THE BLOG
10/15/2012 09:47 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Argo and the Latino Casting Conundrum

Earlier this year, at a packed luncheon that was part of a conference for the Latino filmmaking community, Ron Meyer (chairman of Universal Studios) was the guest speaker. Clearly, Mr. Meyer had not been informed about the diversity of talent and experience of those in attendance. Following an informative and entertaining regaling about his humble beginnings in the film industry, he offered what he thought was the most valuable advice for succeeding in Hollywood to the 300-plus in attendance: "Get an agent!"

This practical but simplistic advice was then followed by a heartfelt conversation about the conundrums of green-lighting Latino-centered films within the Hollywood system. Mr. Meyer spoke about Universal's previous attempt at establishing a Latino division, which eventually failed because, according to him, the Latino audience did not turn out to support Latino films. His conclusion, which seems a bit disingenuous, is that the Latino filmmaking community needs to figure out how to get Latinos to support its films.

I rose to my feet and asked him two questions that went something like this: 1) What is it going to take for the Hollywood machinery (i.e., the studios) to recognize that stories about Latinos in the U.S., are, in fact, American stories -- that American Latino filmmakers and the American Latino experience should not be marginalized? And, 2) What is it going to take for the Hollywood machinery (that is the studios) to open the doors to Latino filmmakers who wish to make films that are not Latino-centered stories -- i.e., how do Latino filmmakers who aspire to make superhero, epic films, for instance, get the studios to crack open the door and give them an equal opportunity to prove their skills and fulfill their dreams?

After a few moments, Mr. Meyer responded earnestly: "You're not going to like my answer. I don't know." Then a few seconds later, he repeated his "sage" advice from earlier -- "Get an agent!"

The issue here is that if the chairman of Universal Studios doesn't have an answer, who does? Otherwise, how high up the ladder do Latinos have to crawl in order to get anyone to consider seriously addressing the question and providing a plausible and fair answer? How do we begin to engage in this dialogue if our listeners don't wish to participate in the conversation?

Here's a possible answer to consider: a Latino audience has no more of an obligation to attend Latino-centered films than any other ticket-buying demographic. The Latino audience is as diverse as the rest of the mainstream audience, so the burden or obligation to serve it belongs to the producers and distributors creating the menu of selections, not the other way around. Demanding that the Latino audience buy/support whatever is put in front of it is a formula built to fail and lends itself for the biggest con perpetuated on the Latino filmmaking community: "If Latinos don't want to see your films, then no one else does, so we're not making them!"

Hence, the thread of the American Latino story is then unraveled from the American fabric. And the studios, these powerful behemoths that control the message and the images fed to global audiences, then get to define the parameters of what is an American Latino story and while they are at it, what is the meaning and value of being a Latino in the U.S.

Now we have Argo. Ben Affleck shines as an actor and as a director in his latest film. The script is superb, and the cast is impeccable. It would be difficult to ask for a more entertaining, complex, and thrilling film than Argo. Thus, I tip my proverbial hat to Ben Affleck and salute him and George Clooney for producing a masterful film.

Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who concocted a plot to rescue six Americans from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. Tony went on to write a book about his experiences after Bill Clinton declassified the secret mission. In fact, Tony was awarded the Intelligence Star, one of the highest honors that the CIA bestows upon its agents for acts of extraordinary heroism.

Tony Mendez is an American Latino. In Argo, there is nothing intrinsically "Latino" or ethnically charged about his character. He's simply an American operative (of Latino descent) infiltrating Iran as part of a highly dangerous mission.

So, I commend Ben Affleck for what is a magnificent performance. And while I applaud his film, I cannot help but be reminded of the first question that I posed to Ron Meyer, a few months ago. Let's face it, Ben Affleck can rightfully play this role without eliciting much protestation from the Latino filmmaking community simply because of the lack of an A-list Latino actor, who is studio approved to carry this type of high-concept, big budgeted film, even when the protagonist is, in fact, an American Latino.

As long as Ron Meyer and the heads of the other studios proclaim that they have no answers while they passively, if not actively, continue to narrow opportunities for Latino talent to shine in leading roles and as top-level filmmakers, the Hollywood machinery will continue to be well-oiled by the Latino audience supporting it at the box office without any proportional representation on the screen.

In the meantime, go see Argo. It is a fantastic film that never disappoints.