This guest post is written by Jazmine, a Houston, Texas native and a New Orleans transplant. She works in non-profit communications when she isn’t obsessively checking Twitter and Tumblr for all things social justice, geeky, and pop culture.
As problematic as the MPAA has been in the past, it was encouraging to hear MPAA Chief Chris Dodd insist that Hollywood become more inclusive by creating more movies aimed at Latino audiences, who make up a quarter of the movie-going audience and see more movies per year than any other group. Dodd, while recommending there be more films that would resonate with Latino movie goers, also cautioned against tokenism.
Dodd’s speech comes right on the heels of Pixar’s announcement that Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich is working on a movie “set in the world of Día de los Muertos.” A Día de los Muertos movie has enormous potential to achieve a happy medium between attracting more Latino audiences while also sharing a part of Latino culture with a wider demographic.
Unkrich did an amazing job pulling our heartstrings with Toy Story 3and I’m optimistic that his new movie will live up to his previous work, as long as the creators do extensive cultural research, or hire consultants who celebrate the holiday themselves. Pixar has said that it will be an original story, not based on any other material. My hope is that, since the holiday originated in Mexico with the Aztecs, the story will prominently feature Mexican characters. To date, Pixar has not produced any films with a protagonist of color and this would be the perfect opportunity to add a little more diversity to the mix.
Other bloggers have written about the issues of cultural appropriation surrounding Día de los Muertos, so I’m hesitant about putting my full support behind this film without any details about the characters, setting, or storyline. It would be all too easy for Hollywood to pick and choose the elements that Americans are familiar with and create a story loosely based on the skeletons and iconography that are commonly associated with the holiday. However, Pixar has dealt with issues such as death and growing up in very nuanced and sensitive ways in the past, so there is hope the studio will make a moving and respectful tribute to the holiday that honors and celebrates the dead. Still, while I appreciate Dodd’s warning that Hollywood should be weary of tokenism, he also pointed to Tyler Perry as a model for attracting African American audiences to theaters. This might not be the best standard to live up to, given how contentious Tyler Perry movies can beamong African-American bloggers and movie-goers.
It’s true that Hollywood can’t expect to attract Latino audiences by just making movies in Spanish or “presuming that a single cultural approach would find broad appeal.” Latinos are definitely a broad group, with origins in any number of countries and of any skin color. Many Latinos in the United States are also second, third, or fourth generation immigrants, some of whom don’t even speak Spanish. It would also be wonderful to see more movies featuring the diverse experiences of Latinos from all walks of life. Themes that explore cultural identity or generational conflicts would likely resonate with many Latinos, such as myself, who grew up in the United States.
Furthermore, it would be refreshing to see Latino actors given more opportunities other than the usual stereotypical depictions of over-sexualized bombshells or gang members. Those few Latino actors and actresses who do make it in Hollywood usually fall into background roles or stereotypes. Others, who can “pass”, tend to get whitewashed into roles, or type cast into African-American roles. Gina Torres of Firefly fame has spoken before about how she is frequently cast into “African-American” roles even though she is Cuban. However, Torres has obviously achieved some success in landing smart and diverse roles.
Maybe the first step in appealing to Latino audiences is simply casting more Latino actors and actresses in roles that would normally go to white actors, instead of typecasting by appearance, or assuming that there is a magic formula for attracting Latino audiences. The Cuban film Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos) is a perfect example of how pop culture trends have cross-over appeal between different cultures. Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation is another Latina actress who has been lucky to play unique and complex characters. Plaza is of Puerto Rican heritage, and so is her character April in Parks and Rec. I, for one, am really looking forward to her new movie, Safety Not Guaranteed.
Hopefully, more actresses like Plaza and Torres can break out and start earning more high quality roles, and films like Pixar’s Día de los Muertos can break away from the stereotypical depictions of Mexicans and Mexican culture. Latinos obviously love movies as much as the next person, and I’m willing to bet that making more high quality movies and opening up more opportunities to Latino writers, actors, and directors will attract even more Latino audiences to theaters.