When will Latinos get our Black Panther?

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There’s nothing like a fit of jealousy and frustration to get me motivated in a positive way.  The recent uproar of the Latino community calling out Hollywood about the lack of Latino representation, juxtaposed with the Black community’s successful mobilization towards increasing their representation  – which is undoubtedly fueling Black Panther’s record-shattering box office this weekend – has jolted me into posting a new edition of Films to Watch Out For Made by Latinos. But first, I want to dig into this question of what can we in the Latino community do if we ever want to SEE A SUPERHERO LIKE US.

nhmcI started this blog over ten years ago to raise awareness for American Latino storytellers,   I was angry and confused as to why there was a staggering lack of authentic Latino representation in mainstream films yet I was discovering a number of Latino writers and directors in the independent film festival space.  Not as many as I thought I would find, truth be told, but definitely a steady number of filmmakers whose storytelling sensibilities reflected a culture I related to. I wanted to use this blog to yell “Yo, there are hella talented Latino writers and directors out here”. As if identifying them would be all it would take to make that change.

27021617_1688915677842179_4209939431460812473_o(1)It was around that time I kept hearing that ridiculous claim from studio execs and agents that while they would love to champion more Latino talent, they just don’t know of of any.  This statement persists today and is qualified with…’who are good enough’, or my favorite; ‘high profile enough’ (Insert fit of frustrated fury and bittersweet irony for that last part).

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 8.14.00 PMNewsflash: it takes years and lots of money to develop a creator and build the credits necessary before major studio executives come calling and that Oscar stage beckon.  Which is why, at the risk of sounding like I’m disparaging the National Hispanic Media Coalition’s valuable advocacy, I don’t think that their picketing the Oscars to attack studio heads over Latino exclusion is a fair argument or the most productive use of resources.

Beatriz-at-Dinner-2017-movie-posterIt’s not like there is a consistently eligible pool of Latino writers/directors who the Academy has been overlooking all these years.  Don’t get me wrong, its a damn shame that Miguel Arteta who directed Beatriz at Dinner was technically eligible for a Best Director nomination this year but did not get the campaign needed to make it happen.  Or what about Lemon, written and directed by Afro-Latina Janicza Bravo?  It’s true “For Your Consideration” campaigns are wildly expensive for indie distributors to take on. But we have to ask, what other American Latino writers and directors were even eligible for an Oscar nomination?

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Lalo Alcaraz, before he was hired on Coco

Representing the Latino diaspora in the Oscars this year is Pixar’s animated feature Coco.  But seriously, don’t play yourself people. Disney’s long-time-coming co-opt of Dia de los Muertos strategically and conveniently leveraged the co-directed and co-written credit of American Latino Adrian Molina ONLY when talking to Latino outlets and to legitimize its Mexican authenticity. Because oh wait a minute, Molina’s name is visibly missing from the official nominee announcement.  All I have to say is they better bring his ass up on stage and let him get some words in if they end up winning.  And honestly I hope they do. I genuinely love this movie and like many Latinos, IDENTIFIED.

 

 

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 10.54.49 PMLets take a page from the Black community and create our own machine, and do less of that old guard-led raging against The Machine.  While there are a number of film organizations aimed at supporting Latino writers and directors to help develop their voices, its critical to support mid-career storytellers so they may continue to master their craft and realize their #brownexcellence.  We also need to shift a lot more support towards raising savvy producers.  After all the producer is the most critical role for a writer/director to be able to execute their vision.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 1.39.42 PMThe biggest challenge is how to infiltrate the overwhelmingly white agency and studio system. Real change will come when there are Latinos in decision-making executive roles because then we’ll have someone on the inside naturally considering, relating, and understanding the value of bringing in more Latino creators to pitch original ideas.

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Rictor, a Marvel character created in 1987 (X-Factor) Mexican-American from S.F.  Character made a cameo in Logan. More here.

As we know there is a systemic tendency inside Hollywood to reboot proven franchises and IP. So we need to make sure Latinos get the shot to put their spin on them.  Just see the African-American community with Tendo Nagenda at Disney backing Ryan Coogler with Black Panther.  By the way, I’m not saying that opportunities should be contingent on creators asked to tell some version of the ethnicity they represent. They should be included and have the opportunity to tell and pitch whatever story they can tell the shit out of.  Besides Paul Perez who came to Warner Bros from Pantelion, I don’t know of any Latino executive at a major film studio.  If I’m wrong please point it out to me.

