AN OPEN LETTER FROM THE NATIONAL HISPANIC MEDIA COALITIONLOS ANGELES, CA – It has long been known through academic studies that fair representation in media matters because that is where people get their beliefs as to who we are, what we are, and how much we are worth. American Latinos, other people of color, LGBTQ people and women, can only thrive in a society where we are authentically represented in film, television, radio, digital media and newspapers. But that is not the case in “liberal” Hollywood. It continues to make films and television shows with white male leads, adding truth to Trump’s vision of who the “real Americans” are in our country.
Historically marginalized communities are grossly under and misrepresented in media. The numbers speak for themselves. It is not for a lack of talent, but a lack of opportunity that is so pervasive that in 2015 the ACLU sought a state and federal investigation into the discriminatory practices at Hollywood’s major studios, networks, and talent agencies, which it deemed a violation of civil rights.Given President Trump’s divisive, anti-immigrant policies and racist rhetoric, representation in media matters now more than ever. Trump has repeatedly insulted and dehumanized American Latinos, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ Americans and women for nearly three years, emboldening radical, white nationalist groups, and inciting intolerance and hate against the “others”, the non-real Americans, us, almost 40% of the nation.
Latinos currently make up 18.3% of the U.S. population, have a purchasing power of $1.5 trillion dollars, and buy 24% of all tickets sold at the box office, which allows Hollywood to achieve its significant margin. Yet, according to a recent study from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative out of 1,200 popular films released between 2007 and 2018, only 3% featured Latino leads or co-leads. As Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times culture columnist and critic, recently pointed out that even the USC initiative itself faced criticism in January for leaving Latinos out of its ‘Inclusion in the Director’s Chair’ study, which broke down statistics for black, Asian and female directors.” (This was the second time, Stacy Smith, associate professor of communication, and founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, has left Latinos out of her studies).
That sharp criticism McNamara refers to came from an NHMC January 8, 2019 press release which Alex Nogales, NHMC President and CEO, argued that the exclusion of Latinos in the USC director’s study, as well as the Los Angeles Times failing to question why Latinos were left out of the discussion, sends the message and perception that Latinos are non-existent and not worthy of being included, even when they are excluded.
Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF President & General Counsel and National Latino Media Council (NLMC) Chairman, also stated in the release that “inexplicably omitting the nation’s largest minority group from this report is the exact opposite of inclusion; it is academic apartheid that should have no place at any reputable scholarly institution, particularly in the very Latino city of Los Angeles. The L.A. Times and the so-called Annenberg Inclusion Initiative are complicit in suppressing the extreme and unacceptable exclusion of Latinos in the entertainment industry, and in serving a naked Trumpian agenda.”
Consequently, the NHMC, Saenz, and other top Latino national leaders met with top editors of the Los Angeles Times who verbally promised coverage that is more inclusive, accurate and authentic of the American Latino community, and pledged to meet again in the fall of this year to discuss how the Times can be more engaged with the Latino community.
In the fall of 2018, NHMC demonstrated against Paramount Pictures twice for having the worst record amongst the six major film studios in hiring Latinos in its workforce. After extensive research, NHMC announced in a press conference that none of the twelve Paramount Pictures films in 2016 featured any Latino directors, writers, or lead actors, and of the top 100 grossing films in 2017, eight produced by Paramount, none of Paramount’s films featured any Latino writers or lead actors. Only two months after NHMC’s last protest against the studio, on February 20, 2019, Paramount’s Chairman and CEO, Jim Gianopulos, announced a historic initiative that includes promoting diversity and inclusion across the studio’s film, television and animated storylines, vendors, shooting locations and crews. The initiative was the first of its kind since Paramount was founded over 105 years ago. NHMC’s actions prove that boycotts and demonstrations work, and NHMC and its allies will use them more often to get positive results.
When Netflix cancelled the critically acclaimed American Latino sitcom One Day at a Time in 2018, NHMC was the lead signatory of an open letter endorsed by fifteen other civil rights organizations nationwide, urging the studio to renew the series for season three. It did. Although the show was later cancelled by Netflix because, according to it, the viewership did not justify the cost of another season. (Netflix did not reveal the cost of the program nor its viewership numbers). Fortunately, One Day at a Time was saved by PopTV in part because of its loyal fan base and because executives at the TV channel felt it was a “show to be proud of.”
Institutional change in Hollywood will occur not just by mounted and longtime pressure of national civil rights groups and activists, but also with the top studios and networks understanding that demographics in the U.S. have shifted, and continuing to do stories about white people, with a majority of white males in them, is prejudicial and financially small-minded when you consider the huge population of people of color and other marginalized groups in the U.S.
Change will come when studios and networks allow people of marginalized groups to give voice to the stories they know and experience, who also know great writers, actors and directors across the nation. Failure to do so puts these studios in complicity with the president who disregards the marginalized and call on “real Americans” to follow his racist lead. His followers don’t know us and of course believe the prejudices the president preaches.
Studio and television executives must be willing to shatter decades-old myths that white leads are the only actors who will make money, and employ and cast women and people of color. They must be willing to lose money on many Latino-focused projects in order to gain money on the successful ones. They must be willing to allow Latino-focused projects to potentially fail as they have consistently done for generations with hundreds of movies with white leads and co-leads. They must be willing to hire talented Latinos in decision-making roles so that they, in turn, help create authentic, three-dimensional stories that speak to diverse audiences and their demands.
As McNamara eloquently stated, “Hollywood likes to play it safe, even though safe has led not only to a monochromatic landscape but all the various financial issues currently plaguing the entertainment industry. You want a bigger audience? Broaden the stories you tell.”
NHMC is strongly urging Hollywood executives to be all-inclusive in their hiring practices, and recognize that the negative and stereotypical images of people of color and women seen on the big and small screens impact people’s identifies and sense of self. Seeing positive portrayals of American Latinos in media will allow more people throughout the U.S. to view Latinos – immigrants included – as hard-working contributors to our economy, culture and society.
Some of these executives are not believers of diversity and inclusion, but at the very least, will accept that diversity benefits the bottom line, as evidenced in the successful films and television shows such as Coco, Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, Empire and One Day at a Time. Providing content that aligns with the growing, more diverse audiences will help these big studios save money in the end, instead of losing it.
As always, NHMC will continue to stand firm and demand change in Hollywood, patiently and sometimes impatiently, moving the needle one bit at a time. But, real, widespread change can only happen with the collaboration of Hollywood’s top leaders allowing change to occur, shaping the behaviors and opinions about the “others” through its content. This has been NHMC’s key message since its founding in 1986, and as Alex Nogales has stated then and now, “Hollywood, sooner or later you’re going to have to face the consequences of exclusion, and that’s beginning to happen now. I don’t want to tell you that I told you so, but I told you so!”