Where’s the Latinx Version of Crazy Rich Asians?
Crazy Rich Asians topped $188 million worldwide as of the writing of this blog. The film boasts an all-Asian cast, a feat not accomplished since the Joy Luck Club in 1993. Why did it take a quarter of a century to repeat when there are so many talented Asian Americans in the film industry? This line of questioning made me wonder generally about diversity in films, and specifically about Latinx representation in films. I wondered about films with all-Latinx casts. And I could not think of one adapted from a Latinx novel with the success of Crazy Rich Asians.
Oscar Still So White
These questions go to the heart of the diversity problem facing the US film industry. Despite the growing number of people of color in the country (currently 40%), Oscar is still so white.
If demands for more authentic representation in film production irk those who dismiss it as “political correctness,” they need to wake up to some stark realities. The buying power of people of color in the US approaches $3.5 trillion. This diverse audience “purchased more movie tickets and watched more television on a per capita basis than their white counterparts.” These numbers become increasingly significant given that the non-white population in the US will be the majority in a few decades. Those are two significant takeaways from the 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report published by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.
The idea that people of color watch movies more because of the genre than because it has diverse actors is wrong. The Bunche Center report clearly shows statistically that films with diverse casts do better at the box office than those that do not. So, if the most important color in Hollywood is green, then studio executives need to heed these facts or risk losing profit.
We Are Invisible; Our Dollars Are Not.
Bottom line: People of color like to watch all kinds of film, but their interest in any type of film increases (and therefore ticket sales) when they see people like themselves in important roles. When it comes to Latinx people, this is something to emphasize because as the largest ‘minority’ demographic we buy 23% of all movie tickets.
Yet, according to the Bunche Center and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the representation of Latinx people on and behind the screen is woefully nowhere in par with the demographic and economic numbers we represent. Perhaps more distressing is that stories dealing with our communities are missing from the big and small screen. We are invisible; but our dollars are not.
Alex Nogales, CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, believes that Hollywood talks a lot about diversity but does little to promote and develop it. Talent agencies are not doing enough to recruit Latinx talent. He cites that four of the most influential talent agencies—Creative Artists Agency (CAA), ICM, William Morris Endeavor, and United Talent—“call the shots.” However, “the lack of Latino representation in these agencies is “particularly egregious.” Despite efforts like CAA’s Writers Boot Camp and Amplify: Next Gen, or The Latino Screenwriting Project, the diversity gap in Hollywood still remains a problem. Its indifference to the representation of Latinx communities—given our numbers and economic importance to the film industry—is nothing short of outrageous.
Who Tells the Stories Matters
The Bunche Report concludes that the core problem in Hollywood begins within those insular spaces where decisions are made. Decisions about the size of budgets and what films get the green light. Those spaces are typically inhabited and coveted by white men “not motivated to share their power with diverse men and women.” The same men and women whose “experiences uniquely equip them with the perspectives to connect them with today’s audiences.”
Mexican-American Christy Haubegger agrees. She’s head of multicultural business development at Creative Artists Agency. Haubegger asserts that by changing the composition of these decision-makers, it changes what stories are told. “It matters,” she adds, “who gets to tell the stories.” Not only does it matter who tells the stories, but even more important is what types of stories are told. But focusing on the “decision-makers” will not resolve any of these problems. Decision-makers of any strip do not tell the stories. Writers do. And from my perspective, there aren’t enough Latinx screenwriters actively working.
A Historical Lack of Writers
Since the release of El Super (1979) –a Spanish-language film directed and co-written by Cuban-American Leon Ichaso—there have been a string of sporadic Latinx films mostly written by a handful of writers: Leon Ichaso; Gregory Nava; Rich Najera; Robert Rodríguez; Luis Valdez; and Ramón Menéndez. In fact, each one of these Latinos had a part in writing the scripts for 8 of the 10 highest grossing films since El Super. To date, there is still a scarcity of Latinx screenwriters.
Only two Latinx screenwriters had writing credits for last year’s ten highest-grossing Latinx films: Mexican-American Adrian Molina, who co-wrote the script for Coco (with Lee Unkrich) and Peter Bratt (brother of Benjamin Bratt) for his documentary Dolores, based on activist Dolores Huerta. Three Mexicans wrote Spanish scripts for three of the films; an Uruguayan and Chilean wrote another Spanish script. Four non-Latinx writers wrote the remaining four films.
Does the Future Look Promising?
Writing for Rezmezcla, Manual Betancourt cites 17 “must see” Latinx films screened at this year’s Sundance Festival. Out of the nine films that contain actual content related to Latinxs, only two were scripted by Latinx writers: Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men and Blindspotting, which was co-authored by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs. If as Heidi Haubeggar argues, “it matters who tells the stories,” why couldn’t Latinx writers script the other seven?
Granted, it’s still positive that these films are getting produced. And I’m assuming the screenwriters are respectful and knowledgeable enough to pen authentic scripts. But this scarcity of fresh Latinx voices in the film industry underscores the real diversity problem. Without writers, you have no stories. Without Latinx writers, you have no Latinx stories.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Efforts to diversify the industry at all levels is important. We should commend the initiatives in that direction. But we should also encourage aspiring and talented young Latinx filmmakers, especially those who can write and direct. In fact, we should support the talent of all Latinx writers, because material for films comes from various sources.
Let’s also buy and read books that our writers create. To nurture future writers, let’s instill in our children and adolescents a love for reading. Perhaps if our cultural worldview included an urgency for reading, a Latinx version of Crazy Rich Asians would be possible.
Perhaps more important, creative artists of color, including Latinx ones, need to take matters into their own hands. Why not build the infrastructure necessary to create and produce their own stories? Why can’t wealthy celebrities of color unite resources and invest in the production side of the film industry? Why can’t they jump start talent agencies and production companies to do the diversity work that isn’t being done?
Graphic: Darkmoon1968, Pixabay.