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Super Villain El Diablo played by Jay Hernandez in Suicide Squad

Regarding Latino talent on screen, I concede that hiring practices in major motion pictures are more affected by who is on screen rather than the talent of the storyteller. Still, it doesn’t diminish the overall long play in-success strategy of focusing behind the camera to position Latino writers/directors/producers. Because as the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study discovered, the outcome of hiring more underrepresented directors will organically translate into more opportunities for underrepresented casting choices.

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Powerhouse Producer Stephanie Allain with Mel Jones producer/director

Lastly, supporting Latino culture writers and film critics is vital like Vanessa Erazo of Remezcla has pointed out with her twitter thread, because again, those who have a connection or reference to a specific culture can more likely respond and champion the business value of supporting that voice.  This kind of holistic approach from within is more productive than pounding at the gates to demand from a system that does not include our community and one we have already called out as broken be that agent of change. Only then will we see our Barry Jenkins, Ava Duvernays and Ryan Cooglers flex their creative muscles at that next level to gain high profile recognition, and ultimately move the dial on reflecting what our representation actually looks like in this country.

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The truth is I’m getting chills watching the African American community’s cathartic joy in celebrating Black Panther’s unprecedented success.  They have shepherded their own industry leaders from multiple angles and in turn have made the impact necessary to create this unstoppable ripple effect which is only going to gain more speed with Ava Duvernay’s upcoming Wrinkle in Time. Will and Jada Smith have donated one million dollars to Sundance Institute which will yield more black creators in the indie to studio pipeline.  Charles King’s WME background and connection to high profile talent got him to convince investors to get Macro, responsible for producing Dee Rees’ Oscar nominated Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 1.29.25 PMfilm Mudbound, off the ground.  Then there is Oprah who has the influence and hiring autonomy to bring up a whole network of women and people of color creators. The undeniable and thrilling result of this ecosystem is that more young black kids are beginning to identify with mainstream media heroes!

 

When will Latinos, who per Forbes will be 30% of the country in 2060 experience that feeling and similar “Defining Moment” within my own community.  For hot second in the 80s, wide release films La Bamba and Stand & Deliver gave our community that sense of validation through representation. Its going to take a lot more work though to pump up the volume so that more than one American Latino writer/director gets the chance to be considered to make a blockbuster and or make a film eligible and backed with the money to cinch a nomination for an Academy Award.  As terrible in reflecting the diverse American reality as those traditional institutions are, they are still key influences in defining mass culture and inspiring the next generation of artists who might suddenly see the viability in pursuing their storytelling art if they see people like them.

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Aurora Guerrero, filmmaker who has recently directed Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay’s  television series on Oprah’s cable channel.

In case you are like ‘but wait there’s been many Latinos who have been nominated or have won Academy Awards’.  Don’t get it twisted. Keep in mind when I use the word Latino, I make that unpopular distinction between those folks born or raised here who have Latin American and or Caribbean roots and those born and raised outside of the U.S..  That’s not to diminish the amazing work of Mexicans like Alejandro Gonzalez Iñnaritu and Guillermo del Toro, or Chilean filmmakers like Pablo Larrain with their recent English language films, but 1. They ain’t Latino because 2. there’s a disparity of class and resources between aspiring filmmakers born here and those born outside of the states, and unlike their international counterparts Latinos have been profiled and marginalized as ‘people of color’, a U.S. context that comes with very distinct barriers that keep them from global recognition.

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Eddie Olmos

Here is a reality check: The only Latinos nominated in the headliner writing/directing/producing categories has been Gregory Nava in the Best Original Screenplay category for El Norte in 1983 and Lourdes Portillo in the Best Documentary category for The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in 1985.  In the Best Animated Feature, Jonas Rivera won in 2015 for Pixar’s Inside Out which he shared with Pete Doctor.

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Jonas Rivera

We damn right will claim the Weitz brothers’ nomination for Best Adapted screenplay for About a Boy in 2002. Their grandma Lupita Tovar was a Mexican actor who starred in the first ever Mexican ‘talkie’ Santa.

In the Best Actor/Actress categories the first ever Latino was Jose Ferrer nominated in 1949 who won in 1952.  Since then its only EVER been OG Chicano Eduard James Olmos in 1982 who was nominated for Stand and Deliver. That was twenty six years ago!

