HOLLYWOOD: A brothers' road trip to bury their mother’s ashes unearths the saga of a Mexican American family in P.O.V.’s Calavera Highway.
Upon her death, Rosa Peña left her seven “Golden Boys” a legacy of strength and pride, and troubling questions about the family’s past. A migrant worker and single mother, Peña raised her seven sons in the Texas border towns of Hidalgo County, the poorest country in the United States.
She worked hard, had two husbands – she chased off the second one with a knife when he beat one of the boys – and instilled in her sons a strong sense of family and ethnic pride. With her death, her grown sons were left adrift. As recounted in the documentary, by filmmakers Renee Tajima-Peña and Evangeline Griego, Peña’s funeral and cremation brought the boys together – and tore them apart again.
Among the questions that nag all the brothers is what happened to the first five boys’ father? Was he swept up in the notorious 1954 government deportation program, Operation Wetback? Why had Rosa’s own family so cruelly rejected her and her sons to fend for themselves?
Calavera Highway, which has its broadcast premiere on Tuesday, Sept. 16 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), is a Rosasboys Production in association with P.O.V. | American Documentary. It is a co-presentation with Latino Public Broadcasting and is funded in part by the Center for Asian American Media with funds provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, P.O.V. is public television’s premier showcase for point-of-view, nonfiction films, and is a 2007 recipient of a Special News & Documentary Emmy Award for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking.
Created in 1998 by Edward James Olmos and Marlene Dermer, Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB) is a nonprofit organization funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. American Documentary, Inc. is a multimedia company dedicated to creating, identifying and presenting contemporary stories that express opinions and perspectives rarely featured in mainstream media outlets.
HOLLYWOOD: An age-old issue has resurfaced on the entertainment scene once more – or better said, it’s never really gone away. An actress friend sent me an email regarding an article that appeared on ABC News Online in June (Is Hollywood Whitewashing Ethnic Roles?) By Luchina Fisher that highlighted the sub-headline: “In Films Based on Fact, White Actors Take Parts Meant for Other Races.”
The roles mentioned in the article included the movie Stuck, based on a real-life story, which features actress Mena Suvari (American Beauty) in the role of a Texas woman who was convicted of murder and evidence tampering after striking a homeless man with her car and leaving him to die, and for which she received 50-year and 10-year concurrent sentences. The Texas woman, Chante Mallard is African-American and Suvari is blond and blue-eyed who wears cornrows to play the role of Brandi in the film.
Another example: last year’s A Mighty Heart, which featured Angelina Jolie in the role of writer Mariane Pearl, an Afro-Cuban and Dutch who grew up in France. It’s this kind of casting that is frustrating to actors of color who feel short changed from competing for all roles other than the negative ones they are cast in. In this particular instance, as the article points out, it was Pearl who wanted Jolie to play her, however, the fact that Jolie wore a corkscrew wig and tinted makeup apparently shocked some members of the black community, especially black actresses who felt they should have had the opportunity to audition for the role.
In her article, Fisher cites what many ethnic actors have already experienced: “it’s not uncommon for white actors to be cast in ethnic roles or for real-life stories to be ‘whitewashed’ to make them more mainstream,” and in most cases may be the only way the film will be made. The other reality is that making films is a business and making money or recouping the investment is really what the industry is all about, so as Fisher points out, “Sometimes, ethnicity and the reality of the story are sacrificed.”
Sometimes, however, casting a big name or “bankable star” doesn’t always guarantee big bucks at the box office, as was the case with A Mighty Heart, which failed in that regard. Yet, had Jolie not taken on this project and not been cast in the part, the film probably would never have been made.
Another example cited by Fisher is the film 21, which based on the book, Busting Vegas: The MIT Whiz Kid Who Brought the Casinos to their Knees, by Ben Mezrich. In the book, the real whiz kid and his partners are Asian American, but the filmmakers took artistic license by making them all white, except for one Asian. The reasoning: to make the film more mainstream and giving it a better chance to succeed at the box office. Also filmmakers are reluctant to cast unknowns in lead roles, unlike independent filmmakers who often cast non-white unknowns for authenticity. Audience acceptance is evidenced by many of these films which do turn a profit.
