AFI Fest Discusses "Erasure" Of Latinx Community In Film
Dr. Stacy Smith, founder of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (l) and actor/producer/director Eva Longoria (photo by Rodin Eckenroth/courtesy of AFI)
Eva Longoria, Dr. Stacy Smith touch upon the importance of inclusion, mentorship, sponsorship
  • HOLLYWOOD, Calif.
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In the past dozen years, one out of some 1,200 studio films was directed by a Latina, according to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Slated to double that tally is actress/producer/director Eva Longoria who is set to helm 24/7 for Universal and Flaming Hot for Fox Searchlight.

Longoria was a featured speaker during an AFI Summit session--part of the ongoing AFI Fest proceedings--at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel last week. She was interviewed by Dr. Stacy Smith, founder of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Longoria and Smith discussed what USC Annenberg described as the “erasure”--not just the underrepresentation--of Latinx talent in film both behind and in front of the camera.

Smith shared, for example, that USC Annenberg research has found that 77 percent of states and territories in the U.S. have a higher percentage of Hispanics and Latinos than we have seen in films. 

While the scarcity of opportunities afforded to Latin and Hispanic talent is alarming, there are steps that can be taken to help address the issue. One is not only the importance of finding mentorship but also sponsorship, observed Longoria. The latter helped Longoria land the 24/7 directing gig, a film in which she and Kerry Washington star. While leading the search for a director as 24/7 producers, Longoria and Washington couldn’t find quite the right fit. Washington kept prodding Longoria to direct herself but she initially resisted before coming around. She, after all, had directorial credits including the TV series Devious Minds, Jane the Virgin, black-ish and Grand Hotel. Still, she had to sell herself hard to the studio. But what put her over the top was the “sponsorship” afforded her by Washington, who was at the meeting pitching for Longoria to direct 24/7.

Washington, recalled Longoria, became a powerful advocate. Washington told Universal execs that she’s been directed by the likes of Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and Quentin Tarantino and that based on her experience, Longoria was the right director for 24/7. This sponsorship and sense of sisterhood, said Longoria, can be instrumental in helping to open doors for the Latinx community.

Similarly Smith and Longoria enjoy a sisterhood as the two have come together to raise awareness through research in an effort to gain more representation for Latinx in the entertainment industry. Furthermore Longoria via her UnbeliEVAble Entertainment has generated employment opportunities. UnbeliEVAble has produced such television series as Telenovela, Grand Hotel and Devious Maids, and is embarking on Where I Come From, a TV show based on Aaron Sanchez’s book, “Where I Came From: Life Lessons of a Latino Chef.” In the book, chef Sanchez shares the story behind his food, family and professional journey to prominence.

Relative to the alluded to importance of mentorship, Longoria said she got her activist streak in part from Delores Huerta, the revered farm labor organizer and champion of civil rights. As an actor starting out who had moved to L.A., Longoria met Huerta who gave her a piece of lasting advice. Longoria recalled that upon learning that she was an aspiring actress, Huerta told her, “One day you’re going to have a voice so you better have something to say.”

Reflections on society
Still, the road to access and opportunity is laden with obstacles for the Latinx community. While Longoria had a hard time getting the 24/7 directorial gig as an accomplished professional, imagine, she said, how much more difficult it is for an unproven yet capable talent.

Grass-roots efforts are needed to help open more doors. Also helpful would be greater support from Latino and Hispanic viewers for TV and films centered on stories about their culture and/or featuring ethnic talent. She noted that such shows as One Day At A Time on Netflix got canceled for lack of audience. “Latinos don’t show up” at times, she observed, noting that they could learn a lesson for the African-American community who “shows up in a really big way” in support of programs and films with African-American talent and themes.

Longoria affirmed that it’s important for youngsters to see their ethnicity and culture reflected in entertainment. By seeing those like them, they can see themselves, only serving to build self-esteem as they look to attain their goals. Entertainment is also a precursor for social change, noted Longoria, citing for example the success of the Will & Grace and Ellen sitcoms which preceded the successful push for marriage equality. She even noted that the familiarity of Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy helped to change perceptions and create access for Cuban refugees in the U.S.

Instead, even when there are roles for Latinos and Hispanics in film and TV, they are frequently not positive. Of the three or so percent of lead roles that Hispanic and Latino actors have garnered in film, how many of them are for cartel leaders or criminals? Positive characters, more reflective of reality, are needed. 

Longoria stressed that the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s word choice of “erasure” rather than underrepresentation looms large. She said simply you are “erasing a culture when they are not in media.”

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