AFI FEST Interview: Dr. Stacy Smith on the Erasure of Latinx in Film – American Film Institute

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AFI FEST Interview: Dr. Stacy Smith on the Erasure of Latinx in Film

The AFI Summit with Eva Longoria And Dr. Stacy Smith on the Erasure of Latinx in Film will take place at AFI FEST on Friday, November 15 at the Hollywood Roosevelt.

It’s no secret that Latinos are overwhelmingly underrepresented both in front of and behind the scenes in Hollywood. However, this summer Dr. Stacy Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative highlighted the extent of the erasure in a report that examined 1,200 top movies from 2007 to 2018, as well as the presence of Latinos working behind the camera as directors, producers, and casting directors.

The research showed that Latinos made up only 4.5% of all 47,268 speaking or named characters in the last 12 years and only 3% were lead or co-lead actors. The lack of Latinos is staggering, especially given that 77% of U.S. states and territories currently have a population of Latinos greater than the percentage seen in Hollywood films, and it’s estimated that by 2045, one in four Americans will be Hispanic.

As part of AFI FEST’s Summit on the erasure of the Latinx community in film, Smith will sit down with producer, director, actress and activist Eva Longoria, who has been on the front lines in this fight. Ahead of their conversation, AFI spoke with Smith about the current lack of representation of Latinos in Hollywood and what practical steps that Hollywood studios, film nonprofits and philanthropists can take to course correct.

AFI: Why do you think the Latinx community in particular is so incredibly underrepresented?

SS: In terms of representation, we have to look at who are the executives and who are the content creators. In the report we found that only 4% of directors are from the Latinx community. And many of those directors, by the way, are from outside the United States.

We have a very small group of people who routinely get access and opportunity. Therein lies one of the biggest impediments to seeing Latinx stories on the large and small screen. Latinos are not getting the opportunities, “the ask-backs,” to tell authentic, nuanced and inclusive stories. Disney’s COCO is a good example of an international box office success that features Latinx characters, but we just need a lot more of those kinds of stories.

AFI: Are there any movies or TV programs that you would hold up for their nuanced portrayals of Latinx characters onscreen?

SS: Rather than focusing on a few examples, the system needs a complete overhaul because the numbers are so way off in terms of proportional representation. Our report found that only 3% of leads and co-leads across 1200 films are Latinx. That’s pretty staggering when you think of the proportion of the population that identifies as Hispanic/Latino. They make up 39% of California’s population and 49% of Los Angeles’ population. The industry has a lot of work to do in terms of hiring practices and who gets access and opportunities.

AFI: What are some practical steps the industry can take to combat this trend and foster more Latinx storytelling?

SS: One is that talent agencies need to be signing and promoting talent from the Latinx community. Their rosters at the beginning should match proportional representation. We had an interesting statistic in the report — 77% of U.S. states and territories have a higher percentage of Hispanic Latinos than Hollywood films. The talent is there. They’re simply not being signed and, if signed, they need to be promoted just like their peers who are being sent out.

Secondly, casting directors, who are largely white women, need to be accountable to who they audition and who is being cast in these films whether it’s in terms of end-of-year accolades, promotions or bonuses. Most of the films we examine have on average 40 characters and only eight to 10 are relevant to the story, which means that, per film, there are roughly 30 roles that could be the place where people really build their CVs.  Saying that there’s not talent available is really just an outdated excuse that makes no sense. They need to cast a wider net for their network and build a roster because these are the roles that then become the really powerful secondary and protagonist roles that can birth a whole generation of new talent. The Latinx community is undergoing so much politically in terms of the horrors from this summer with the shooting in El Paso, so to have folks sit back and not think critically about their own agency in hiring and in storytelling is really unthinkable.

Film festivals and nonprofits need to think specifically about Latinx underrepresentation. We put in the report the number of individuals that identify as Latinos who submit to the Sundance Film Festival — both U.S. and international content creators. There is a very healthy pipeline there. Philanthropists and funding could really create an entire program at Sundance to ensure that those submissions turn into compelling stories and then are given the ability to see the light of day by being brought to the festival.

Content creators aren’t only birthed when it comes to telling stories in film or TV. They’re also in the commercial world. What are these companies that have a global presence doing to hire directors from the Latino community for their digital or commercial content? That becomes another place where these companies need to think critically not only about who’s behind the camera, but how do those content creators connect with consumers who want to see themselves reflected in all forms of storytelling.

Lastly, we need tax incentives for productions with Latinos working above and below the lines and arts programs that foster a curriculum with a focus on Latinx storytelling because there’s a whole history that’s been erased from Hollywood. The report, which is a call to action, is extraordinarily practical in the steps that different individuals, communities and businesses can take to really change this in the next three to five years. I’m also really proud of Eva Longoria, America Ferrera, Monica Ramirez and so many of the women who are working to change what can be done to eradicate the numbers that we see in this report.

AFI: Can you talk about the role television showrunners play in increasing representation both in front of and behind the scenes?

SS: In addition to Tanya Saracho, the showrunner of VIDA who has assembled an all all-Latinx writing staff, you have Gloria Calderón Kellett of ONE DAY AT A TIME. These content creators are crucial, and we should be doing everything we can to support them because there are so many out there with compelling stories and, yet, access and barriers to entry and career sustainability keep shutting people out. My hope is that this report and the activism around it by members within the Latino community, along with allies, can start to move in a direction of inclusion and access faster than we’ve seen in the past.

AFI: This year 51% of AFI FEST’s programming lineup is directed by women. How do you feel about that statistic and what other ways can festivals specifically turn the tide to ensure that we are part of the solution in promoting diverse representation?

SS: I think that AFI’s a great example since the opening night film is QUEEN & SLIM. It’s really about highlighting the stories of content creators from a variety of communities to illuminate to Hollywood what they’ve been missing for so long.

Festivals and nonprofits can ensure that people have access to the resources that they need to tell stories, which means lining up corporations to ensure that they’re in lockstep, along with philanthropists, to offset the cost of storytelling because access to capital shouldn’t be just for an elite slice of humanity. We should be able to find ways to underwrite the cost for storytellers who want to be involved. We need to encourage people to embrace this if it’s their passion, so they can be met with the access to funds to explore, try, succeed, fail and do what they need to do to get the experience to really cultivate and hone their craft.

The biggest challenge is to make sure the money flows to everyone, not just a fraction of the population, so kudos to AFI. I know AFI’s been focusing on this issue for a while now, and it shows. And it’s lining up, along with local, state and federal dollars, to ensure that this diverse and crucial aspect of our population have access to funds and can tell the stories that they feel so compelled to tell.

Tickets to the conversation are available here.

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