Whitewashing An American Hero in Argo

January 11, 2013

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Argo Receives Seven Oscar Nominations – No Best Actor Nom

By Bel Hernandez
Latin Heat Entertainment

Antonio Mendez with Ben Affleck poster in the background

Antonio Mendez with Ben Affleck poster in the background

Did Ben Affleck have a right to cast himself as a Latino in his recent film Argo? Of course he did! The issue is not about Affleck playing a Latino, its about his choice to whitewash the life of Antonio “Tony” Mendez, a CIA operative who led the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran, Iran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.

“Tony does not have, I don’t know, what you would say, a Latin/Spanish accent, of any kind really,” was Affleck’s response when asked by Maria Nieto (El Blog de HOLA) whether ethnicity was essential to the character of Mendez. He added, “And… you know you wouldn’t necessarily select him out of a line of ten people and go ‘This guy’s Latino’”. So because Mendez does not look Latino, you choose to ignore his ethnicity?

Since Latinos are not a homogenous group and they and run the gamut from very light skinned (Cameron Diaz); to black (Zoe Saldaña); to redheads (C.K. Louie); and even Asian (ex president of Peru Alberto Fujimori), Affleck felt justified to play a historical American Latino hero and just ignore his ethnicity.

It’s happened far too many times in Hollywood. Guy Gabaldon’s, military exploits as a U.S. Marine, and his extraordinary achievements in the WWII Battle of Saipan when he captured 1,800 enemy soldiers all by himself, were the subject of the 1960’s film Hell to Eternity. Blue eyed Jeffrey Hunter played Gabaldon with nary a mention of his ethnicity in that film. Gabaldon died in 2006 without the national recognition for his services to his country.

Is ethnicity not essential to any role Mr. Affleck?

Could you make a film about Bruce Lee and just not deal with his ethnicity?

Would you make a film about Martin Luther King and cast yourself in the role and not deal with (Dr.) King’s ethnicity? No, you laugh, because it’s obvious – he’s black and that would be called “Blackface” and racist.

Since it’s founding in 1912, Hollywood producers and writers have been churning out stereotypical roles of every ethnicity, Jews, Italians, Asians, Irish, African American/Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. Through a lot of protests, boycotts and advocacy, Hollywood has found that it can’t whitewash ethnicities any longer. Hollywood would no longer dare “Blackface” African-Americans; or elongate their eyes to play Asian; or put on red make up to play Native American. That would be called racist. But for some reason they have no problem doing it to Latinos.

Latinos have followed the same path blazed by the African-American community in order to achieve the same opportunities they have gained. In spite of the limited opportunities, some Latino actors and creatives have been able to build notable careers in Hollywood. But it’s thanks to Latino filmmakers who have created the roles that would allow them shine and make stars out of some of them, i.e. Jennifer Lopez (Selena), while others have gotten a major boost to their careers.

When Latino filmmakers began producing their own projects writing, directing and casting unknown talent, and the films went on to gather critical acclaim, and in some cases box office success (La Bamba, Selena, Spy Kids, Like Water for Chocolate, Motorcycle Diaries), Hollywood began to take notice.

The 2010 U.S. Census reported that the number of U.S. Latinos are 16% of the U.S. population. Chris Dodd, Chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, announced at the 2012 CinemaCon that Latinos represent more than one-quarter of the movie going audience and proclaimed “You’ve got to be more sensitive about the subject matter than to just have Spanish subtitles”.

But what is really getting the attention of Hollywood is the purchasing power of the U.S. Latino which in 2012 reached $1.3 trillion dollars a year according to AdWeek. Not to mention that Latinos are credited with being a major force in helping re-elect President Barack Obama for a second term.

Is this not enough to change Hollywood’s ways when it comes to portraying Latinos?

“Latinos are always playing the zero instead of the hero” to paraphrase the very talented and astute actor Esai Morales.