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Benicio Del Toro

In supporting roles, nominees include Benicio del Toro –  two time nominee who won for Traffic, Rita Moreno who won for West Side Story, Anthony Quinn, four time nominated, two time winner, Mercedes Ruehl who won for Fisher King, Rosie Perez and Susan Kohner.  That’s it folks. More than a minute ago and over the course of 90 years of Oscars. WTF.

machete-kills-castOutside of the Oscar world but definitely more of a pop culture mainstream influence our highest profile Latino writer/director/producers is Robert Rodriguez whose success in capturing a wide audience is due in large part because he likes playing in the genres big studio films generally traffic in.  Machete (2010) is a film that cost under $20 million dollars to make.  And its box office made double that (unfortunately the sequel did not do nearly as well).  Whether its the characters in Frank Darabont’s Sin City, the beloved Mariachi character, Machete or Spy Kids, Rodriguez has always tapped into his own type of super heroes and world building.  Yet this guy hasn’t made a film over $40 million – which is considered low-mid studio movie).  If he hasn’t proved it time and time again, he can do a lot with a little, so just imagine what mind-blowing next level cinema he can do with a $100+ million dollar film.  And at the very top is Roberto Orci.  A writer and producer of the most expensive television and tentpole projects in Hollywood.  That’s it right?   1.  that’s two people 2. dudes 3. who can create (write/direct/produce) at the highest scale of this  business.

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ALL THE WAY UP!

Needless to say all of this galvanizes me. We need more Latino CREATORS. I feel the pressure to reach out to my community and do more.  I’ll post more frequently about American Latino storytellers. I’m also doing what I can to bring in and develop more Latino voices in my current role as Creative Executive at Warner Bros Digital Network’s Stage 13.

And don’t forget to check out my latest post 7 feature-length fiction films currently in post that I’m excited for the world to see because they are wildly defiant, visionary, and unique perspectives created by Latinos.

COMING SOON: 10 EXCITING INDIE FILMS BY AMERICAN LATINOS

No better time than Oscar week to post my annual list of new films made by Latinos. I hope reading about these cool flicks inspires you to seek and consume the stories you value outside the super exclusive corporate media. Before we get to the list, my 3.63 pesos on the #HollywoodSoWhite convo.

I appreciated Dennis Romero’s recent LA Weekly article called “Hollywood’s Diversity Emergency is not Black” in which he gives big ups to the Black community for doing the ‘heavy lifting’ in making the diversity conversation trend. Romero essentially calls on the Asian and Latino community to take part in the dialogue because we stand the most to gain in moving the dial considering the wider gap that exists between Asian and Latinos’ population and their respective media representation compared to African Americans’ numbers.

Using the framework of proportion, USC’s Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity reveals that across the 309 episodes and 109 films they covered, 15% were directed by women (50% population), and 13% were directed by underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (38% non-white).

It makes sense that the percentage of on screen underrepresented characters increases (17.5%) when an underrepresented director is at the helm of a scripted episode or film.
I’m not sure what to make then of a recent phenomenon I have seen within the Latino community; an overwhelming desire/shift to tell stories UNRELATED to their Latino identity. Don’t get it twisted,  I respect the artist’s prerogative and agree that just because you are from a certain ethnicity, you shouldn’t feel obligated to tell that ‘ethnic film’. But if the rationale is that in order to tell a universal story you can’t be ethnic specific, I totally take issue with that, and would argue on the contrary, we just haven’t done it enough to prove it’s not true.  Along these puzzling but no less real lines, I was startled to read in the report, “As (female) power increases, female presence decreases. In film, television, and streaming executive ranks, 46.7% of Senior Vice President-level executives are female.”  What’s up ladies?

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Part of me gets it though, both artist and gatekeeper is faced with the obligation, pressure and responsibility to succeed in a business of mediated platforms.  Unfortunately that usually means don’t stick your neck out, less risk.  But what if we made it our goal to seize and create as many chances to allow ourselves to FAIL, at least as much as the rest get to, because that is how we get to the next level.

Okay enough rant!  Here is my curated list of brand spanking new feature length fiction films written and directed by filmmakers in the US of A who have Mexican/Caribbean/Central/South American roots. Many of these films are in post-production but might be making their world premiere at a film festival or VOD later this year.  As you can tell, some filmmakers clearly chose to tell a story from a specific Latino character/experience, while others drew from their culture in a more abstract, no less personal route.  One thing is for sure though, each of these artists have been hustling their craft for years outside the studio system which is why you can see a distinct genre and aesthetic in their work.  Make sure to check out the links to their previous work.  It is one thing to say there we be underrepresented and quite another thing to be overlooked.

