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Culture Shift: A Recent Wave of Biopics Puts Latino Achievement Front and Center

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As the ongoing battles in state legislatures over classroom curricula indicate, history – or at least the curation of which stories to teach, and from which perspectives – is subjective. So too is Hollywood’s rich tradition of biopics, which imply to audiences whose lives are worthy of immortalizing on film. Whether in textbooks or onscreen, most of the protagonists of our shared cultural history have belonged to the same demographic: Elvis, Oppenheimer, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Hughes. Those individuals were undoubtedly impactful, but Hollywood has also devoted resources to spotlighting relatively lesser-known white men, such as Jordan Belfort, Frank Abagnale and Hugh Glass (and that’s just one movie star’s filmography).

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Biopics about people of color exist, of course, particularly when it comes to undeniable icons like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. But one community – the second largest racial or ethnic group in the country – has been particularly underrepresented when it comes to history as told by Hollywood, which makes a number of this year’s releases all the more notable. Flamin’ Hot, A Million Miles Away, Cassandro and Radical are movies diverse from one another in genre, theme and tone, but what they all have in common is that they are based on the true stories of Latino men (specifically, of Mexican descent). And together, they offer to audiences new entries in the collective cultural canon.

“These films mean our true stories are finally being told – our stories, not tropes,” says National Hispanic Media Coalition president and CEO Brenda Victoria Castillo. “And not just another film about Cesar Chavez. We have so many Latino legends in our history, and it’s time the world sees who we are, how diverse we are and what we’ve accomplished. We’re a part of the American narrative, and they’re finally hearing about us.”

In June, Searchlight released Flamin’ Hot, a comedic take on the tale of marketing executive Richard Montañez, who invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos while he worked as a janitor at Frito-Lay. (In reality, Montañez’s claim to fame is actually in dispute, which just further underscores the potential of Hollywood’s mythmaking power.) Amazon has two movies during Hispanic Heritage Month: A Million Miles Away (premiering Sept. 15), the inspirational story of José Hernández, who worked as a migrant farmworker as a child before eventually becoming an engineer and NASA astronaut, and Cassandro (which had its world premiere at Sundance ahead of its Sept. 22 streaming release), a meditation on sexuality, faith and family through the life of Saúl Armendáriz, whose lucha libre alter ego was a pioneer of gay pride amid the macho wrestling scene. In contrast to the other three films, Radical, which is based on the transformative work of schoolteacher Sergio Juárez Correa, is an entirely Mexican (not Mexican American) story, but thanks in part to its star and producer Eugenio Derbez is expected to reach a crossover audience when it hits theaters in the U.S. and Mexico this fall, having already won the Festival Favorite Award at Sundance in January.

The effect of watching all four of these films in one week – as I did – is to be immersed in another vision of North American culture and history, one in which Latinos are found in fields and factories as well as boardrooms, classrooms, laboratories and space shuttles and possess, as Juárez Correa (Derbez) puts it to his students, limitless potential. More importantly, the movies are mostly devoid of an outsider’s gaze, although some of Montañez (Jesse Garcia)’s quippy voiceovers feel like a put-on for the benefit of gringos.

“I think we’re used to seeing a lot of Latino and Mexican representation done in a way to please the American audience,” says A Million Miles Away director Alejandra Márquez Abella, adding that migrant farmwork was one area she strove to depict authentically. “I was worried about portraying the fields as a horrible place, but I was also worried about making it like a romantic, pretty place that everyone enjoys, because that’s not the case either. It was a difficult balance to bring justice to those experiences.”

Márquez Abella, making her English-language and Hollywood studio directorial debut with this film, saves the inspirational feel-good vibes for Hernández’s remarkable personal trajectory. Under her careful direction, both migrant labor and the Hernández family’s upward mobility through the decades are depicted in a straightforward manner, without a camera fetishistically dwelling on the trappings of poverty or changing economic status. The effect of this matter-of-fact, culturally authentic representation is that the viewer is more easily able to tap into the emotional experiences of the characters without the distraction of exoticization or otherization.

“The more authentic and specific, the more universal [a movie] ends up being,” says Julie Rapaport, head of film creative and strategy at Amazon MGM Studios, which greenlit A Million Miles Away last February (the project was first set up at Netflix) and Cassandro in October 2020. Rapaport adds that contrary to the conventional wisdom that such stories, by virtue of their protagonists’ backgrounds, have been considered “niche,” Amazon leaned into the opportunity: “The fact that we’d be speaking to an audience who isn’t necessarily always highlighted was actually a positive.”

That these films are based on true stories can go a long way toward combating media stereotypes as well as public attitudes. “In media, migrant workers and immigrants more broadly are often reduced to their economic value or immigration statuses,” says Define American manager of entertainment partnerships and advocacy Dulce Valencia, who found in A Million Miles Away a depiction of immigrants as “human beings with hopes, fears, families, loves and dreams that are sometimes so big they go to space.”

Meanwhile, “wrestlers are like a mirror of how Mexicans see themselves; however, Mexican society is very sexist and misogynistic and still very Catholic,” says Armendáriz, who has been the subject of multiple documentary treatments, including 2018’s Cassandro, The Exotico! “I hope with this [narrative] film… that people through their screens will have the opportunity to know my true self.”

Cassandro is the first narrative feature from Oscar-winning documentarian Roger Ross Williams, who was inspired to pitch the movie after directing a 2016 New Yorker short doc about the luchador. “There’s a lot more freedom in the narrative space to reimagine Cassandro’s world, its implications and its outcomes, all of which invite the audience to examine their own lives and biases surrounding underrepresented or marginalized subjects,” Williams says. “I think this influences how we interact with and consider them in real life.”

There have been Latino-centered biopics before – including Stand and Deliver (1988), Selena (1997) and Frida (2002) – but they have until this year been few and far between. “When movies feature stories about Latinx people, they have historically been known to focus on trauma or on stereotypical themes involving drugs and crime. National news coverage doesn’t focus on how the majority of Latinxs living in the U.S. were born in the U.S. and how all Latinxs living in the U.S. contribute economically and culturally to the country,” says Ana-Christina Ramon, director of the Entertainment and Media Research Initiative at UCLA and one of the lead authors of the annual Hollywood Diversity Report, which found that in 2022 Latinos represented just 2.3 percent and 6.1 percent of theatrical and streaming film leads, respectively. “Stories about Latinx triumph and accomplishment are also largely missing from school textbooks. So it feels significant to see even a handful of films in less than a year with Latinx leads who are depicted with their own agency and aspirations.”

But this relative abundance of Latino representation – which also includes the superhero tentpole Blue Beetle and YA adaptation Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – comes at a time when screenwriters and especially actors are unavailable to promote their work as a result of the ongoing labor strikes, which means that the stakes couldn’t be more fraught. “I really hope that this is not just this year’s wave,” says Diana Luna, executive director of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, one of 27 Latino advocacy groups that came together to pen a joint open letter urging the public to #SupportLatinoCreatives during this pivotal moment.

The success of these films could open the doors to more biopics of exemplary, historically ignored individuals whose stories might otherwise be lost to the passage of time. Because I’m a product of the American public school system, I don’t even know who from Latino history to suggest, so I asked more informed sources to pitch somebody.

Jovita Idar, says Cruz Castillo, who works with his mother, Brenda, at the NHMC as its external relations and digital media manager. In Castillo’s telling, Idar was a journalist at the turn of the 20th century who stood up to the Texas Rangers when they tried to shut down her paper: “This Mexican woman came out against these white dudes on big steeds and told them to back the hell off.”

One can only hope that an industry constantly on the hunt for IP is paying attention.

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