May 8, 2009
This May, UCLA professor Chon Noriega, author of Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema, will host “Race and Hollywood: Latino Images In Film,” a month-long showcase of 40 films airing on cable network Turner Classic Movies (TCM). He will join TCM’s Robert Osborne in exploring how Hollywood has depicted Latino characters and culture in film.
Noriega is extremely proud to be participating in “Race and Hollywood: Latino Images In Film,” saying, “For the first time, viewers can see a significant part of the historical record for how Hollywood has portrayed Latinos as the focus of a feature film, not just as incidental stereotypes.”
Noriega’s personal interest in Latinos in film began when he was in college. “I was a graduate student in 1987-88 when a series of Latino-themed and produced films were released by studios: La Bamba, Born in East L.A., The Milagro Bean-field War and Stand and Deliver. There had never been anything like it. I started studying the press coverage as well as interviewing some of the producers. That led to my dissertation, which looked at the 20 years before, during which Chicano and other Latino filmmakers were trying to gain access to the industry.”
TCM’s Latino festival will take place Tuesday and Thursday nights throughout May. Each night’s collection of films will be centered on a particular theme. Among the more contemporary films included are La Bamba (1987), The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), Stand and Deliver (1988), The Mambo Kings (1992) and Lone Star (1996).
Noriega considers La Bamba to be especially important. “It was the first box-office hit directed by a Latino filmmaker and starring most Latino actors,” he says. “But the film also marked a shift in Hollywood portrayals, away from social problems and toward a depiction of families as part of the American way of life.”
As the most influential Latino stars, Noriega cites such legendary performers as Carmen Miranda, Lupe Velez, Ricardo Montalban, Rita Moreno and Anthony Quinn, as well as such recent stars as Jimmy Smits, Edward James Olmos and Jennifer Lopez. “It is rare for any actor to break through,” he points out, “but Latino actors have been much more limited in terms of the roles they have been able to play.”
Part of the issue has been Hollywood’s reluctance to make films that accurately depict Latino experiences. “There are so few Hollywood films about Latinos,” Noriega says. “Certainly Latino factor into action genres as what one scholar calls ‘convenient villains,’ but there have been relatively few films that focus on the Latino community as a setting for the story.”
Noriega notes that Hollywood is feeling pressure to be more inclusive. “Interestingly, electoral politics and consumer power have led the way,” he says. “These have had some impact on how Hollywood has broadened the portrayals of Latino characters in films. But there is still a lot of work to be done.”