This year, Hollywood will offer as many widely released studio films about monkeys as it will about Latinos. Both movies, Monkey Kingdom and MacFarland, USA, will be released by Disney, slot fillers in the annual winter doldrums. Luckily for the monkeys, though, they won’t be depicted as in need of a redemptive white man to save them from their own crippling circumstances. What is baffling about the near total absence of Latino stories slated for 2015 is how it reflects the film industry’s lingering indifference towards a demographic that has quietly become one of the most dependable subsections of cinema-goers.
In 2013, the MPAA determined that while Latinos only made up 17 percent of the US population, they represented 32 percent of frequent moviegoers. Last year, a six-year study of cinematic race and ethnicity by USC found that a full quarter of US tickets were purchased by Latinos, who often made up 20 percent of lucrative opening weekend grosses. And yet Latinos represented only 4.9 percent of total speaking roles in the films studied, with an overwhelming tendency to be depicted as hyper-sexualized, criminal, or both. One would assume that a studio system so desperate for ideas that it would earmark 2015 for reboots of everything from Point Break to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. would see these numbers as a clear indication of an audience primed for their own cinematic depiction. That assumption would be dead wrong.
The “true” story of the nation’s first all-Latino high school track team, MacFarland, USA depicts the all-too-familiar uplift of scrappy but hard-working people of color by a roguish but lovable white man. For Disney, it’s the second such story in as many years, following 2014’s borderline bomb Million Dollar Arm, with Jon Hamm learning to be a better man by pulling a few Indian men out of obscurity through the magic of baseball. MacFarland, however, has already received advance praise for its earnest depiction of Latino characters. And in its story of the everyday struggle of rural Latino farm workers, the film stands alone this year in reflecting the real-life struggles of millions of Americans. But therein lies the problem. Latinos may have become one of the country’s most dependable ticket-buying blocs, but if they want to see themselves on movie screens as anything but impoverished migrants or supporting characters in 2015, they’re out of luck.
Noah Gittell called this disparity between audience and representation a set of “absurd statistics.” They’re hard numbers made even more absurd by the recent success of numerous Latino-centered productions on both the small and big screens. The 2013 import Instructions Not Included quietly became the highest-grossing Spanish-language film in US history. 2014’s animated The Book of Life, featuring a story and production design inspired by the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, unceremoniously earned $90 million amidst a crowded Halloween release schedule. That same year, the only high-profile studio release to feature a full Latino cast was Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. Much like MacFarland, USA, the film was dumped into the fallow winter months, where it nonetheless grossed $90 million globally on a $5 million budget. A cursory glimpse at events like the 2014 Miami Film Festival reveals a wide range of films from numerous Latin American countries primed for US releases. Meanwhile, the last two years have seen a slow expansion of Latino-led television shows, with CBS’s Cristela and the CW’s Jane the Virgin drawing audiences but doing little to encourage their networks’ respective parent companies’ interest in cinematic projects. Warner Brothers, which owns the CW, will release both the above-mentioned Point Break and Man From U.N.C.L.E. revivals, but has no plans for the upcoming year that involve Latino-based stories or characters.
Still, there have been some isolated voices of optimism in recent months, specifically Vulture’s prediction that, “The future of movies will be more Latino.” Such perspectives look at the appointments of Latino executives and the creation of studio multicultural divisions as signs of increasing inclusivity. But at least as far as 2015 is concerned, it’s hard to find much substance in Vulture’s claim that, “After decades of under-representing Latinos, Hollywood is slowly starting to come around” — without a heavy emphasis on “slowly.”
2015 promises several high-profile films by Latino directors, from Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’s Norman Rockwell-meets-Magneto origin story Little Boy to Jaume Collete-Serra’s Liam Neeson action vehicle Run All Night. But these films are uniformly void of situations or characters that reflect any aspect of the Latino experience. Even creatively powerful Mexican auteurs like Guillermo Del Toro continue to head films with zero indication of Latino-based characters or situations. (Not to mention that the above directors represent exclusively Spanish and Mexican backgrounds, leaving mainstream directors from any other Latin American country or indigenous group nonexistent.)
As Beyond the Lights director Gina Prince-Bythewood told Flavorwire in November, there are plenty of opportunities available for directors of color, so long as they don’t involve directing anything outside of an unspoken Caucasian default. As Bythewood explained, “(The) people making decisions are going to green-light films that they identify with and that make sense to them, and there are no people of color running studios.”
Studio executives shouldn’t be singled out as oblivious oppressors operating in a vacuum. The bias against ethnic diversity remains deeply coded in all aspects of culture, including photographic technology itself. As Syretta McFadden explained in an essential piece for BuzzFeed in 2014, film stock emulsion coating, the basic chemical compounds that determine how film interacts with light, were long designed with Caucasian skin as their default. Kodak modified stocks to favor brown and red tones in the late 1970s, but only in response to advertising companies wishing to photograph wooden furniture. As McFadden points out in an interview with NPR, Kodak only developed a standardized color balance system for multiple skin tones as recently as 1995.
Meanwhile, the transition to digital photography brought the Nikon Coolpix’s tendency to assume Asians were constantly blinking and low-light sensors designed to focus only on light-skinned faces. This is an ethnic “othering” that NPR’s Eric Deggans recently explored across multiple aspects of the entertainment industry, from the racial insensitivity of leaked Sony emails to the absence of people of color in year-end awards season consideration. Deggans echoed the gap in Latino audiences and films when he criticized Hollywood’s reluctance to diversify, “even when there’s evidence that breaking down those walls will actually make better films and more money.”
Still, it’s helpful to remember that lower-budget features can often arrive without much advance notice (Selma, as just one example, didn’t even begin principal photography until April of last year). The arc of production schedules stretches longer than the public face of release dates and casting announcements, and it is possible that the coming months could produce a more diverse range of production announcements. But conclusions can only be drawn from existing information, which indicates a cinematic calendar all but devoid of Latino stories onscreen for the next 12 months.
It all amounts to an industry-wide apathy towards change that is not just absurd, but borderline masochistic. Fewer movie tickets were sold in the US in 2014 than in any year since 1995. Adherence to franchises and price-gouging tactics (4D seating, anyone?) couldn’t keep the tickets that were sold from earning a three-year industry low. Such numbers should force studios to cater to the consistency of Latino ticket buyers, instead of doubling down on blind optimism for even bigger blockbusters while tossing out empty gestures about Latino executives and diversity initiatives.
But therein lies a truth about institutionalized othering, in which populations outside of the assumed cultural default suffer by being unrepresented in media, while the media makers themselves feel the financial impact of their inability to adapt. One could begrudge studios a window of opportunity, or grant them a grace period in which to respond to demographic truths. But the viability of Latino films is nothing new. At the height of Hollywood’s golden age, before movies had to compete with television or the Internet, MGM released Viva Villa, a biopic about Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. It was the highest-grossing film of 1934. Those audiences’ descendants are still here — and they still love movies. And, even at the expense of their own profits, it doesn’t seem that Hollywood cares.