BETWEEN US written and directed by Rafael Palacio Illingworth

From Caviar Content, a multi media company that financed last year’s Diary of a Teenage Girl by Marielle Heller, comes this intense romance drama made by Mexico/Colombia raised AFI grad Rafael Palacio Illingworth.  The film features two incredibly talented actors Olivia Thirlby (Juno) and Ben Feldman (Ginsberg in Mad Men!) as a couple navigating a tempestuous “post-honeymoon phase” while trying to hang on to the chemistry that first made them gravitate towards each other. Rafael starred in his own first film MACHO ( see here,) which like The Force, also tracked a relationship through the initial meet-cute high.  Macho landed with IFC after premiering at the Raindance Film Festival in London in 2010. The film just announced its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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antibirthANTIBIRTH written and directed by Danny Perez

Danny is two for two, his first and second films have premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Raised in Virginia in a Cuban Catholic family, Danny cut his visual teeth while collaborating with avant garde music group, Animal Collective for years.  His first film, Oddsac is in many ways a sensory album for the band. It screened in Sundance’s experimental New Frontier section in 2010. Taking his skills for phantasmagoric imagery and folding hyperreal narrative and social commentary Perez shot the wasteland USA set Antibirth which stars none other than the coolest indie queens, Natasha Lyonne and Chle Sevigny.  The film got rave reviews, having premiered in the much talked about Midnight section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  A film that’s been called “a debauched progeny of Cronenberg’s classic, The Brood, it has without a doubt the wildest, most bat-shit crazy ending I have ever seen. Must-watch. Stay tuned to hear where it lands more fests and distribution.

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HEARTS OF PALM written and directed by  Monica Peña

Following her first feature, the experimental street docu-fiction film, Ectotherms, which drew comparisons to Harmony Korine’s work, Monica Peña is back with her second feature, Hearts of Palm. The fable like film follows a romance en route to decay between two sentient beings. Peña brings to life her distinct vision with her previous collaborators Brad Lovett aka Dim Past who stars and is behind the sonic pulse of the film, and Jorge Rubiera, cinematographer who beams an otherworldly yet unmistakable Miami vibe. The Cuban American filmmaker is a Sundance Institute/Knight Fellow.   Watch Ectotherms here.  Hearts of Palm is world premiering at the upcoming Miami International Film Festival.

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Lupe21LUPE UNDER THE SUN written and directed by Rodrigo Reyes

Since the debut of his 2012 highly acclaimed and visual border documentary, Purgatorio, Rodrigo Reyes has been developing a number of projects, including this evocative tale called Lupe Under the Sun. Originally planned to be a documentary set in Merced, his hometown, Northern California, Reyes let the story evolve into a hybrid  film about an old Mexican man who has spent his entire life working in the California fields.  When he attempts to get back in touch with the family and life he left behind, he finds out that his absence did not stop them from moving on.  Shot by Justin Chin, his D.P. on Purgatorio, the film casts a neorealist, tinge of black humor aided by the real world surroundings of the agricultural desert suburb.  Lupe Under the Sun was selected to participate in IFP Narrative Lab last year and is expected to finish the film in 2016.

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MARIGOLD THE MATADOR, written and directed by Kenneth Castillo

The prolific independent LA born and raised Chicano filmmaker, Kenny Castillo is currently finishing his 7th feature.  Known for his popular short form series, The Misadventures of Cholo Chaplin which he is currently developing into animation, Castillo has since successfully specialized in urban films led by multi dimensional characters. Marigold the Matador focuses on a single mother from the perspective of an 11 year old girl who deals with her feelings of loneliness and isolation by imagining herself as a Matador in the world of the Day of the Dead. Most of the story  was shot unscripted and the result is a very authentic and emotionally engaging film.  He is currently raising funds to finish the film. The true blue indie filmmaker entrepreneur he is, you can head over to his website and buy a cool Cholo Chaplin shirt, check out his complete body of work, and donate to his film.

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FUGUE written and directed by Jorge Torres-Torres

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I know, not FUGUE, but no film still avail yet
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Artist known as Torres

I only recently discovered the work of this enigmatic filmmaker who’s been lurking along the coolest fringes of art genre.  Among his previous films, 2014’s moody verite, Shadow Zombie won a prize for best “documentary-sh” film at the renowned Chicago Underground Film Festival. Sisters of the Plague starring Josephine Deckker screened at last year’s  New Orleans Film Festival and Outfest.  Back in 2011 Jorge was the cinematographer on Jonathan Caouette’s Cannes documentary, Walk Away Renee.   Yes , he also directs music videos, including this neat Modest Mouse Strangers to Ourselves track.  The Puerto Rican born filmmaker has also produced and shot a number of random videos you can find on his Tumblr.  Upcoming films include a documentary about the Slacker esque Athens, Georgia music scene called A Peculiar Noise, premiering at this year’s Atlanta Film Festival, and Fugue, which follows a woman (Sophie Traub) who wanders around an island lost and out of place.  Having binged on his work recently I can safely say that he casts spells of mad intrigue and strange  dream-state feels.  Definitely an indie auteur you should know.

