Hola Meltingpot Readers,
This weekend el esposo and I went to see the film Argo. In case you haven’t heard about it, Argo is the movie based on the true life rescue of six hostages held in Iran during the infamous 1979 Iran hostage crisis. The hero of the story, Tony Mendez, is the CIA operative who concocted a plan to sneak the hostages out of Iran by disguising them as a Canadian movie crew. It sounds outrageous, and it was, but desperate times called for desperate measures and with Iran and the United State on the brink of war, the times were truly desperate.
The film, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, is really good. El esposo and I were on the edge of our seats, stomachs clenched in worry, for the entire film. I love this type of real-life suspense movie and will probably even use it next semester for a case study when I teach my class, Ripped from the Headlines. And I hear the Oscar buzz is already buzzing for Argo. There’s only one part of the Argo Kool-Aid I am not sure I should drink and that is the casting of Affleck to play the role of Tony Mendez.
In real life, Mendez is a Latino. And there has been plenty of backlash from some in the Latino community regarding his portrayal by a White actor. I don’t need to rehash the entirety of said backlash, but the two main issues cited are the fact that Latino actors so rarely get the ‘good’ roles in major Hollywood films, it seems particularly cruel to take a real-life story with a Latino main character and let a White actor have the job. The second issue is even more insidious and I’ll tell you why. Far too often the only roles Latinos get to play in Hollywood are negative stereotypes; gang members, gardeners, maids, etc. In reality, the hero of the Iranian hostage rescue happened to be a Latino man, but in the movie, that hero is White. So here you have a huge opportunity to diversify public opinion about the Latino narrative in America and it is completely lost.
I get it. I see the problem here. But here’s the one hiccup I have with the critics. Latino is not a race. Latinos come in every color of the rainbow, including white, so the whitewash outcry may be a little off base. In real-life, Tony Mendez and Ben Affleck don’t look all that different. In fact, if one didn’t know Mendez was of Hispanic descent, it wouldn’t be obvious. He looks White enough. And apparently Mendez didn’t grow up with his Latino father and barely speaks Spanish. As an actor/director, I can’t exactly fault Affleck for thinking he could play this role authentically. It’s not like he changed Mendez’s name or major physical characteristics. And it’s not like Mendez has stated that he pulled his inspiration for the Argo project or his time in the CIA from his proud Latino heritage. So, did Affleck whitewash Mendez’s image or was his image already white to start?
Don’t get me wrong, meltingpot readers, I still see the problem as it was stated. I would guess that nine out of ten movie viewers who see Argo, or even hear about it, will not realize that the hero of the film is Latino. And I get that Benicio del Toro or Benjamin Bratt or Esai Morales could have played this role and that message would have been crystal clear. But identity politics are complicated and this isn’t a clear issue of Black and White or even brown. So who is right? Is Affleck casting himself another Hollywood whitewash? Did he have an obligation to cast a Latino actor? Does anybody know if Tony Mendez is upset over Affleck’s portrayal?
What do you think, dear readers? I’d really like to hear your opinion.