AMPAS invites US Latinos to join ranks (as Actors not Writers/Directors/Producers)

Today’s announcement of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s whopping and unprecedented 276 invitations to join their exclusive film society ranks indicates a baby-step push to be more diverse following the public spanking they took by last year’s LA Times piece which revealed the membership was 94% white and mostly male and old (average 62).  Then there was the furious outcry from the Latino community over the omission of our beloved late actor Lupe Ontiveros in this year’s Oscar telecast RIP memoriam.  In an open letter to the Academy, the National Hispanic Media Coalition went so far to assert that Lupe applied and was denied membership, giving rise to further shock and anger that an actor with such a long-spanning career (who played the role of a maid some 150 times) was not given recognition (by a white establishment, mind you).

THE PROBLEM WITH CONTROLLING IMAGE CONTROL

La Lopez
La boricua J-Lo, outspokenly committed to American Latino stories

Lets be real here, by nature, any veritable member organism charged with promoting and recognizing excellence on the popular masses scale, is usually an unwieldy, slow, political agenda-ized machine that struggles to keep step with the changing culture of subcultures and  geo/social/cultural demographic shifts.  Often times it is a dated lens of the current climate.  Almost always, admission to such preeminent establishments is a rigid and puzzling bureaucratic, over-protective process which keeps many guards at the gate.   If the AMPAS is the establishment of the center of the industry, minority representation outfits like the National Hispanic Media Coalition and the NAACP are similarly erstwhile establishments of their historically marginalized People of Color domain. The hazard then, is that in their high profile position they become yet another filter towards clearing and edging forward the mainstream path. Their relevance and integrity requires a high level of proactive responsibility.  It’s much more productive to the cause (and challenging) to galvanize and mobilize on behalf of “unrecognized’ yet hugely talent artists, rather than to mobilize and forever celebrate someone already well established.

Mosquita_Y_Mari_Filmstill4_Fenessa_Pineda_Venecia_Troncoso_photobyMAgelaCrosignani
Mosquita y Mari (click on pic for link to watch)

Last week the nominees for the The Imagen Awards were announced, an awards gala known as the Latino Golden Globes, designed to recognize and reward positive portrayals of Latinos in all forms of media.  In the feature film section, there was a huge oversight in their unwillingness to nominate two US Latino written and directed films which captivated audiences at hundreds of festivals.  Both films couldn’t organically exemplify the positive image more, with their shining and refreshingly authentic depiction of an often times ghettoized world, not to mention accomplished use of the cinematic medium. Why weren’t they considered? Because the films were not officially submitted. I’m talking about  Mosquita Y Mari by Aurora Guerrero and Elliot Loves by Gary Terracino.  These two first feature films are transcendent coming of age stories that happen to speak directly to the Gay Latino community and offer insightful, multi-cultural and dimensional underrepresented narratives.

Elliot Loves
Elliot Loves (click on pic for links to watch)

The NAACP’s Image Awards follows similar protocol as does the IDA Awards, I later learned.  I find it frustratingly counterintuitive  that such entities acting as the preeminent Image authority on behalf of a minority group and whose aim is to cultivate a new culture, whether it is awareness for the extraordinary documentary, black or latino narrative, it is not a priority to do outreach and consider outstanding work that highlights their mission, regardless of whether they paid a submission fee.  The non-profit, under-staffed response is not acceptable.  Surely there are people in those communities who would assemble an adjunct committee to look out for these films on the organization’s behalf.  Film festivals do outreach to films made by people of color and even offer fee waivers because they understand their gatekeeper reputation and existence rests on being the first to discover new visions and perspectives.

Pena
Michael Pena, dare we say the next bankable Latino leading hollywood star?

Back to the list of Academy invites out.  There are seven US Latinos on the Actor list of 23.  Michael Pena (no doubt sponsored by his buddy and co-star of End of Watch, member Jake Gyllenhaal), Danny Trejo and Jennifer Lopez feel very du jour nominations.  Miriam Colon and Alma Martinez fall in the should have been nominated ages ago.  Both are amazingly still very much active today.  The Geno Silva nomination feels kind of random.  He was first seen in Zoot Suit in 81,then made a number of television appearances in the 80s and 90s., he was in Spielberg’s Amistad in 1997.   His last film credit listed is the Vin Diesel movie, A Man Apart in 2003.