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greenghostposter_twitchTHE GREEN GHOST directed by Michael Olmos 

Michael Olmos goes family superhero action film in The Green Ghost, his 4th feature film.  It is not surprising that Olmos is collaborating with Marco Zaror; back in 2006 Marko made noise in the Chilean street action thriller, Kiltro which premiered at LALIFF, the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival headed by Michael’s father, Eddie Olmos.  Michael’s underrated first film, Splinter in 2006 was shot on the streets of LA and displayed his stylish and gritty directing chops. Olmos went on to co-direct and produce the 2012 Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Competition film  Filly Brown which catapulted Gina Rodriguez pre-Jane the Virgin.  Zaror has many fans around the world having carved out for himself a string of martial arts action flicks, many of which have played Fantastic Fest where incidentally he and Michael sneaked some footage of the Green Ghost last year.  The film is about a man having to overcome his insecurities to transform into a superhero and defeat the dangerous bruja Lechusa who plans to bring back the wrath of Moctezuma.   Currently in post.

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DADDY’S BOY written and directed by Daniel Armando

Daniel’s first feature What it Was made the Latino/LGBT film festival run.  The story about an actor coming to terms with a recent family loss and her marriage breakup returns to her home in Brooklyn where she runs into an old college girlfriend. The film has raw verite scenes interlaced with poetic close up cinematic imagery.  He has not one but two films premiering at this year’s Cinequest Film Festival next month.  He directed a film called When I’m With You, and wrote and directed an erotic swoon and slow dance film, Daddy’s Boy which indulges in its queer cinema throwback and music interludes as it follows four young men behind the closed doors of a burlesque studio, shedding more than just their clothes and inhibitions.  Daniel has said that he likes films that wander throughout space.   He’s been quoted as saying, “A lot of my favorite films don’t feature characters like this, and I feel I have a responsibility as an artist of color to tell everyday stories from a perspective rarely seen.”

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DON’T KILL IT directed by Mike Mendez

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Dolph, demon hunter

From the director of Big Ass Spider which played at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, comes this supernatural action thriller, starring none other than 80s movies action icon, Dolph Lundgren.  Mike Mendez, born to Salvadorean and Mexican family parents, born and raised in LA has been busy.  After Big Ass Spider he did Lavalantula about giant lava spewing tarantulas. Last year he put together an anthology of scary shorts, Tales of Halloween directed by various filmmakers including Lucky McKee (2002’s May is one of my long time cult faves).  Mendez doesn’t show any signs of slowing his roll which is a good thing for his loyal fans.  His love for genre is evident in his filmmaking, and his action/horror genre is mixed with a  pure sense of humor.

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 FROZEN PEAS written and directed by Alonso Mayo

A real bi-cultural American who spent his formative years in between Lima, Peru and Lawrence, Kansas, Alonso Mayo first moved to LA to attend AFI where he made his thesis short film, Wednesday Afternoon.  In 2013, Gravitas Ventures picked up his first feature, The Story of Luke starring Lou Taylor Pucci, Seth Green, Cary Elwes and Kristin Bauer.  His sophomore effort, Frozen Peas is a funny and honest film about a husband and father to three kids finds himself in the throes of a masculinity panic attack when pressured by his wife to consider vasectomy.

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First Features Alert

To round up the list here are three special mentions of directorial debuts to watch coming soon; Bruising for Besos written and directed by Adelina Anthony, the queer chicana poet who wrote the story for one of my favorite short films, You’re Dead To Me.  A critically acclaimed and beloved solo artist performer, she stars herself in Brusing as Yoli, a smooth talker whose game is put to the test in pursuit of romance. Varsity Punks written and directed by Anthony Solorzano is a high school comedy following a tight knit rambunctious cross country team shot in El Monte starring Efren Ramirez as the coach.   H.O.M.E by Daniel Maldonado which is premiering a the Queens World Film Festival stars Jeremy Ray Valdez as a young man with Aspergers. See trailer for H.O.M.E. below.