In L.A. in recent days a couple of stories are bouncing around in the news. One is the fact that – oh what a surprise and a shock! – the Academy Awards have overlooked actors and actresses who don’t possess porcelain skin. The other story, buried in the back pages of the newspapers (and, yes, those dead-tree, printed conveyances of the events of the day still exist and are still read) is about the continued abuse of the populace by the chota. Again, what a surprise. Some things never change. Or at least they change at a glacial pace.
First the Oscars. As practically everyone knows by now, the folks who hand out the Academy Awards (most of the members are gringo ruquitos) made their nominations in the best actor, best actress, best supporting actor and best supporting actress categories. Not one person of color got a nod. Not one Latino/Latina, not one African American, not one Asian American and – what a surprise! – not one indigenous American. After what the mainstream media revealed as the “lack of diversity” in the action by the Motion Picture Academy there was a fair amount of hand-wringing. Lots of folks shook their heads.
A few African American Hollywood types said they were going to stay away from the big event where the elite parade around in wildly expensive clothes and smile for the cameras as the gold-plated trophies are doled out. Heck, some indicated they’d demonstrate their outrage by not even watching the thing on TV. Well, that will show ‘em!
Over the years only a handful of African Americans have gotten Oscars. And fewer Latinos and other people of color have received Oscars. That’s a bummer, for sure. Some folks are railing at the elites who are members of the Academy. Folks are complaining that the members of the Academy have shown their myopia and wrongheadedness yet again by excluding Blacks and Latinos in the acting categories. (Frijoliwood’s talented Alejandro Iñárritu is in the mix for best director again, and more power to him.) But guess what? It’s not really the Academy that’s to blame; it’s the overall Hollywood film industry that deserves our ire.
There just aren’t enough good roles for men and women who aren’t blonde and blue-eyed. Hollywood has always been “guilty” of that. Don’t blame the Academy voters for that. Well, at least don’t blame them at the moment when the nominations come out – or when the statues are handed out. Blame the overall industry for the myopia that doesn’t see the wealth of stories inherent in the lives of African Americans and, especially, Latinos. There is a long and sad history of exclusion.
What’s needed (to paraphrase Bernie Sanders) is a revolution. A revolution in the consciousness and practices of those who make the creative decisions in Hollywood. How many magazine articles (and blogs nowadays) have we all written about the dearth of scripts about us? About the shortsightedness in the casting of actors who are Latino or African American (or Asian American and indigenous, for that matter)? Hey, Eli Wallach can play a Mexican bandito and that’s okay. But why can’t a Chicano play the banker or CEO? Actors – the good ones – are artists. The essence of acting is becoming someone on stage or on the screen that you are not. Sure gringos can play Mexicans. But Chicanos can play gringos. They should be allowed to do so. We need a revolution when it comes to the realm of casting in Hollywood. But the greater creative revolution that’s needed has to do with story.
There’s a wealth of material for stories based on the lives, the struggles, the emotions, the achievements and the dreams of all people – not just those who look like Ken and Barbie. (Just look at the treasure of literature by Latino writers, for starters.) It takes producers and studio executives who understand and appreciate the richness of our experiences in order to change the complexion — shall we say? – of Hollywood movies. Our experiences are overlooked fodder for good storytelling on the screen.
Statistics show that Latinos go to the movies in huge numbers. But it isn’t about making movies that Latinos “will go see.” We’ll see any film that’s well made and that moves us. And non-Latinos will pay to see movies that include Latinos, as long as they are stories that are well told and engaging. Television – in all its platforms – is showing that that’s the case.
Television, on the networks, in cable and in new platforms such as Netflix is doing a better job than theatrical films, as far as “diversity” is concerned. Yes, it’s show BUSINESS and the industry needs to make a profit or garner solid ratings. No argument there. It can be done in a manner that celebrates diversity, instead of exclusion.
Just recently I attended a community screening of that wonderful documentary about the life and legacy of entertainment pioneer Lalo Guerrero. (The film has been around for a few years, but it’s always a delight to see when it pops up.) Among other things, Lalo sings his classic song, “Why Are There no Chicanos on TV”? It’s always a song that raises a very good question.
As the Monty Python troupe used to say: And now for something completely different.
Now, about the police and the Latino community. The other issue recently in the news in L.A. and beyond is the issue of police shootings of unarmed African Americans and Latinos. The city of Los Angeles and the county of Los Angeles, it turns out, has paid millions of dollars to victims or their families because of “excessive force” by police. Some Blacks and Latinos have been killed, some have been brutalized almost to the point of death.
In one case, a man went to visit a friend who was in the L.A. County Jail. The man, 26-year-old Gabriel Carrillo, got into an argument with a jailer about surrendering his cell phone. Carrillo was handcuffed. Then several sheriff’s deputies proceeded to beat the hell out of him. Some of it was captured on videotape. Carrillo ended up in the hospital, looking like he’d been trampled by a herd of cattle. The cops made up fanciful stories about how the guy was violent and threatening and the deputies “feared for their lives.” The guy was handcuffed and otherwise restrained. The deputies at first claimed he’d gotten loose and that’s why they beat him into unconsciousness. All bullshit.
Lawyers got involved. L.A. County paid the man one-and-a-half million dollars. The L.A. County Supervisors settled because they were advised that if the case went before a jury, the punitive payment would likely have been much greater.
And there has been case after case of similar incidents. Los Angeles County paid $8.5 million to the family of Alfredo Montalvo. He was stopped by sheriff’s deputies while driving erratically. When they pulled him over deputies claimed he threatened him. They fired 61 bullets at him, killing him while he was in his car. He was unarmed. And the City of Los Angeles paid $15 million dollars to the family of a 13-year-old boy who was shot and killed by LAPD officers. The boy was playing with a toy gun. Police said they feared for their lives and they shot and killed the boy. The grim scorecard goes on and on.
In most cases videotape showed that the original stories told by the cops were virtually fabricated. Their initial official reports of the incidents didn’t square with what videotape and witnesses revealed about abusive police behavior.
Now there’s a big push for cops to wear body cameras. The idea is that this will reduce police brutality. Maybe. The LAPD is spending millions for cameras that will be worn by cops. Some are already wearing them. But who turns them on and when? Who edits them? And the Los Angeles Police Department is fighting to prevent eventual recordings from those cameras from being made public. That’s ridiculous. What’s the point of recording an incident if only police get to see what’s been recorded?
Gee, I wonder why it is that Latinos don’t trust police? It’s going to take continual vigilance on the part of the community to make sure this kind of violence and brutality by police are reined in. Hey, in addition to videotaping police encounters with the people, why not train cops not to wantonly beat and kill our people?
Copyright 2016 by Luis Torres. Luis is a veteran journalist and author of Doña Julia’s Children. Photo of Alejandro Innaritu by Bart Michiels under Creative commons attribution. Photo of film production copyright by Barrio Dog Productions. All other photos are in the public domain.