What about content creators?  As far as I can tell zero from the branches of writers/directors/producers on this invitee list are US Latino.  Given the mostly secretive 6,000+ membership it is somewhat difficult to add context without knowing the complete list of US Latinos who are currently members, those who have been a member before and later resigned, or how many US Latino artists over the years have been invited.  The reason the AMPAS gives behind not wanting to publish the full list is fear of lobbying.  No kidding.  I would guess there would be more pressure on those minority members to crack open the door a tad more.  But I wonder if Rodrigo Garcia, Patricia Riggen, Patricia Cardoso, Robert Rodriguez or Gregory Nava to name a few of the few on indeed members?  (anybody know??)

Dawson
Rosario is Puerto Rican/Cuban on her mom’s side.  She plays icon Dolores Huerta in the upcoming Chavez pic

In the LA times article from last November, Academy leader Tom Sherak said they are eager for more applications from women and minorities, AND more involvement from those who are already members.  He was quoted, “If you are sitting waiting for us to find your name in our make-believe book and we are going to call you, we are not going to do that. Come to us, we’ll get you in. We want you in. That would help us a lot.”

So, if our own organizations run by people vested in our representation, aren’t actively seeking out, championing and pitching talent who have yet to be recognized in the mainstream, why would we expect the longstanding establishment to do so?

Martinez
Mexicana Alma Martinez will be next seen in FX’s The Bridge

Here’s the Actor list.

Miriam Colon – “City of Hope,” “Scarface”
Rosario Dawson – “Rent,” “Frank Miller’s Sin City”
Jennifer Lopez – “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” “Selena”
Alma Martinez – “Born in East L.A.,” “Under Fire”
Michael Peña – “End of Watch,” “Crash”
Geno Silva – “Mulholland Drive,” “Amistad”
Danny Trejo – “Machete,” “Heat”

Cinematographers:

Checco Varese – “Girl in Progress,” “The Aura”, and Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming summer tentpole release, Pacific Rim (Peruvian born married to Patricia Riggen)

Colon
Puerto Rican Miriam Colon, most recent credits, Bless Me Ultima, Girl in Progress

Members-at-Large:
Victoria Alonso is Marvel Studios’ Executive Vice President of Visual Effects

Music:

Cliff Martinez (Only God Forgives, Drive, Traffic, Solaris…).

I know that last names are not always a barometer of whether someone has Latino roots or not.  If you know of or can identify other Above the Line (w/d/p/actor) who are US Latino, give me a shout.

ADDENDUM, Per Hollywood Reporter, the National Latino Media Council applauds the Academy for the 22/276 Latinos nominated.  That’s  8% people.  And that measly 8% includes Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padhila, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain and a handful of other international artists mixed in with US Latinos.  Nada que ver.

Cesar Chavez – Todavia Se Puede!

E-card art by UFW supporters - click to see link

In honor of the social rights activist who would have been 85 today let’s take a look at not just one but both of the feature films about his life’s work in the pipeline.

One is a narrative being directed by Diego Luna and written by Keir Pearson (Hotel Rwanda), the other, a documentary by Richard Ray Perez, an established film and video documentarian which has been supported by Sundance Institute.  Both stand to give honor to the dogged labor rights organizer and activist in two distinct cinematic approaches.  The documentary which is called Cesar’s Last Fast is entering the last stages of editing and a rough cut is expected by mid-summer. While the narrative, only referred to as Chavez for now, has just begun shooting.

THE REAL (FOOTAGE) CESAR

Most  doc critics and enthusiasts would agree that a question worth asking when considering documentary cinema, is finding out the filmmaker’s connection to the subject/story.  That is, why is THIS given filmmaker the best person to tell THIS story. In Cesar’s Last Fast, its fascinating to hear.  Apparently it’s by inheritance that brought Rick Perez to the project.  A woman very close to Chavez collected years and years of documentation and upon her death willed that only one person could take on and carry the project to fruition and that was Rick Perez.  His venerable team includes Molly O’Brien, emmy award winning producer.  What’s the focus of the documentary?  As evident by the title, Cesar’s Last Fast, the documentary looks and is anchored by the specific 1988 act, the grueling 36 day fast Chavez undertook to protest pesticides, which exemplifies the man’s sheer strength and will.  The documentary looks to have a very spiritual and humanizing bent.  It includes very intimate, never before seen material from the family’s personal archive.  More importantly it ties a lot of the history of Union Farm Workers Union he founded in 1962, with what is going on today; asking what is the face of organizing today – critically placing a contemporary context to it.  No doubt the combination of these elements is what made this specific portrayal of Cesar Chavez so appealing to the Sundance Documentary Film Program which got involved early on with funding support.  Sundance typically supports contemporary social issues but perhaps recognizing the same issues loom just as pressing today, were drawn in by the relevance Rick Perez posits.  In addition to the money support, Sundance invited Rick to participate in the Sundance Producer’s Summit and a Works in Progress screening at the Hammer last year , a popular and overcrowded event which was accompanied by a panel with Edward James Olmos, Paul Chavez, Cesar’s son, along with current heads of the union.  And recently, the DFP had a lab down in Imperial Valley free to all, where they had another work in progress screening of Cesar’s Last Fast followed by a master class given by Rick about story structure.

