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When Casting for Diversity, Is a Little Bit Better Than Nada?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hollywood producers are adding a touch of ethnic diversity to prime-time television by folding Latino actors and story lines into top-rated programs, though some of the roles have left minority activists wondering whether they might have been better off in a world of whitewashed entertainment.

Having already protested the depiction of Latinos in a recent “Law & Order,” activists are bracing for this week’s “ER"--which focuses on a group of illegal immigrants--and an upcoming “The X-Files,” whose characters include a pair of “roughnecks from Mexico.”

For the record:
12:00 AM, Feb. 03, 2001 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 3, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
“ER’s” diversity--A story in Wednesday’s Calendar about racial diversity in prime-time television incorrectly stated that the character of Peter Benton (played by Eriq La Salle) is the only black doctor on NBC’s “ER.” The show also features the character of Dr. Cleo Finch (played by Michael Michele).

On Thursday, NBC kicks off the February rating sweeps with an “ER” episode titled “Surrender.” The show’s trademark medical action scenes begin when ambulances roll up carrying dozens of Spanish-speaking illegal immigrants. Some are burned. Some have been electrocuted. Some suffer from smoke inhalation. They all are too scared to discuss conditions at the factory where they worked.

Despite demanding more air time for minorities and greater inclusion in popular entertainment, activists remain concerned about negative stereotyping in such portrayals.

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“Illegal immigration is one reality we have in this country. It is not the subject matter that is of any importance, it is how they treat it,” said Alex Nogales, head of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “Do Latinos come out looking like a bunch of losers and victims? Because that’s no victory. Don’t do us a favor, OK?

“As much as I want to see Latino actors get ahead, I would rather not see them get ahead in roles that are so demeaning to our community that an entire class of people is looked upon poorly. Even to say that makes me very sad. At what price to our community?”

But Nogales also knows that Latino actors, like any actors, simply crave work that will help showcase their talent. And to Latino actors, the “ER” casting call for the “Surrender” episode was a godsend. The script called for six Latino speaking parts and nearly 50 Latino extras.

Oscar Torres auditioned on Dec. 12 and was filming on the set four days later. The role marks a breakthrough for the 29-year-old actor, who will make his first appearance on prime-time television playing Ernesto, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala burned over 90% of his body. As Ernesto learns he will die within a week from widespread infection, he begs the doctor to retrieve $520 stashed back at his apartment. His wife, he explains, will need that money back in Guatemala.

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“My whole thing is Spanish, and the nurse is translating the whole time. It was pretty awesome to see, because not a lot of Latinos get to work [on network series]. You usually get one person working, but to see a whole group of them in the ER--in the show--was great,” Torres said.

“The script required a lot of emotional stuff from the lead cases, so there was a lot of crying and dying. It was great, because Latinos are usually hired to play thugs. So to be able to do emotional scenes, where you’re not getting shot at because you robbed something, that’s good.”

Felix Alcala, who has been with “ER” since its first season, directed the episode after the studio’s first choice dropped out.

“So it was kind of an accident,” he said. “We’ve done some Latin themes over the years, certainly a lot of things in Spanish. Whenever I direct anything, I always try to do something Latino--like bring in Latino characters even when they’re not written in. Remember, we still don’t have a Latino drama on free television. It’s really hard for the networks to jump on board.”

Yet sometimes when they do, it’s a community leader’s worst nightmare. Manuel Mirabal, president of the Puerto Rican National Coalition, met last week with NBC executives to discuss the Jan. 24 episode of “Law & Order,” titled “Sunday in the Park With Jorge.”

The show, which frequently uses high-profile cases as the basis for drama, expanded on more than 50 sexual assaults that occurred last year in Central Park after the Puerto Rican Day parade. The show’s writers added a murder subplot.

Mirabal and other Puerto Rican activists called it sensationalist and damaging to the image of the parade as well as Latinos. The day after the episode aired, NBC publicly apologized and promised not to rerun it.

“Demanding that Hollywood and television networks diversify their cast of characters is something we need to do to make television and movies reflect America,” Mirabal said. “Dick Wolf [creator of “Law & Order”] says we shouldn’t be attacking him because he’s protected by free speech, but I think he needs to show some restraint if he can’t come up with any more ideas for story lines,” Mirabal said.

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In response to the criticism, Wolf issued a statement saying the 10-year-old drama has “offended the sensitivities of a variety of special-interest groups, including, but not limited to, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, African Americans, Asian Americans . . . and the list goes on ad nauseam.”

NBC, he continued, “has caved in to the demands of a special-interest group, and I am extremely disappointed with this decision, about which I was not consulted, as I think it sets an extremely dangerous precedent.”

(TNT, which will begin televising “Law & Order” reruns next year, said the network won’t decide until the time comes whether to repeat the episode. A spokesman for Studios USA, which produces the series, said the company is urging the cable channel to do so.)

For some, the “Law & Order” episode reveals the baby steps and stumbles that can occur as producers seek to neutralize political tension by introducing more minority story lines and characters.

The relationship between minority activists and Hollywood has been rocky for years, with activists contending that progress has been stultifyingly slow. At a conference of television executives in Las Vegas last week, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume spoke about the industry’s inertia, outlining plans to single out whichever network is perceived as having the worst track record for a possible viewer boycott, a tactic that has been threatened in the past.

Facing such criticism last year, broadcasters signed agreements that, among other things, included the appointment of a head of diversity at each network.

That act of appeasement did not go unnoticed, even by the writers on “ER.” On Thursday’s episode, the medical center’s only black doctor--Peter Benton, who is played by Eriq La Salle--accepts a new job, learning he will get a $20,000 raise for doing only a few more hours’ work each month. Still unclear what his new title is, Benton is led into a roomful of reporters and introduced as the new director of diversity.

“I don’t like being used,” Benton later tells his boss. But as the only doctor of color, his boss asks him, who else should head the program?

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In reality, the networks have thus far made minimal progress in front of or behind the camera. When the new TV season began, blacks were the only minority group whose presence has increased in prime time. Latinos were featured in only a handful of regular speaking parts, among them Shelley Morrison, who plays a Latina maid on NBC’s “Will & Grace,” and Laura Ceron, a nurse on “ER.”

Currently, the producers of Fox’s “The X-Files” are casting an episode titled “Vienen” (“They’re Coming”), in which Mexico and the United States argue over rights to an oil table in the Gulf of Mexico. Scheduled for broadcast in April, the show will feature a Latino actor portraying a U.S. oil executive and two Latino actors playing a pair of mestizo Indians on the rig.

"[They] are roughnecks from Mexico who are suspected of sabotage on the rig,” explained the show’s executive producer, Frank Spotnitz. “The mystery is, are they good or bad guys?”


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