Monday, August 30, 2010

NBC’s “The Event” A Major Casting Faux Pas?

Recently, Julio Martinez, Latin Heat correspondent gave the lowdown on NBC’s upcoming drama series, The Event, starring Blair Underwood who plays Cuban American U.S. President, Elias Martinez. (

When a member of the Television Critics Association asked Underwood “if he was Cuban American,” he responded, with a flippant, “I’m going to say yes.” He isn’t.

My initial response was among the negative. Latino roles are so few and if the script called for a Latino, why cast a non-Latino?

But it’s not as black or brown as it seems. A Facebook posting by veteran actor, comedienne Lydia Nicole read:

“Congratulations to my friend Blair Underwood for playing a Cuban American President in “the Event.” I love that. And for all the haters out there pitching a fit because he is not Latino, let it go. Nobody complained when George Sanford Brown got to play a Black guy in “the Rookies.” And he’s Cuban.”

Lydia’s comment stopped me in my tracks because I realized my own biases stemmed solely from personal reasons rooted from my experience of having once worked at a historically Black institution. The then administration recruited Latinos to hold key executive positions in its effort to be more diversified and of course, to make it easier to tap into Latino education funding. I was one of the few hired. It was quite an honor to be selected among so many candidates. However, throughout our tenure [Latinos] were met with resentment. In fact, at one meeting, a Black faculty angrily stated “every Latino who works at the university, is one less job for Blacks.” They wanted our money but that’s about it. It was a challenging time and we did our best despite the hostile environment. I kept at it because I believed in the mission of helping the less fortunate and underserved. After reading Julio’s article, I found myself reversing the Black-Latino sentiment with: Every Black actor who takes the role written for a Latino, means one less Latino working. However, for me to interject a negative reaction based on personal feelings is unfair and not conducive to moving Latinos forward.

Therefore, in an effort to better understand this casting controversy, I invited Lydia Nicole, whose FB comment grabbed me, and to visionary music producer, Benjamin Esparza (no relation) to present their opposite views and maybe somewhere in between, we might have an Aha moment on how to conquer Hollywood’s ongoing blasé disrespect of Latinos.

Q:  Should it matter that Hollywood cast a non-Latino actor to portray a character that was written for a Latino actor? There are two Latinos (Lisa Vidal and Clifton Collins) cast in key supporting roles, isn’t this enough?
Actress, comedienne, writer, producer, motivational speaker

As an actress who has been in the business for the last thirty years, I too have gotten frustrated in the past when an actor from another ethnic group got an acting job that was written for a Latino. But in the last ten years as I have been working behind the camera, my perspective has changed dramatically.

I find what will work best is to embrace that a Black Latino character has been written into a major series and gently encourage the network to include Latino show runners, directors, and writers on the series to really make a difference.

That is where the power is.

It is not in begrudging a Black actor because he got the part. Because at the end of the day what we want is to pave the way for Latino actors to have the opportunity to play any character they are right for regardless of their background. I personally want to see Latinos, Blacks and Asians all represented. For me it’s not enough for a Latino to get an acting job. I want to truly see diversity represented on television and the big screen. And the fight is bigger than just having an actor of Latino heritage star on a show.

The fight is about diversity in front and behind the camera to tell our stories authentically and not stereotypically. I want to see this generation not be given the crumbs but be allowed to sit at the table and call the shots at every studio and network. But it will only come when we change our fighting tactics. Instead of demanding that the Studios and Networks give us by trying to strong arm them to force ourselves on their teams and play on their fields, we need to woo them by learning to use the power we hold in this country. As my friend, Dyana Ortelli, reminded me, via Facebook, Latinos constitute 15.1% of the total U.S. population, which converts to over 45 million Latinos. We Latinos in Hollywood need to get those Latinos to demand that the airwaves change by their votes and viewership.

As Nelson Mandela said “…we are powerful beyond our imagination.” And what I know is that the battle is won because of money, power and imagination and not from protests and complaints. So, instead of trying to force the Studios and Networks to include us as unwelcomed guests, let’s use our money, power and creativity to take ownership.

About Lydia Nicole: Actress recently took some time off from performing and lecturing so she could hone her skills as a writer and producer. During the last few years she apprenticed under the iconic filmmaker Robert Townsend. Under his guidance was given the opportunity to associate produce Why We Laugh, the comedy documentary on the history of Black Comedians. But now she is returning to her first love, performing. She is bringing her one- woman show “A Rose in Spanish Harlem to a theater near you.

Break Records, Founder & CEO

When I heard that NBC’s new drama series, The Event had cast Blair Underwood in the Latino president role, I was instantly infuriated. Clearly, NBC had yet again missed an opportunity to help end this long and ugly chapter in Hollywood tradition to only cast Latino talent in negative and disposable roles.