Whether the role is based on real-life people or is fictional, actors of color have a harder time getting an audition simply because many of them are unknown, so unless you’re a Salma Hayek, Maria Conchita Alonso, Penelope Cruz or Kate del Castillo and the like who were already stars in their own country before they turned to crossing over to American audiences, their chances of getting into an audition is dismal. Given the chance to compete for all roles, regardless of what color or ethnicity the script calls for, is the only way actors of color can prove that they are capable of performing as well as their white counterparts. That also means, however, that actors of color also have to accept the fact that whites can play other roles as well. This would be an acceptable compromise if there was a balance, but until that balance exists, people of color will have to continue struggling for the opportunity to prove what they are capable of doing and that they too can become bankable. The problem is, those at the top aren’t willing to take that chance and until they are, things are not likely to change.
In response to this issue, Bel Hernandez, CEO and publisher of Latin Heat Entertainment, points out that it’s not an issue of anyone “deserving” anything, but Latinos are entitled to speak up for “fair representation,” given that Latinos are the number one film going audience, and are also avid TV watchers that buy the products advertised. “When we have a spending power of 900 billion dollars a year (about 12 billion in entertainment alone) and projected to reach one trillion by 2015, I do believe we are entitled to speak up for fair representation.”
More than one respondent remarked that this conversation will continue for another 20 years, because the only color that matters in this country is “green.” And, as actress Dyana Ortelli points out in her email, “we’re simply not playing on a level playing field,” especially when she’s rejected by casting directors to audition for an Italian role because she’s Mexican. “Did Hollywood think Laura San Giacomo was too Italian to play Frida Kahlo?” That film project fell through after Latinos protested and the film was finally made years later by Salma Hayek earning critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination.
Ortelli who started out in the business more than two decades ago using her Spanish surname Ortiz became so tired of being cast as a Mexican maid, prostitute and other negative roles, she changed her name to Ortelli and found herself being cast as an Italian maid, prostitute, etc. A talented actress and frustrated by the lack of positive roles for Latino actors in Hollywood, she began doing stand-up comedy. Her East L.A. “cholita” character, Ramona From Pomona, has become a favorite with Latino audiences.
It was Ortelli’s comedic timing and ability to create unconventional, lovable characters that brought her to the attention of director Jose Luis Valenzuela, who cast her in the role of Irene in the critically acclaimed film Luminarias. It was a role she could not refuse, after years of playing Latino characters which were unusually undocumented, unemployed, uneducated, or on drugs. Finally, she was able to play a contemporary, educated, fashionable, outrageous and funny Latino woman. Instead of the stereotypical “barrio” wardrobe, she got to wear outrageous and unique clothing that she designed herself. In fact, Ortelli’s wardrobe got so much attention, it prompted the Austin Chronicle to say, “Irene’s way-over-the-top miniature sombrero couture is absolutely worth the price of admission.”
So what does Ortelli think Latino actors deserve? “I don’t care if a show plays in New York or Ohio, we are part of the fabric of this country and deserve to be represented in numbers proportionate to our population. We deserve a representation of an 'authentic America,' and not a Hollywood whitewash. It is an intolerable arrogance for Caucasians to think they can or should play all the races of the world, especially when deserving, talented people of color are there to play them.”
“The ‘same old, same old’ argument that you need ‘box office names’ to sell a movie is well known by us Latino actors (and activists)…as far back as the ‘70s. Remember our outcry at Robbie Benson playing a Latino gang member way back when? Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Wynona Rider playing Chileans in The House of the Spirits? Angelica Houston as a Cubana in The Perez Family? Al Pacino in Scarface? Armand Assante in Mambo Kings?” And citing a quote by a well-known actor, Ortelli recalls the outcry during the Frida Kahlo protest, “They can play us, but we can’t play them?” And, “We’re interesting enough to make movies about, but not good enough to play ourselves?”
“Good stories and good actors have repeatedly proved the ‘big box office name’ theory to be absolutely incorrect. Don’t forget the huge success of Like Water for Chocolate with no ‘box office names’ whatsoever around the same time that The Perez Family and House of Spirits basically tanked in spite of their big name stars.”
Furthermore, she adds, “Selena and La Bamba, who offered us authenticity in favor of established ‘white’ stars, also proved to be a huge success. Television and film have a long way to go in representing an authentic America. But Latinos, in my opinion, have definitely gotten the shortest end of the stick. Television shows from Ally McBeal to Boston Legal to The View may be considered diverse by some. After all, they’ve all had Asian and black representation. But I’m still wondering, where are the Latinos?”
As her son said to her once, after he got fed up with auditioning for gang members and drug runners and chose to quit show biz altogether, “Mom, you and your friends have been having the same conversation for 20 years.” Sadly Ortelli agrees, so until things get better she’s off to clean her neighbor’s house so she can get in character for her next big role. And the beat goes on.
NEXT POST: After Labor Day – Have a good one and stay tuned.