Sunday, September 19, 2010

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

(NBC Series Premiere, Mon. Sept 20, 9:00 PM)

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. (www.latinheat.com)

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, comedian 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, which have left me with some negative racially related experiences. Therefore, in fairness and 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?

Lydia Nicole 
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.


Benjamin Esparza
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 bark but don’t bite. 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 the 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 to participate at the Teenage Fair Battle of the Bands.


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

10 comments:

  1. Being black and being Cuban are not mutually exclusive realities. George Sanford Brown may be Cuban, but he's also black. Thus, he knows at least something about the American black experience from his own life.

    Blair Underwood, on the other hand, is not Cuban. He doesn't know what it is to be Cuban.

    This doesn't make me angry. It's just disappointing that yet another Cuban-American character is being played by someone who can't fully connect with the role because he's never lived that part of it.

    But hey—maybe he'll do an amazing job. And if he does, it'll justify the casting. Just like when Andy García played an Italian and Al Pacino played a Cuban. They both pulled it off, and Underwood might, too.

    But if he doesn't, his not being Cuban will be the most obvious reason.

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  2. Rafael Esparza MaderaSeptember 20, 2010 at 2:00 PM

    I completely agree with Elia and with Benjamin Esparza (No family relationship) with regards with the miss casting of Blair Underwood as a Cuban-American.
    Do not take me wrong, I believe that Blair Underwood is a fine actor, it’s just that he has been misscast for this part.
    NBC is still trying to recuperate financially from the Tonight Show debacle, and with this casting decision, it appears that they have shot themselves on the foot again.
    Do they ever learn from their mistakes?
    What makes this casting choise more incredible is the fact that NBC owns Telemundo, and I am very sure that there are many casting directors at Telemundo that could have assisted NBC on finding a good Cuban-american actor to play the part, remember that Telemundo is based in Miami and produces most of their programming in that city.
    So, I am going to do what I always do when I feel that I am not getting the respect that I deserve, I am going to vote with my wallet, meaning that I am not going to spend a penny on the products and companies that are sponsoring “The Event”
    Just say no to “The Event”!!!
    Thank you Elia and thank you Benjamin for keeping an eye open for the Latin Community.

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  3. Blair Underwood is a fine actor, however, if he goes on to make this movie, he will be acting off key. It's like the Japanese movies that were dubbed in English, it just didn't make sense. I love to go to see movies, however, i would not go to view this one if Mr. Underwood goes on to act the main character. Blair Underwood is not a Hispanic man, he knows nothing about what a Cuban experienced, he just doesn't fit the character. There are too many Hispanic actors from which to choose from.

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  4. Why does Hollywood continue to exclude Latino actors?
    Is Hollywood Oppressing Latinos?
    In the new series "The Event"...Blair Underwood, although a fine actor, he plays the US President, who is Latino, there are many Latino actors who could have done just as or better at this position.
    R. Legorreta

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  5. Well, you would think that they would know by now that the quality of most movies are based on it's authenticity. I grew up seeing a lot of low-budget, poor quality movies where the Caucasian actors would portray people of different races, and being Japanese, I would laugh when I would see how they would slant the actor's eyes with makeup to simulate an Asian look. Who do they think they are fooling? So, not hiring a Cuban or Hispanic actor for a Cuban role is not only unfair, but foolish as well!

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  6. Umm I don't know if some of you are racist or just plan uneducated!! There are Black Cubans in Cuba and in America. Just because he doesnt fit what white america perception of what Cubans look like.. which on tv they are all "Lighter skin" closer to the white race!! But if you go to Cuba you will see that there are dark skin Cubans and dark brown skin Cubans. Cuba has AFRICAN!! ROOTS because of the slave trade. So why can't a African American play a Cuban???? White people play other races in movie roles all the time even Hispanics do the same and people never say anything!!. Its called ACTING you dumb bastards!!! Get over yourselves !!!

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  7. I don't get it. Why are white Hispanics so damn sensative? Black Latinos never get any roles, so what if they made a Black man a Black Latino, if Hispanic lobbies were in charge, mostly made up of white skinned and very light brown Hispanics, then there would only ever be brown Hispanics and white ones who think they're native, and no real Black Latino would ever make it. White cubans would play all the cuban roles, even though most Cubans are black, as well as Dominicans, and the Latino experience would be regulated to a metizo complex/experience, and mulattas as well as pure African Latinos, who are a third of all Latinos, would be left out as they are in Latin television today.

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  8. It is simple in Hollywood if a Latino and a Black are up for the same part the Black will get the part. even though the Hispanic actor is better. Why? You may ask. The black Population is the squeaky wheel in this country. The Latinos tend to be more passive. Latinos and Asians are totally misrepresented in the entertainment industry. The Latino population is 16% in the United States and growing rapidly. Latinos are not shown 16% on television or movies. By casting a Black as a Black-Cuban it keeps the black population happy and throws a few crumbs to the Latinos, which is what we have had to survive on for generations.

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  9. I really don't think blacks & Latinos should argue against each other. Whites in power have long pit blacks & Latinos against each other. It's the old divide & conquer game. For years blacks didn't get cast in good roles. An Egyptian queen role went to a white woman when there was a black woman readily available. It's called racism. See they create a great Latino part & give it to a black actor. That way blacks & Latinos will continue to fight each other. We all know that whether you are black or Latino if you look white, you're supposed to give up your culture to pass. If you look more African, they call you a nigger. If you look in between it depends. If blacks & Latinos sit down and work together on the issues a lot more can be done. I do agree that when I watch Latino or U.S. t.v. programs & films you only see white or mixed (Native American & white) looking Latinos in the roles. They're not casting Latinos that show more of their African heritage either. The simple fact that they created a role of a "black Cuban" is a huge leap forward.

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    Replies
    1. You're absolutely right... Latinos and Blacks should be be arguing with each other. Latinos are fighting for equality of casting and positive images on the big and little screens. Hollywood has got to come to grips that the new "norm" is no longer exclusively all "white."

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