Maybe I’m ultra sensitive because of the anti-immigration, anti-Latino, anti-Mexican climate we’re currently experiencing, but whatever the network’s excuse is, it is simply no longer acceptable. I’m sick of Hollywood’s tradition of telling our stories their way, utilizing actors from white bread America. Pancho Villa (a Mexican General) was once portrayed by Wallace Berry, whose interpretation as a goofy fat buffoon was insulting and culturally insensitive. Zapata’s (another Mexican General) story went to Marlon Brandon and many other leading men also attempted to play Latinos—Yule Brenner, Paul Newman—none delivering accurate or believable performances. 

It wasn’t until in 1982, when Ricardo Montalban was cast in Star Trek II; The Wraft of Khan did a Latino actor have the opportunity to transform a character into one of the best villains of all time. Montalban’s powerful performance turned a mediocre film at best into a box-office hit earning $97 million worldwide and setting a world record for first-day box-office gross. The Wrath of Khan is generally considered one of the best films of the Star Trek series and is credited with creating renewed interest in the franchise.

Blair Underwood is a wonderful actor, no argument here. Why not just make him a Black president? It’s reality. Why a Cuban? The decision probably came about for two primary reasons:

One, producers were looking for a series for Underwood; two, they needed a story that incorporates a couple of Latinos to take advantage of the growing Latino demographic.

The pitch meeting with the NBC brass probably went something like:

Producers: We’ve come up with what we consider to be a timely cutting edge futuristic drama that includes the first U.S. Latino President

NBC: But we thought you said that Blair Underwood would star?

Producers: What if we cast Blair as the president?

NBC: Yes, but he’s black not Latino.

Producers: See? That’s what makes this idea so wonderful, we give Blair the role and because he’s playing a Latino president, Latinos will be thrilled, they’ll drive Nielsen ratings through the roof!

NBC: It’s a win-win. But won’t Latinos protests?

Producers: They’ll get over it, they always do. It’s entertainment after all. Blair will prove how powerful an actor he is, and NBC will have a hit! Besides, we’ll cast Lisa Vidal as his first Lady and that actor who looks white but is Latino, Clifton Collins, in a supporting role. Latinos will be fine. Why wouldn’t they be happy? They’ll be happy.

Hollywood decision-makers have continually dismissed Latinos as not important enough AND that they think Latinos will not notice these character faux pas. Combine this with Arizona’s racist legislation, SB-1070, well, guess what? Hell no, this won’t go! For Hollywood to continue to do so means the entertainment establishment wholeheartedly agrees with the political rhetoric and venom being spread against Latinos.

Hollywood’s blatant disrespect and terrible stereotyping track record of Latinos is as insulting to Latinos as when white actors portrayed blacks with painted “black faces.”  The times eventually changed, and when Blacks finally drew that line in the sand by flexing their economic power, Hollywood eventually came around.  Latinos cannot back peddle, not at this pivotal time in history. Our voices have obviously not been loud enough, so now we must speak through our collective pocket books.

To those who say Latino actors are not ready to carry a universal mainstream role or lead a primetime TV series, may I again, remind the naysayers of our growing Latino demographics and its multi-billion dollar purchasing power—if we don’t exercise this power, we’ll always be in the passenger seat. Latinos, we are in the driver’s seat, we can steer our own direction. Our spending power speaks volumes. It’s up to us, it always has been.  

Hollywood, America listen up: Latinos are here and we’re not going away. Shame on you, NBC, for once again robbing a Latino actor of a golden opportunity that The Event offered.

About Benjamin Esparza: He is founder and CEO Break Records music label, and an accomplished composer/musician. He produced Lalo Guerrero's "Vamos A Bailar-Otra Vez,” an award winning CD. Founding member of the 1960's East L.A. rock group "Acostics," Esparza is a member Board of Directors Hollenbeck PAL-ELA. Projects include Ed Begley, Jr.’s musical Cesar and Ruben, and several made-for-TV reality series VH-1 and MTV Music Videos, PBS: ELA Chicano Music documentary. Esparza is currently writing Take A Stand: A Musical Journey, the story of "Acostics" whose 60’s adventures include a glimpse of the life of Mexican-American family life and culture, music, humor, and racism experienced during that era, and a Japanese tour at the Teenage Fair Battle of the Bands.

Another colleague, Casandra Moreno-Lombera, an award-winning indie writer/producer also weighed in on this controversy and said:  

“Latinos basically have two beefs against Hollywood’s miscasting. 1) Hollywood does not create Latino roles. The Event storms the citadel by deliberately writing the leading role (of a president) to be a Black-Latino American. Let’s face it, they could have written the role to be Black-American only.  And, 2) Hollywood does not cast Latinos in leading roles.

If we see either one of these two issues successfully addressed,” said Moreno-Lombera, “we should celebrate. At the end of the day, Latinos need to support The Event. If we don’t, networks will throw their hands up in the air and say ‘Latinos don’t respond to concrete development of key Latino characters/starring roles.’ Let’s not hate progress.”

Thank you Lydia Nicole and Benjamin Esparza. And, thanks to Casandra Moreno-Lombera. Whatever your point of view is, let it be constructive and forward thinking. Won’t it be wonderful when Latinos no longer have to have this conversation?

--Elia Esparza