‘The 355’ Is the Latest Movie That Forgets Not Every Hispanic Person Is Latino (Opinion)

The new Universal Pictures film is another missed opportunity for Latinx inclusion by not seeking out a Colombian actress for Penélope Cruz's role.

The 355
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Hollywood has struck again, further perpetuating the idea that all Spanish accents are created equal, and every Hispanic is a Latino. Universal Pictures released the first trailer for “The 355” starring Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger, Penélope Cruz and Fan Bingbing. As the trailer unfolds, with action that’s a mix of “Ocean’s Eleven” and “The Bourne Identity,” the first look showcases all the protagonists’ ethnic backgrounds as a dangling carrot to our “woke” generation.

In a voiceover, Nyong’o describes the intelligence agencies the women work for — American (Chastain), British (Nyong’o), German (Kruger), Colombian (Cruz), Chinese (Fan). Furthermore, the film’s official synopsis describes Cruz’s Graciela as a “skilled Colombian psychologist,” alongside Kruger’s Marie (“badass German agent”).

The use of the American and British cultural identities allows for a broader interpretation of what each of the women’s characters is, and what they may look like. However, Cruz, who is Spanish, is not Colombian or Latina. She’s cast in a role that makes it seem clear that executives and agents put no effort into scouring the world to find a more appropriate choice, or to be even more daring, an actual Colombian actress to play Graciela.

“When I had the idea of making this film, we didn’t have a script or financing,” says Chastain, one of the film’s producers, in a statement to Variety. “Penelope was incredibly helpful in this regard. After conversations with our consultant, I brought her the idea that she could play a fervent agent from Brazil. She mentioned that it wouldn’t be right for her to play a character from Brazil, as the majority language is Portuguese.”

Chastain continues, “I realized that Colombia has a rich ethnic heritage, with approximately 80% of the population having European or mixed European heritage. We settled on a character who is a descendant from the colonization of Spain in the New World.”

Chastain and director Simon Kinberg, Oscar-nominated for producing “The Martian,” should be more keenly aware and sensitive to the struggles for inclusion in Hollywood. Written by Kinberg and Theresa Rebeck, whose notable writing contributions have been on NBC’s “Smash,” the script seems to have intended to be inclusive, but ultimately fumbled the Latinx presence.

American consumers may be used to lumping together all Spanish speakers. As mentioned in my previous column “Why are Latino Actors Still the Oscars’ Weak Spot?” Cruz is Hispanic, which is not interchangeable with Latina. It’s a constant battle within Hollywood to hire more Latinx actors and actresses, and understand who they are and where they come from. Before anyone plays the card of “star power,” there are plenty of Colombian actresses who were probably more than willing (and available) to portray the character.

This isn’t the first time Hollywood has generalized a race and ethnicity. 2005’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” received backlash when all three main female roles were given to non-Japanese actresses: Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang. In a BBC interview in 2005, director Rob Marshall, who was fresh off his film “Chicago” winning best picture, defended the position by citing Anthony Quinn when he portrayed Alexis Zorba, the fictionalized version of the mine worker George Zorbas, in 1964’s “Zorba the Greek.” Quinn received a nomination for best actor.

In the same interview, Gong Li said, “As actors, we seek roles that challenge and inspire us.” This underlines the broader point and accountability that must be given to the individuals who are offered these roles. Scarlett Johansson received harsh criticism when she was cast as a trans character in “Rub & Tug” before exiting. Cruz, who is not only an Academy Award winner but has received multiple nominations and opportunities over her career, should recognize the inequalities and encourage better representation. The Latinx community needs and requires actresses like her to speak up and insist on proper casting.

The access that an Academy Award nomination provides an artist cannot be understated. Chastain has received two nominations in her career (“The Help” and “Zero Dark Thirty”) while Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) have both won Oscars. Once the coveted “Academy Award nominee” or “winner” comes before your name, the opportunities can often lead to exciting, more prestigious roles for the artist to explore. However, this isn’t always the case.

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Photo courtesy of FineLine Pictures

There have only been four Latinx women nominated for best actress at the Oscars in its 92 years, and Catalina Sandino Moreno is one of the very best of the more recent nominees. Following her debut performance in “Maria Full of Grace,” where she managed to edge out big stars like Uma Thurman (“Kill Bill Vol. 2”) and Nicole Kidman (“Birth”) for an Oscar nomination, she’s been nearly absent from the movie screens since. Any other actress in a nominated debut would have the Hollywood gates opened to them — look at Jennifer Lawrence and Carey Mulligan as examples following their first nominations. Moreno, born in Bogotá, has been relegated to brief or stereotypical Latinx roles until 2020, when she had one of her most significant parts in 16 years in Scott Teems’ “The Quarry,” opposite Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham.

Freckle Films, the production company founded by Chastain in 2016 and spearheaded by Kelly Carmichael, was created to give women a voice in the film medium. This is clearly demonstrated by the recently released “Ava” and the upcoming “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” but the industry cannot work toward correcting one issue while sacrificing the fight for another. This offers a learning opportunity for artists to remove their blind spots, and not just be vilified, rather engage in progressive dialogues.

While Chastain’s statement about the roots of the Colombian people is correct in a general sense, all Latinx ethnicities are a mixture of various geographical areas, not just Europe. The African roots are often overlooked, which bleeds heavily into disgusting instances of colorism in and out of the culture. Despite the potential chance for Colombian actresses, when they are already too few, Cruz and others took their turn. This also allows, and perhaps inadvertently, for subtle, dog-whistle racist practices to continue on film and television. The “white” Hispanic people are getting roles to put themselves in front of the eyes of the world, while non-white, mixed and Afro-Latinx performers are banished to drug mules and gangbangers.

Colombian actresses who could have played Graciela include multi-Emmy nominee Sofía Vergara of “Modern Family,” Paola Turbay, a standout in “Bosch,” or Martina García of “Narcos.” Dominican Republic-born Dascha Polanco of “Orange Is the New Black” would also have been well-suited. Ask any Latinx person whose parents or grandparents watched “Yo soy Betty, la fea” if they would show up to watch the comeback of Ana María Orozco.

Afro-Latinas are very underserved in this medium, so seeing Yaya Decosta (Lifetime’s “Whitney”), Rosario Dawson (“Top Five”) or Zoe Saldana (“Avatar”) represent for the community would have been reassuring.

“I understand that we are continuing to evolve how we think in terms of our cultural beliefs,” says Chastain. “When making this film, I wanted to move beyond nationalism and understand the international common thread that connects us all. At the end of the day, it wasn’t important where the characters came from, but that they all come together to form an alliance beyond borders.”

If it all were that easy, this conversation wouldn’t be continuously needed.