When Donald Trump describes Mexicans as rapists, drug dealers, illegal immigrants and criminals, he’s describing 90% of the roles Latino actors have played in Hollywood movies and TV shows for the last hundred years. He didn’t invent the stereotype, but he’s reacting to it.
Hispanics are not the only minority group targeted and offended by Trump’s xenophobic stereotypes. Yet somehow, he can say all these things and still have a significant part of the population not only supporting him but actually claiming “he’s not a racist”?
He’s got between 30 and 40% supporting him in national polls. I refuse to accept the notion that almost half of this nation is racist. Anybody who has lived in the US knows there’s plenty of racism, systemic racism even. While I know not all Trump supporters are racist, support from possibly 40% of the population is quite high for a person who so clearly is. How can all of these people support him if they are not racist? The explanation I find is dramatic: the reason so many Americans don’t find his words offensive is because they too have been fed the same stereotypes since they were born. If you hear something enough, see it everywhere you turn, it’s a lot easier to accept it as truth.
If you change your television from Trump saying Mexicans are drug traffickers to any other channel, you will likely find a movie or a TV show with one or more characters who are Hispanic drug traffickers. And for many Americans, those characters have often been the only cultural interaction they’ve ever had with Latinos. They have no option but to perceive them the way Trump describes them, because that’s how they’ve been watching them for years.
While all Latinos know this problem exists, most Americans of other races don’t realize it. Latinos are invisible. This year, an entire Oscars ceremony was dedicated to protesting the lack of diversity in the industry and, however, there was barely any mention of the lack of opportunities for Latinos.
It’s true that two brilliant Latinos have won the last three Best Director Oscars and the problem behind the camera is slowly being solved. While those results have been amazing, the problem in front of the camera has not changed.
What was the last mainstream movie you saw with a Latino lead? Beyond that, what was the last mainstream movie you saw where the Latino lead was not a thug or a criminal? I bet it’s not so easy to remember.
Many years ago, I was fortunate to have made a movie that was well received in Hollywood. Ever since I moved to Los Angeles I started receiving scripts to consider that were almost exclusively about Latin drug dealers, rapists or criminals of some kind. It’s true that my first movie portrays a kidnapping in Venezuela, so my style was probably not attractive for other genres (I don’t condemn Latin movies with violence, just hope for more diversity). But very few movies of other genres were made with positive Latino characters by other directors, Latinos or not.
So I decided to make a movie about a positive Latino figure. That’s how I found the Roberto Duran story. We were able to put together a cast of some of the biggest actors in the world, combined them with up-and-coming Latino and African-American actors, and still no Hollywood studio wanted to finance it.
Their suggestions were the expected: “Can Duran be prayed by Leo or Colin Farrell?” “What about his wife, she’s blonde anyway?” “Can you make Duran the villain and make the movie more about Leonard?”
Our star system is important and I understand the reasons behind those thoughts. But we will never have a Latino movie star unless we cast a Latino actor in Latino leads. Making this movie culturally correct was essential. Boxing is one of the sports more dominated by Latinos, and no mainstream boxing movie about a Latin fighter had ever been made. It would have been unforgivable to make it without a Latino lead.
We did not give up. It was De Niro who told me: “Go to Panama. This is an important movie for the world but it is for sure the most important movie in the history of Panama. Sometimes money has to have a reason to invest in a movie. And you are more likely to find that reason in the land of where Duran is a national hero”. I followed his advise and my wife and I moved to Panama and we spent a year putting together the financing of the movie. Happily Edgar Ramirez was on the verge of becoming a star and we were able to find the right partners to make it the right way. Eventually Harvey Weinstein fell in love with the film and is releasing it this summer. It’s a happy ending to a difficult journey in which we faced very big cultural barriers. But most other similar efforts don’t end as well. Most movies featuring Latino leads as positive characters simply don’t get made. And I think it’s an urgent issue that we start to change. We need to show viewers that the entire Hispanic community is not predestined to become criminals but that, we too, are smart, educated, hardworking individuals with stories to share.
Yes, progress has been made in recent years when it comes to awareness and there’s no doubt we can achieve lasting change. But we cannot reverse a set of stereotypes that have been repeated in the media for decades without the help and unwavering support of the entire industry. Racist populism doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s always a consequence, never a cause. An opportunist can only take over a nation if his words find echo in the masses. Let’s make a difference before it’s too late.