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The Lack of Oscar Nods for Latino Actors Points to Chronic Under-Representation in Film

The glaring absence of Latino nominees in any of the Oscar acting categories announced Tuesday underscores the struggle of activists who have long called on the major studios to do more to serve their most loyal film audience.

Latinos make up 18% of the U.S. population, but accounted for 23% of all movie tickets sold in 2016, according to the most recent data from the Motion Picture Assn. of America. That statistic, however, has failed to translate into more features centered on Latino stories with Latino actors and/or to more roles that could lead to serious awards consideration. A comprehensive study from USC’s Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative found that in the 100 top films of 2016, Latinos were represented by just 3% of speaking parts.

The chronic under-representation of Latinos in commercial Hollywood films has begun stirring activists from the National Hispanic Media Coalition and other Latino stars in Hollywood, who are organizing in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. That social-media driven campaign, spawned by the back-to-back nominations of all-white actors in 2015 and 2016, has largely benefited black talent. Black activists effectively mobilized, harnessing the power of the media to bring support to their cause. It paid off. A record six black actors scored Oscar nominations last year, including Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis. Among nominees this year was Jordan Peele’s social-thriller, “Get Out,” a pointed satire on race relations. The film scored four Oscar nominations for best picture, screenplay, director and lead actor, Daniel Kaluuya.

But Latinos, who represent nearly half of residents in Los Angeles, are restless after quietly toiling away in Hollywood for decades. Activists are now drawing attention to what is likely to become the next campaign for diversity and inclusion: #OscarsNotSoBrown.

Last Sunday in an interview on the SAG Awards red carpet, Gina Rodriguez, star of “Jane the Virgin,” challenged studio executives to better serve Latino moviegoers by giving them pictures that are reflective of them. “You should throw us in a movie or two,” Rodriguez said. “It would make sense. We do buy one in every four tickets every single weekend and make sure that your movies do well.”

In an interview with Variety, she elaborated on the impact that representation – and lack thereof – has on audiences. “It is the responsibility of the artist to reflect real life so that the audience member, the viewer can feel like they’re being related to, like their story matters, their life matters. Visibility is humanizing. Invisibility is dehumanizing,” said the actress, who has expanded into film with the upcoming sci-fi thriller, “Annihilation” (which hits theaters Feb. 23) and a leading role in Sony’s “Miss Bala,” a reimagination of the 2011 Mexican entry for best foreign-language film. The story centers on a Mexican beauty queen pulled unwillingly into a vicious drug war.

Rodriguez’s comments hit at the moral case for studios to create more Latino-themed content for the masses, but there are those who believe something more cynical could be playing out: In a risk-averse business struggling with declining movie attendance and fending off competition from digital streaming rivals like Netflix and Amazon, there is arguably little financial incentive to make such films — precisely because Latino audiences are already over-indexed at the multiplex.

“From a business standpoint, there may not be enough motivation there,” said producer Ben Odell, whose production company, 3Pas, has proven there is an untapped market with its 2013 hit, “Instructions Not Included.” The Spanish-language film, which starred Odell’s producing partner, Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez, grossed $99 million on a $5 million production budget and grossed an healthy $10 million alone over its opening weekend on just 347 screens.

“There’s a lot of people that are being unrepresented and are not going to the movies,” Odell said. “It’s 55 million people that fall under this umbrella, and they don’t all have the same tastes,” he said, adding that “there’s a lot more business to be had.”

Financial considerations aside, the reasons for the lack of Latinos are more vast and complex, according to interviews with studio executives. The lack of Latino representation extends to all corners of Hollywood, from talent agencies, to the ranks of movie studio executives and financiers, production companies, writers’ rooms and behind the camera.

Derbez, who parlayed a massive following in his native country into success with a U.S. crossover, said the main issue is a lack of diversity among studio executives.

“For me, that’s the main problem because everything comes from the top,” he said, explaining that pitches to white executives are always much more challenging. “I can see in their eyes when you’re pitching an idea that you’re excited about, something that you know will bring Latinos to the theaters. I can tell that they’re not familiar with what I’m saying. That’s why when we find a Latino or Latina who is an executive that can hear our pitch, it’s a completely different conversation.”

