When "Birdman" was named best picture at the Oscars on Sunday, it was a proud moment for Latinos. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu dedicated his win to his home country, Mexico, and said he hoped Mexicans living in the U.S. would soon "be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones that came before and built this incredible, immigrant nation.''
But the way Latinos are portrayed in film -- specifically another Oscar-nominated one -- has been a hot topic in the weeks leading up to the award show. "Boyhood," which was widely seen as "Birdman's" major competition in the Oscar race, has come under fire for the way in which it depicted the story of a young Latino.
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In Richard Linklater's film, a white educator (Patricia Arquette) tells her Latino yard worker (Roland Ruiz) that he should quit doing manual labor and go back to school. Years later, the pair cross paths again and Ruiz's character goes out of his way to re-introduce himself and thank Arquette's character for the advice. (As it turns out, her words of encouragement inspired him to go to college.)
Ruiz is the only Latino with a speaking role in "Boyhood" -- a point of contention for many critics, who pointed out that Arquette's character lives in Texas, a state with a 40% Latino population. But the character's story line, pundits argue, also perpetuates a dangerous stereotype -- that of the white savior.
"Arquette joined the ranks of Deborah Kerr as Anna in 'The King and I,' and of Michelle Pfeiffer in 'Dangerous Minds,' as the benevolent white woman who saves an uneducated, ditchdigger from his own filth by dint of an offhand comment, thereby inspiring the native to better himself," said the Guardian's Steven W. Thrasher.
Not only do non-whites barely exist in the world of "Boyhood," Thrasher notes, but when they do, they're only there to serve as "foils" for white characters.
OK, but what about "Birdman"? That's a film without many Latinos, either. True, says Salon's Grisel Y. Acosta. But there were many Latino extras and people of different ethnicities who turned up in a scene set in Times Square.
"Imagine what those scenes would have looked like if everyone in Times Square were white — maybe an episode of 'Friends' or 'Seinfeld' or a Woody Allen movie," she said. "Ultimately, 'Birdman' is a film that is about white people and culturally sensitive to the landscape it was shot in."
Latinos are far from well-represented in Hollywood. Less than 5% of roles in the 100 top-grossing films of 2013 went to Latinos, according to a USC study. And yet, per a Nielsen Co. study, they accounted for 25% of all US film tickets sold in 2012.
So why didn't we see any on the Texan streets of "Boyhood?" Over at Latino Rebels, Puerto Rican novelist Jonathan Marcantoni says he doesn't fault Linklater so much for the lack of diverse background players, but rather for his stereotypical depiction of the one Latino he did cast.
"I cannot excuse the depiction of [Ruiz's character], which was a conscious choice to hire a Latino actor and to write the role for a Latino," Marcantoni writes. "The choice reeks of Big Hollywood Tokenism, where the producers feel the need to add a single person of color to avoid racial backlash. ...The fact that Linklater most likely did not intend for Enrique to be a racist stereotype only underscores how imbedded these attitudes are."