CHAVEZ – BASED ON A TRUE STORY

Michael Pena as Chavez, Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta, America Ferrera as Chavez's wife, Helen and Diego Luna directing

Back in 2010, screenwriter Keir Pearson and producer Larry Meli optioned life rights to a Chavez biopic after working with the family for over a two year period in which they visited them, including Paul Chavez, and gained their trust.  Canana got involved by way of attaching Diego Luna to direct and adding Gael Garcia Bernal and Pablo Cruz as producing partners along with Larry Meli.  Also attached as producer is John Malkovich’s Mr. Mudd, and additional cast include popular Culture Clash founder, Richard Montoya. Diego Luna previously showed off his directing skills in Abel which premiered at Sundance 2010, a psychologically harrowing story about a kid who takes on the role of man in the house when his father isn’t around. His traveling documentary festival, Ambulante was recently awarded with WOLA’s Human Rights Award back in November.  Speaking for the Chavez film, over email Larry Meli was kind enough to email me back saying, “This is a terribly important story for all time and particularly in this moment in our history more so as we see manual workers being squeezed along with an entire middle class.  There were some successes and some failures but most important it shows that one person CAN make a difference.  For Mexican-American’s, it will be a great source of pride as Cesar stood up for the rights of others against the corporations and the system and won!!!”

I wasn’t able to find out what the screenplay’s take and focus is, whether it will be an epic period set retelling of Chavez’s personal lifestory, or if it will have a specific focus like the documentary, portraying his deeply personal struggles, and or pivotal marches and strikes as it relates to today. Considering Michael Peña has been cast as Chavez, and Rosario Dawson as his co-organizer, Dolores Huerta, I hope it means a considerable chunk will be about the early days, the beginning stages and HOW the literal first ever grassroots mobilization was accomplished, what later would go on to become the United Farm Worker’s Union.

SI SE PUDO?

Of the four library books I checked out on Chavez this week, Conquering Goliath by Fred Ross, which is all in Chavez’s words where he catches up with his buddy and mentor Fred Ross about the 6 year span in which he organized the Oxnard Community Service Organization, right before he moved to East LA to start the national movement,  was the most fascinating. For  one, the reader hears his inner doubts and insecurities (making him human and not on held up on a pedestal) and second how he learned to play ball with the growers, state and federal outfits, and interestingly how much it cost him to gain the trust of the workers.  All the strategizing he learned in these early days sets the stage for when he took on the bigger challenge of mobilizing a national union.  One is tempted to say, “The Rest is History”, but in this case, that history deserves to be analyzed and told and retold.

Arturo S. Rodriguez, current president of United Farm Workers and Chavez's son-in-law

I’m personally thrilled that we have two films in two totally different genres that will embody deal the life history of Chavez and his efforts to make Labor Law change. In addition to reflecting on the impact he has today, I hope clear historic nuts and bolts will be told that which we could refer to in order to comprehend government policies that stand in the way of tackling the issues Chavez took on including the dangers of exposing workers to pesticides, and crucially, immigration rights.  Chavez’s Si Se Puede (“Yes We Can”, hence, my post title, “We Still Can) is an inspirational chant used today.  But its in studying the sweaty losses  as much as his triumphs that we might fully understand the weight and responsibility that comes with that statement.  Many issues we face today about immigration reform harken back to the Bracero Program, the guest worker program in which Mexicans were imported to the US to work the lands, a people caught in between Chavez’s struggle to gain rights for ‘domestic workers’.  The more I read and begin to understand the political aspect, the program set the pattern and tone for the immigration rights battle we face today.  Although in 1964 Congress voted to end it, like an ugly ‘call it by another name’ phenomenon, it exists today. A factsheet from the Immigration Policy Center (pulled from this article) reports between 53% and 75% of the 2.5 million farm workers who work in the U.S. each year are undocumented. Collective bargaining does NOT help this population; the provisions of a union contract are only enforceable for documented workers.

It’s nice to render tribute through films and books the symbolic meaning of Chavez, but its our responsibility and the filmmakers tackling this story, to responsibly learn and apply the lessons learned from his life to truly honor his legacy.  And I trust both filmmaker teams will do just that.

Check out the Kickstarter trailer of Cesar’s Last Fast and the website here

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About Cesar Chavez Foundation