Gina Rodriguez’s upcoming film “Miss Bala” is being hailed as a barrier-breaking action film. That’s the glass-half-full take on things. There’s another way of looking at the story of a beauty queen trying to escape a violent drug cartel, however. When it opens Feb. 1, “Miss Bala” will represent one of the starkest reminders of the dearth of big-studio films featuring Latinos in leading roles.
In 2017, just two of the year’s top 100-grossing films featured Latino actors in lead roles, according to USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s annual report on female and minority film representation. None of last year’s top 100 films featured a Latina actress in the lead role, and nearly 65 had speaking roles for Latinas. The release of “Miss Bala” comes at a time in Hollywood when other landmark films featuring African-American and Asian-American performers such as “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” have dominated the box office.
“This has been a topic of conversation within the Latinx community for so long because we have been told that Latinos don’t watch Latino films,” Rodriguez told Variety in a recent interview. “ ‘Miss Bala’ is an action movie that happens to feature Latinos heavily in front of the camera and heavily behind the camera. … I don’t remember when that’s ever happened. They actually let us [Latinos] make it too.”
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, Sony’s $15 million action-thriller stars Rodriguez and Ismael Cruz Cordóva, and remakes the 2011 Mexican film directed by Gerardo Naranjo. The new film is produced by Pablo Cruz, who shepherded the Spanish-language original. The studio says that the movie’s cast and crew is about 95% Latinx, the gender-neutral term for Latino. It’s an important step forward in the movie business’s attempts to make films that are more reflective of the racially diverse audience that buys tickets. But though Rodriguez and Hardwicke hope it’s a sign that glass ceilings are being shattered, others caution that much work remains.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner, a Columbia University professor who has studied Latino media representation, says progress over the past nearly 80 years has been sporadic at best, with gains made in fits and starts. “I found that Latino representation has gone up only at certain moments in time because of different pressures applied,” he said.
In the 1940s, stars like Carmen Miranda found favor because the Roosevelt administration’s Good Neighbor policy called for Hollywood to make Latino-themed films that were not offensive to Latin American audiences as part of a wider effort to strengthen ties to the region. In the 1970s, the civil rights movement’s focus on representation of minorities in television led to the emergence of Freddie Prinze as a lead in “Chico and the Man.” And Negrón-Muntaner argues that a recent spike in the number of Latina leads in television was the result of government requirements to approve the Comcast-NBC merger and ensure entertainment offerings to Latinos weren’t diminished, since the deal put Telemundo under Comcast’s umbrella. Based on the historical patterns, Negrón-Muntaner isn’t optimistic about seeing steady gains for Latino representation. “There’s pressure applied, it spikes a little bit, but then it drops again,” she said.
Hardwicke isn’t Latina, but her experience as a female director in male-dominated Hollywood gives her a perspective on how painful it can be to push the industry forward. Ultimately, financial success is the best motivation for further progress, she argued in an interview at her Venice office.
“Let’s say [‘Miss Bala’] makes its money back and does well,” Hardwicke said. “That means the next one is going to have a much easier chance to be made, and [in success] the next one is going to have an easier chance still. Sometimes it takes a little while.” Hardwicke said she didn’t direct the “Twilight” sequels, which were helmed by men, but that the success of her film gave studios the confidence to make other female-starring franchises like “Divergent” and “Hunger Games.” It took longer for studios to finance a production like “Wonder Woman,” which not only featured a female lead but was directed by a woman — Patty Jenkins. Despite all the fits and starts, Hardwicke remains optimistic. “We are moving forward,” she said.
“Let’s say [‘Miss Bala’] makes its money back and does well. That means the next one is going to have a much easier chance to be made.”
The rarity of having a Latina in the lead role wasn’t lost on the cast and crew during the filming of “Miss Bala” in Tijuana last year. “The whole Mexican crew was super excited to do it because it’s a Latina that’s No. 1 on the call sheet,” said Hardwicke. “Once you get that energy and positivity, everyone wants to do more.”
The “Miss Bala” remake is intended to be an updated, feminist take on the original film. Rather than have a female heroine mostly respond to the actions of her male captors, Hardwicke and Rodriguez labored to give her more agency. That meant rethinking the way she would try to escape.
“Doing the least amount of harm, that’s the way a woman would think,” Hardwicke explained. “Whereas a man, in a lot of movies, you see them blowing everyone away — kill every guard, every kid working at the villa. We don’t just want to see ‘Bam, bam, bam, kill everybody.’ I think having the female sensibility in the leadership role of director, editor and Gina the star made it more human.”
Cruz Cordóva, the Puerto Rican actor with roles in “The Good Wife” and the upcoming “Mary Queen of Scots,” said he was drawn to the project because of the opportunity to improve Latino representation working alongside Rodriguez. “That’s at the heart of what my mission has been as an artist and why I started acting,” he said, “to represent the community that I come from.”
He said the USC data on Latino actors, while striking, is all too familiar. “It does not surprise me one bit,” he noted, adding, “When we do get represented there’s this intense, almost overwhelming sense of responsibility that we have.”
Producer Cruz credits Sony for making “Miss Bala” and said he is glad people are finally paying attention to the community.
“We want to see more,” he said. “We want to go far with this. We want studios to take notes.”