The bleak reality that the Latino community is underrepresented on the big screen has been a known issue for quite some time. Back in 2014, a report asserted that despite making up 17.1% of the total U.S. population, Latinos made up only 5.8% of speaking roles on TV and film. In 2016, we learned that Latino actors played only 2.7% of roles in the top movies of the year. In 2018, Latinos didn’t even merit a breakdown in a graph that showed how many nonwhite directors helmed the top 1,100 box office hits of the last decade. A new report is building on those aforementioned and finally going granular on the specific issue of Latino representation.
“Latinos in Film: Erasure On Screen; Behind the Camera Across 1,200 Popular Movies,” from Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in partnership with National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) and Wise Entertainment, is the most comprehensive and in-depth analysis of Latinos in film since Columbia University’s 2014 “Latino Media Gap” report. “At a time where Latinos in our country are facing intense concerns over their safety,” said Dr. Smith, “we urgently need to see the Latino community authentically and accurately represented throughout entertainment.”
Such timeliness is not lost on Dr. Smith’s collaborators. “The erasure of the Latino community in film creates a void that has been allowed to be filled by hateful and violent rhetoric,” said Mauricio Mota, co-president of Wise Entertainment and producer of the Emmy-nominated series East Los High. These are thoughts echoed by Benjamin Lopez, executive director of NALIP: “The Latino community has not been prioritized, and it is imperative that we shed light on the glaring reality of Latino representation in film.” The report hopes to be both a diagnosis and a road map.
If you’re wondering how such an unwieldy term like “Latino” is being defined in the report, you won’t be surprised that it required some necessary tweaking. As Mota told Remezcla, they chose the term Latino because it refers to all people of Latin descent and is inclusive of all language backgrounds. “Unfortunately the vast majority of decision makers in Hollywood still connect ‘Hispanic’ to ‘audiovisual content in Spanish’ or a very limited and stereotypical way to portray us,” and so moving away from that term was important. Yet the umbrella term “Latino” was used to not only include U.S. Latinos and Latin Americans but also Spaniards, which suggests that some conflation between Spanish-language fare and Latino fare is still implicitly at play throughout the report.
This speaks not just to the complexity of issues of labeling (Hispanic vs Latino), but to the wide scope of the research, which doesn’t seem particularly interested in, as “The Latino Media Gap” report outlined, the vast differences between U.S.-born Latinos and Latin Americans. In fact, were the data being mined solely for U.S. Latino content and representation — looking precisely at the way Hollywood depicts that U.S. Latino community that’s at the heart of such vitriolic rhetoric across the country — it would look vastly different from the stats being offered below. Nevertheless, such a study is a good first step, which is why we combed the entire report to isolate five key take-aways.
Latino Characters Are Missing In Film
This oft-repeated factoid is not news, but that doesn’t make the stat any easier to digest. According to the report only 4.5% of all 47,268 speaking or named characters within the last 12 years were Latino, as were a mere 3% of lead or colead actors. More glaringly, there was no meaningful change over the time period examined, meaning that despite calls for change and similarly-themed diversity reports in the last few years, the industry as a whole has not changed substantially when it comes to depicting, uplifting, and hiring Latinx talent. The Latinx characters that make it on the screen are myopically limited. As the report notes, under a quarter (24%) of all of Latino speaking characters and 28% of top billed Latino talent were depicted as law breakers across a range of violent and nonviolent crimes. Over half (61.9%) of all characters shown engaged in illegal activity were part of an organized crime group such as gang members or drug dealers. Thirty-eight percent of criminals were depicted committing fraud, thievery, murder, or having previously been in prison for reasons not made clear in the film.
The U.S. Population Outpaces Hollywood
The bad news doesn’t stop there as the findings demonstrate that top films lag far behind the population when it comes to representing Latino characters. Here’s another shocking number to put all of these findings in further dismaying context: 77% of 50 U.S. states and two territories have a higher percentage of Latinos than Hollywood films. It’s not just that Latinos are underrepresented, it’s that Hollywood is willfully misrepresenting a reality — often outright erasing the largest ethnic group in America who, not coincidentally, also comprise 39% of the population of the state of California and 49% of Los Angeles’ population — the very area where many of these productions are written, greenlit, cast, and produced.
Few Latino Directors Across 1,200 Top-Grossing Films
Here’s an instance where the label slippage inherent in the report both reveals and obscures the complexity of the plight of U.S.-born Latinos trying to make it in the domestic U.S. film market. In the 1,200 films assessed, the report found 28 individual Latino directors, making up a measly 4% of all helmers. But that number, as is the case across the report, collapses various demographic categories. Namely, it includes U.S.-born Latinos, Latin Americans, as well as Spaniards. So the successes of the likes of Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and J.A. Bayona — not to mention that of Brazilian director Carlos Saldanha who directs animated fare for Blue Sky and Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed The Shallows and The Commuter — end up inflating the overall number. Thus, when you break that number down, you learn that of those 28 names, only 29% (eight directors across 1,200 films) were identified as U.S. Latinos, the very demographic that studies about these kind of on-screen underrepresentation are allegedly wanting to uplift.
Latinas Are Virtually Nonexistent as Directors
Unsurprisingly, the blatant sexism that is rampant in the entertainment industry and society at large is reflected in the number of Latina directors across the 1,200 top-grossing films assessed. That number is — if you can believe it — just one. Mexican filmmaker Patricia Riggen, who has helmed the breakout Spanish-language film Under the Same Moon (with Kate del Castillo), the Chilean miner drama The 33 (with an ensemble led by Antonio Banderas and Rodrigo Santoro), and the faith-based story Miracles from Heaven (starring Eugenio Derbez and Jennifer Garner) is the sole woman to make her mark in the U.S. box office this past decade. There weren’t any U.S.-born Latina filmmakers in what’s ostensibly a cross-section of the cinematic landscape of U.S.-released projects from 2007 to 2018. Now, that’s as depressing as a stat as one can come up with.
A Pipeline to Grow and Develop Feature Films
There’s another instance where the report dives headfirst into what the distinction between U.S.-born Latinos, Latin American and Spanish filmmakers means for the data they’re mining, showing how disparate the gap between the two truly is. Focused as it is on not just on-screen representation, but also on the behind-the-scenes system that allows for such subpar treatment of a huge and growing U.S. population, the report looked at filmmakers who submitted their films for the Sundance Film Festival. Looking at submissions in 2017 and 2018, the report found that out of the U.S. dramatic submissions, a full 7% of directors were identified as Latino. In contrast, of international feature submissions, a full 13% of directors were Latino. That kind of discrepancy, which shows that U.S. Latinos aren’t producing or aren’t submitting to high-profile festivals at a rate comparable to their population breakdown; an issue that begs to be further explored and understood, is what calls into question other notable stats offered by the report. They write, for example, that when a Latino director was attached to a film, the percentage of Latino characters on screen increased from 4% to 13% and that similar increases were observed when a Latino producer worked on a movie — the percentage of Latino characters on screen climbed from 4% to 9%. But if the films in question end up also including homegrown projects from, say, Mexico or Spain, it’s less surprising (and statistically misleading) to say that it’s the presence of a Latino director or producer that increased the presence of on-camera Latino talent.