Latinos in film and television continue to face two problems: an astonishing lack of visibility and the negative and/or stereotypical manner that Latino characters are commonly portrayed. Both of these issues have implications that go beyond the industry itself. Studies have shown Americans spend 15.5 hours a week consuming traditional and digital media. The number soars even higher for teens and children. This explains why most people acquire their perceptions about communities outside of their own race, religion or sexual orientation from the media. It therefore isn’t surprising that so many people believe Latinos are predominantly maids, gardeners and criminals who have entered the country illegally and can’t speak English.
Ada Maris has been working in TV and film for more than 30 years. Last year her agent sent her a script for the upcoming Netflix series “Uncoupled” created by Darren Star of Sex in the City fame and starring Neil Patrick Harris. Her agent wanted her to read for the part of Carmen, a maid who worked for Harris. Expecting something more positive given the current attention to diversity in the industry, Maris instead described the role as “hurtful and offensive”. Carmen spoke in broken English and uttered silly lines that Maris said weren’t even funny. Despite Hollywood’s history of blacklisting “ungrateful” complainers, Maris did what few others have done; She spoke up. In an open letter to Star and Harris, Maris thoughtfully expressed her problems with the character, and took special umbrage to Star and Harris who are both openly gay. “You are modern gay men. How would you like to watch or play an outdated offensively stereotypical gay part?” Maris wrote.
The fact that Star and Harris are gay probably shouldn’t matter, but it’s interesting considering the recent controversy over the Dave Chappelle special, The Closer, which was also on Netflix. I blogged about the Chappelle special a few weeks ago. If you didn’t see it, Chappelle was criticized for his harsh characterization of members of the LGBTQ community. The criticism was intense enough to prompt a walkout of Netflix employees who were offended by Chappelle’s special. Actors/producers Elliot Page and Dan Levy expressed their solidarity, and Jaclyn Moore, a prominent showrunner who happens to be trans, said she would boycott Netflix. Chappelle explains in The Closer that his quarrel has never been with the LGBTQ community, it always has been with White people. He specifically asks whether someone can be both gay and racist. I don’t believe Maris is calling Star and Harris, who are both White, racists, but she clearly believes because they are gay, they should hold themselves to a higher standard when it comes to issues that affect other marginalized communities. I wrote in my blog about Chappelle that while I love Dave Chappelle’s comedy, I wouldn’t have liked it if his show included negative stereotypes about Latinos. I could empathize with the LGBTQ community, and while I don’t think that Star and Harris should be “cancelled”, they should know better.
Other than a single article in Variety, the Maris story didn’t get much publicity. I don’t know of any actors or showrunners, Latino or otherwise, who are protesting, and I haven’t heard of any employee walkouts at Netflix. Now, some may think making a big hoopla about a minor role in a sitcom is a bit excessive, but I don’t think so. Studies show that negative racial stereotypes influence public policy, and have fueled support for senseless immigration policies and harsher punishments for people of color. They also impact the flow of capital. Why would anyone want to invest in people from a community that lacks ingenuity and is rife with problems?
So, what can be done about it? While diversity programs, mentoring and corporate commitments are a good start, I don’t have a great deal of confidence that the major studios will do much to improve the situation. It’s not because they don’t want to, they just don’t know how. Culture is a hard thing to teach, and people like to work with people they know. Netflix responded to the Maris letter, not by rewriting the role of Carmen, but by eliminating it altogether. In their mind, I’m sure it’s better to avoid controversy altogether than put themselves at risk for more. I had the chance to speak with a number of actors, directors, writers and producers who participated in L’ATTITUDE. Most of them were primarily interested in finding more opportunity for themselves, which is understandable. In the end, there was agreement that entrepreneurship, specifically Latino-owned studios, production companies and networks are particularly important to addressing the issue. Trust me, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey have done more to advance Black Americans in the media industry than 50 years of political advocacy. As owner/entrepreneurs, Perry and Winfrey have not only created opportunity for other Black Americans in the industry, they have proven that culturally relevant film and television projects can be enormously profitable – prompting every other major studio to follow suit.
There is a lot at stake in making progress on the issue of Latinos in the media, and it’s important that we focus on things that have the best chance to make a difference. The good news is with streaming and other digital innovations, the media world is changing almost daily, making the opportunity for some breakthrough Latino media entrepreneurs greater than ever. Shout out to Ada Maris for having the temerity to take a stand. You can see her in The Garcias coming to HBO Max next year.