Moreover, that lack of inclusion has meant that studios have found it challenging to market to a very fragmented population that includes Latinos of Mexican descent throughout the southwest, of Cuban descent in Florida, and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York. Some are immigrants, whose primary language is Spanish. Others are first or second-generation Latinos who don’t know any other home except the U.S., or do not speak Spanish.

The absence of Latinos in leading film roles has created a feeling of invisibility among Latino artists in Hollywood. Just five actors with Latino backgrounds have won Oscars in the major acting categories over the Academy’s 90-year history: Rita Moreno, José Ferrer, Anthony Quinn, Mercedes Ruehl, and Benicio del Toro. The National Hispanic Media Coalition is planning a Feb. 5 protest to coincide with the Academy’s Oscar Nominees Luncheon.

This year, the only actor who was even close to being a contender is Salma Hayek in the Trump-era allegorical film, “Beatriz at Dinner,” who did score an Indie Spirit actress nomination. In 2003, Hayek was nominated for the leading actress Oscar for “Frida,” which she also helped produce.

Hayek, who in the past has said Hollywood doesn’t know what roles to cast her in, has in recent years taken to creating content. In a recent interview, she told Variety that she’s worked to up-end stereotypes of Latinos. In the mid-2000s, Hayek was executive producer of the ABC show, “Ugly Betty,” where she had a guest role as Sofia Reyes, a powerful and confident Latina publishing executive.

She pushes back on the notion that Latinos may already be well-served with current film offerings, given how often they go to the movie theater.

“If you have a faithful audience you shouldn’t say, why bother with them?” Hayek said. “It’s like the husband that says, my wife loves me so much, it’s okay if I cheat – she’s never going to leave me.”

Hayek goes on to suggest that this has also long been the case when it comes to great roles for women. “It was the same thing with women,” she said. “Women would go to the movies to go with their date or their kids, so why bother with what they want to see?”

However, that is hopefully changing with the commercial and critical success of female-centric film and television projects, including HBO series “Big Little Lies” and movies such as “Wonder Woman,” “I, Tonya,” “Lady Bird,” “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri,” and “The Shape of Water.”

To be sure, Latinos have made gains in other areas, most notably directing. A trio of Mexican directors have risen to the upper echelons of the movie business and awards prestige: Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro’s “The Shape Of Water” just scored 13 Oscar nominations, including best director and best picture.

Cuarón has earned five nominations, winning best director in 2013 for “Gravity,” making him the first Latino to ever win the category. Iñárritu has won four Oscars, including best picture and director a year later for “Birdman.”

“We need to be as aggressive as our peers, African-American artists, who were aggressively demanding more presence. We need to do that, but also have to create our own projects. We have to make more films that represent us.”
Demian Bichir

Coco,” the Disney-Pixar animated feature, scored two Oscar nominations on Tuesday: best animated feature and best original song, “Remember Me,” by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Since last fall, “Coco” has been going strong, shattering records in Mexico where it became the highest-grossing movie of all time. It has grossed $656 million worldwide, but its blockbuster performance in China provides the strongest evidence that Latino-themed content has global appeal.

The Day of the Dead-themed movie has made $189 million in China, representing 41% of the film’s international box office. In Mexico, the film grossed nearly $58 million, a fraction of its Chinese haul, which represents the scale of the Asian market that Hollywood executives are so eager to tap into.

“We’ve shown that we can make a film and you can tell a very honest, specific story about a culture and have it resonate with people around the world,” said “Coco” director Lee Unkrich, standing alongside co-director Adrian Molina backstage at the Golden Globes. “We hope that does lead to more Latino voices in film, and frankly, voices from many different cultures.”

Mexico native Demian Bichir, a 2012 Oscar nominee for lead actor in “A Better Life,” said the lack of Latino contenders won’t change without an organized effort by Latinos in Hollywood.

He laments that even when people do speak out, “It probably doesn’t have the same resonance,” adding, “When we talk about certain issues, I think our voice is not heard.”

Learning to follow the blueprint set by black talent and activists will be key, Bichir said.

“We need to be as aggressive as our peers, African-American artists, who were aggressively demanding more presence,” he said. “We need to do that, but also have to create our own projects. We have to make more films that represent us.”

(Pictured: Gina Rodriguez, Salma Hayek, Demian Bichir)

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