January 11, 2002

Commentary

A California Town Without Hispanics???

By Steve Rodriguez

Latino critics of Hollywood have vigorously noted the absence of brown faces on this country's movie and television screens. Any study of feature length films or prime time TV will substantiate this pathetic phenomenon. Based on the minuscule number of Latino stars and themes present on both the big and small screen the typical American movie fan and T.V. couch potato cannot be blamed for possessing the impression that Latinos play no role in American culture. How extensive is this problem? One has to only view one of the recent films released during this latest holiday period—The Majestic— to see that Hollywood will go to great lengths to ensure Latinos remain an invisible people. This movie goes so far as to alter historically valid demographics, effectively choosing to delete the presence of Latinos in California, while at the same time expressing the point of view that a "cinematic" town cannot have any Latino citizens order to possess so-called All-American values.

The Majestic, starring the popular Jim Carrey, takes place in the 1950's and is the story of a film director who is called upon to testify in front of a congressional committee about his knowledge of Communist infiltration in the movie industry. Before he can testify, the main character is involved in an accident in which he loses his memory. After ending up in a small town somewhere along the California coast, he is mistaken by the residents for a hometown World War II hero long presumed dead. His arrival in the town serves as a spark of vital inspiration for a town depressed by the fact that 65 of its young men were killed during World War II. In the process, the main character undergoes a personal transformation resulting from his interaction with the citizens of this seemingly All-American town. This idealized notion of an All-American town is what is most disturbing about The Majestic.

Although the movie takes place somewhere along the central California coast (according to the movie credits the movie was filmed in the communities of Mendocino and Ft. Bragg) there are absolutely no Latino characters in the movie. Although it may be too much to ask a major Hollywood movie to include a Gomez or Hernandez in the script, there are not even any such minor characters. Furthermore, the movie has several large crowd scenes—and what's interesting is that in none of these scenes do you see any brown faces. Believe it or not this movie does not feature a Latino maid or farm worker— it's as if this town had mysteriously succeeded in deporting every one its Spanish-surnamed citizens sometime before World War II. To add further insult, there is no mention of any Latino soldiers having been one of the 65 soldiers killed during the war. What kind of California town is this, one begins to wonder halfway through this film? Is it too far-fetched to believe that this could be the only town in all of California that did not have any Latino residents during the decade of the 40's or 50's? Could it be possible that this town suffered 65 wartime casualties and not one of them was a brave Latino soldier? (As an aside, the only "minority" character in the movie is an elderly African-American man who lives in the basement of a movie theater.)

Film reviewers have referred to The Majestic as reminiscent of the work of Frank Capra, that famous director who made such all-American films as "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" during the 30's and 40's." The Majestic definitely contains many of the Capra-like movie themes such as misty-eyed patriotism, a common man hero, and small town togetherness. It is easy to see the actor Jim Carrey posing as a modern day Jimmy Stewart, the famous actor who served as an appropriate vehicle for Capra's creative expressions. And the small town portrayed in the film certainly looks like a Capra version of an All-American town. This town could have been transported in whole from 1940's-era central Pennsylvania or upper state New York, a typical Capra-like setting with earnest, hardworking and most significantly a homogeneous "White" population, free of any potentially troubling socio-economic problems. The problem lies with the fact that "The Majestic" takes place in a central California coast town, and anyone familiar with California would be hard pressed to find a small town in the Golden state totally bereft of any Latinos, where it be in the 1950's or in contemporary times.

One can possibly excuse Frank Capra and the Hollywood executives of the 40's and 50's from failing to recognize the presence of Latinos in their movies—the depiction of what constitutes All-American values or an All-American town was shaped by the closed minds of their bygone era. But the studio executives of today have no such excuse. Anyone living in Hollywood can't help but see the real-life prominent role played by Latinos in this state and throughout the Southwest. Attempting to delete the historical presence of Latinos merely in order to pain a version of a so-called All-American town serves to insult all Latinos, especially those who served their country as a member of the Armed Forces during World War II. In this day and age there should be no hesitation in depicting an All-American town as one full of rich diversity. Such towns existed 50 years ago, and they certainly thrive in greater numbers in today's less bigoted environment.

In spite of the complaints of critics, Hollywood has done little to rehabilitate its tendency to ignore Latinos. If films like The Majestic continue to be made, perhaps it is time for Latinos to organize some form of boycott that will get the attention of studio executives where it hurts the most — on their accounting balance sheets.

Mr. Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps office, and history teacher at Montgomery Middle School in the Sweetwater Union High School District. Your can contact Mr. Steve Rodriguez at rodriguez@prodigy.net.

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