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Culture Circuit: The Roles for Hispanic Americans

LATINO CIRCUIT: Last month we looked at the relatively meager showing that Hispanic actors have had at the Academy Awards. We theorized that resistance to accents could be among the many reasons why these stars have not found Oscar gold. Today we explore another theory: whether Hispanic Americans are being typecast into roles keeping them away from prestigious, awards pictures.

One of the troubling trends that emerged from our review was the stark contrast between U.S.-born and foreign-born performers. Latin American actors have had some small measures of success with nominations and wins. Just this year features two Mexican women in contention for acting Oscars, Marina de Tavira, and Yalitza Aparicio, from “Roma.”

But the track record for U.S.-born performers is abysmal by comparison. It is essentially zero. If you look at U.S. born individuals of Hispanic descent and the Oscars, you will find a number of Puerto Rican nominees and winners. Recall Rita Moreno for “West Side Story” in 1961 or Mercedes Ruehl for “The Fisher King” in 1991. But not much else to speak of.

Why this stark dichotomy? What is keeping U.S.-based or born Hispanic actors back, where those based in other countries have had a smattering of additional recognition?

Here is one theory: typecast roles. Let’s take a look at three pretty successful Hispanic American stars – Gina Rodriguez, Michelle Rodriguez, and Michael Peña – and the types of characters they play. A pretty visible trend emerges. Also helpful is to compare the roles these actors portray to those that Latin American-born actors play. Think, for example, of Gael Garcia Bernal or even Diego Luna.

The trends are not always exact but they can nevertheless be revealing. If true, this could pave the way to answer for how Hollywood can recognize and create more roles for Hispanic Americans that also win prizes. This should be eminently doable, particularly given the welcome bombardment of movies from Latin America to buttress our presence in the industry.

Roles for Hispanic Americans – Case Studies

We cannot cover every role that each Hispanic-American actor has portrayed, we can glean some info from the bigger ones. Take Gina Rodriguez, for example, who recently starred in the remake of the Mexican movie, “Miss Bala.” The “Jane the Virgin” star broke out in 2014 and won a Golden Globe, but has struggled for complex film roles. She was a supporting doctor in “Annihilation,” one of the first to die. She has had a handful of voice-performances. In “Miss Bala” she appears in the hackneyed movie role about Hispanic people in America—drug dealing and violence. If playing slaves or servants is the albatross around the neck of black actors, drug films are for Hispanics.

Or what about Michelle Rodriguez (no relation!), who has been around longer than Gina? By all measures, Michelle has had an incredibly successful career as an actress, one that most would envy. But her trajectory is a quintessential example of why Latinx actors persistently fail to break into awards—they are rarely in prestige pics. Michelle has thus appeared in five “Fast & Furious” franchise movies, and in a bunch of what I will call “pulpy genre” films—think action popcorn movies or B-suspense thrillers. Think “Resident Evil: Retribution,” and “Battle: Los Angeles.”

Arguably, it was not until her spectacular performance in last year’s “Widows” when Michelle was given a chance at a meatier, multi-dimensional role. She knocked it out of the park, by the way, showing there is nothing holding Hispanic American actors back other than the products themselves. In other words, perhaps the reason they do not get these roles is that no one is writing them for them and the explanation is as innocent as that.

But the result is no less disheartening.

Or take a look at one of the most successful Hispanic-American actors of our time, Michael Peña. Michael has done slightly better at landing serious roles than his Latina sisters have—not necessarily a surprise—but even his portfolio betrays shortcomings.

To be sure, Michael has appeared in a healthy array of prestige pics—including two Best Picture winners in a row (“Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash”)—to go along with lighter fare. Michael’s versatility is actually something to behold, covering comic book movies (“Ant-Man”) to political thrillers (“Lions for Lambs”) and intense action films (“World Trade Center”). Maybe he is a Latino John C. Reilly or Michael Shannon, he really is that good.

So why does Michael have exactly zero individual, mainstream accolades to his name? For one, he is a supporting character in each of those roles. He is a police officer, or a token-Latino FBI agent (“American Hustle”) or firefighter. When he appears in arthouse fair, or even “The Martian,” he has meaty, non-hackneyed roles, but is drowned out by his more famous colleagues. And when he is the lead, he is typecast—a Latino civil rights leader (“Cesar Chavez”). It is quite revealing, one could argue, that an actor with this impressive library, which includes five Best Picture nominees, to his name has never even sniffed an awards nomination to his own name.

Roles for other Latinx Actors

Why do Latin American actors fare slightly better then? The first, obvious answer, is that they have projects made with them in mind back home. Again, think of Marina and Yalitza, or Adriana Barraza (“Babel,” 2006) before them.

Perhaps Gael Garcia Bernal is the archetypical example of an actor born and raised south of the border who finds more prestigious success when crossing it. In “Babel,” itself, where Peña also appeared, he had a more leading role. But he has been given several others, including in the “Bad Education,” and “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Both have at least netted him jury prizes at film festivals. Gael can continue to extend his versatility with films on both sides of the border. This includes as the titular character in Pablo Larrain’s “Neruda” and the main foil in “The Kindergarten Teacher.”

It is this last film, where he stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, that perhaps best illustrates this phenomenon. Gael is a poetry teacher, and that is about it. Gael has a Spanish accent but his ethnicity is not a central part of the plot. It just is. Why is he given the shot that Michael is not? One can’t pretend to know the answer to these unanswerable questions. But pondering them in and of itself is curious and even fascinating.

Gael’s friend, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” co-star Diego Luna, has not done as well as Gael but is no slouch. He has a combo of visible roles (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) to go along more serious ones (“If Beale Street Could Talk”). Meanwhile, their compatriot Demian Bichir even achieved an impressive Best Actor nomination for the American film about an immigrant in”A Better Life.”

Do not ask me why these distinctions emerge between U.S.-born and foreign-born Hispanic actors. But it seems clear that roughly speaking, there is a wider range of options available to actors born abroad. Latinx stars from the U.S., by contrast, are more pigeonholed into certain types of roles. I do not mean to imply some invidious, hidden or opprobrious sinister motivation behind all this. (The reader is free to thus speculate, or not.) But the dichotomy does appear to be real. It could be a significant contributor to the phenomenon of lack of Latinx representations in the Hollywood winners’ circles.

Do you think Hollywood is typecasting Latinx stars into certain roles? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below!

Also, please sure to check out our Official Oscar Predictions Page!

What do you think?

Written by J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam is a New York-based film critic and journalist. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online, the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and an inaugural member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.


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