Morales started his career playing one of the “Bad Boys” alongside Sean Penn, in the film by the same name in 1983. He has played many memorable “bad boy” roles in his career; some would say stereotypical roles, that he has been able to transform into full dimensional, iconic cinematic characters that shine, flaws and all (i.e. Bob in La Bamba).

And although talents like Morales, Benjamin Bratt or Michael Peña were not even allowed to audition for the role of Mendez, which is not the issue. Ben Affleck had every right to want to play this great role. After all he optioned the story, got it financed, and as producer can cast anyone he wants – and he chose himself.

Defenders of Mr. Affleck rights are quick to point out that if Latinos wanted to have that same opportunity, they should just do as he did.

Well, it is a known fact that Hollywood is driven by who you know and who knows you. It is still run by a very small group of persons who have been “knighted” by its founders – and there are no Latinos in the bunch. The older white males who run the show more than likely don’t know any other Latinos than the stereotypes they see in their own studio’s films. The Hollywood they have created.

The same Hollywood that did not greenlight the Cesar Chavez script when director/screenwriter Luis Valdez, whose film La Bamba (1987) was the highest grossing Latino themed film for over 15 years, had the film rights. The film finally got financed in Mexico where it is being produced by Canana Films, and who did cast a Latino, Michael Pena, as Chavez.
The same Hollywood that has not greenlit the film of one of our Nation’s highest awarded American heroes, Roy Ben-avides, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Ronald Regan himself in 1981 for bravery above and beyond the call of duty to his country – America. Edward James Olmos has had the rights and has been seeking funding for 20 years with no takers.

These filmmakers don’t have a George Clooney in their corner, or play golf with the studio heads. But, one thing is for sure, these filmmakers are less willing to compromise on the casting of the talent that would play their hero in their films?

By whitewashing Mendez, Ben Affleck stole one of these heroes from the Latino community; from the young Latinos, who would have been proud to know that someone who looks like them, played such a key role in our nation’s history.
It just seemed that Affleck went out of his way to not let his audience see Mendez’s ethnicity.

First Affleck chose to only mention Mendez’s full name once during the film (even in the scene where Mendez’s character is asked his name – he only got to say “Tony”). Yes, Affleck did put Mendez’s full name in the end credits for about 15 seconds, when audiences are making a dash for the door – with only a straggler or two nerds or industry professionals remaining to read the credits.

What stood out in my mind were the end credits. Producer Affleck made it a point to show a picture of every lead actors alongside their real life counterparts, side by side – except himself and Antonio Mendez. While he did show a small, long shot profile picture of Mendez receiving his commendation from President Jimmy Carter, he did not put his picture and Mendez’s side-by-side, like he did with the characters.

Affleck took care to get every little detail in the film right, the cars, the clothes, even actors that looked like their real life counterparts, but when it came to Mendez, he turned a blind eye.

I am not insinuating he did this intentionaly – but any way you slice it – the end result was the whitewashing of an American Latino hero.

Although Mendez himself does not consider himself Latino or Hispanic telling Jack Rico of Showbiz Cafe “I don’t think of myself as a Hispanic. I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert. If I had been in a different family circumstance, I might have felt that way. But, mostly, my family was at odds with each other in a playful way, they weren’t talking about heritage in that regard.” You have to stop and wonder that if he had not grown up watching the negative stereotypes on film and TV if he would been able to embrace his ethnicity more. Maybe if he had seen Hell to Eternity starring a Latino in the lead role, or if he had only known that Guy Gabaldon was a Mexican American, he might have considered himself a Latino/Hispanic now.

In any case there was an onslaught of outrage by the Latino community in print, radio and social media was deafening but Hollywood was unfazed.

The irony is Hollywood is now, indirectly, rewarding the whitewashing of Mendez. Argo has become an industry darling. The award nominations keep rolling in. Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Golden Globe Award have all rewarded Argo with numerous nominations. This morning Academy of Motion pictures membership nominated Argo for seven awards. Interestingly, there was not best actor nomination for Ben Affleck.

Repinted from Latin Heat Entertainment

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