispanic advocacy groups in addition to ongoing recruitment efforts.

“The movie industry is the least discriminatory of any industry in the United States,” said Valenti. “Jimmy Smits is not the star of ‘NYPD Blue’ because he is Hispanic,” said Valenti. “He is a star because he lights up the screen. Why would anyone discriminate against Jimmy Smits?”

But as Smits and Morales pointed out separately, their personal success offers no proof that Hollywood is doing all it can to promote Hispanic employment. Said Morales, “I don’t want to be the only guy working.”

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