Tag Archives: ethnicity in film

A Kiss Is Still a Kiss

Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown in the newly-discovered “Something Good–Negro Kiss”.

Little treasures from the early days of cinema keep popping up.  That’s what Dino Everett, an archivist at the University of Southern California (USC), discovered in a 19th-century nitrate print hidden among a batch of silent films originally owned by a Louisiana collector. The clip, shot on a Lumière Cinématographe, turned out to be an 1898 short entitled Something Good–Negro Kiss, which is now the earliest documented film of open affection between a Black man and a Black woman.

Everett later told his students, “I think this is one of the most important films I’ve come across.”  He really had no idea.

Everett contacted the University of Chicago’s Allyson Nadia Field, an expert on African-American cinema.  Using inventory and distribution catalogues, Field traced the film to Chicago and learned it had been shot by William Selig, a pioneer in film production and a former vaudeville performer.  With help of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Field also identified the performers: Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown.  Suttle is dressed in a dapper suit and bowtie, while Brown dons an ornate dress — costumes that Field says were typical of minstrel performers.

Something Good is a restaging of Thomas Edison’s The Kiss (1896), one of the world’s earliest motion pictures.  Scandalous for its time, The Kiss featured stage performers John C. Rice and May Irwin engaging in a graphic display of physical affection.  Both Rice and May were popular figures of the minstrel entertainment circuit, and perhaps the title of this newly-discovered film, Something Good–Negro Kiss, is deliberately subverting the racism inherent in American minstrelsy.

A 120-year-old classic moment in cinematic time:


Image and video courtesy of USC School of Cinematic Arts

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“And why is it that when you’re dining here today to honor me as Hispanic Officer of the Year, I look around the room full of ranking officers, and the only other Hispanics I see are waiters and busboys?  As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your awards.” – René Enriquez, as Lte. Ray Calletano, “Hill Street Blues”, 1983


“A part of me wants to kick their ass.  A part of me feels sorry for their stupid ignorant selves.  But if you’ve never been farther south than Nuevo Laredo, how the hell would you know what Mexicans are supposed to look like?

There are green-eyed Mexicans.  The rich blond Mexicans.  The Mexicans with faces of Arab sheiks.  The Jewish Mexicans.  The big-footed-as-a-German Mexicans.  The leftover French-Mexicans.  The chaparrito compact Mexicans.  The Tarahumara tall-as-a-desert-saguaro Mexicans.  The Mediterranean Mexicans.  The Mexicans with Tunisian eyebrows.  The negrito Mexicans of the double coasts.  The Chinese Mexicans.  The curly-haired, freckle-faced, red-headed Mexicans.  The Lebanese Mexicans.  Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say I don’t look Mexican.  I am Mexican.  Even though I was born on the U.S. side of the border.” – Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo, Chapter 72. Copyright 2003, Vintage Books.


Recently FX Networks announced the premier of “Mayans MC,” a spinoff of their highly popular, award-winning “Sons of Anarchy.”  Airing from 2008 to 2014, “Sons of Anarchy” followed the lives of an outlaw motorcycle club in the fictional town of Charming, California.  Exploring government corruption, personal loyalty, racism, redemption and the vigilante spirit, it’s sort of what you’d get if the Hells Angels produced a show for the Hallmark Channel.  “Mayans MC” essentially continues the storyline, but with a Latino cultural flair.  While the real Mayans charted the night skies, these “Mayans” are drug runners who immediately encounter another gang, Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones).  They might as well have called it ‘Mean Ass Mexicans on Motorcycles.’  I guess not much has changed since 1983.

It’s slightly reminiscent of “Kingpin,” a severely short-lived series that dealt with “the machinations of an ambitious Mexican family . . . displayed in graphic detail as the family faces challenges from both the United States Drug Enforcement Agency and from the dangerous underworld in which they work.”  The show was the brainchild of the late David Mills, a “light-skinned black man whose racial identity was not always evident to those around him” and who “wrote white characters and black characters with equal zeal.”  Okay, great.  He may have placed Black and White folks on equal levels, but he kept Hispanics on the criminal platform.  There are more colors in the rainbow of equality than black and white.

The start of 2005 saw the debut of “Jonny Zero,” a Fox series about an ex-con named Jonny Calvo, played by the underwhelming Frankie G. (Gonzales), who returns to his old neighborhood to begin life anew.  He naturally finds it tough to stay on the right side of the law because his former employer seeks his tough-guy services to engage in new criminal activity, while the FBI wants him to snitch on that same former employer.  Decisions!  Decisions!  Aside from taking place in that most Latino of all American metropolises, New York City, “Jonny Zero” was also filmed there.  I presume that was meant to lend it a sense of gritty urban realism.  Fortunately, like “Kingpin”, “Jonny Zero” lasted all of a nano-second in TV land.

Even now, in this allegedly post-civil rights era America, Hispanics are still portrayed on television as gang bangers, maids and illegal immigrants.

In 2011, Demián Bichir received praise and a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in “A Better Life”, the story of a Mexican immigrant father who chooses to remain in the U.S. and work as a gardener in Los Angeles.  His goal is simple: do for his kids what the movie’s title says to do.  It’s supposed to be melodramatic and sweet and, perhaps, make the case for a more sentimental view of illegal immigration.

In an interview last year, actor Benito Martinez lamented, “I had all these images of elegance and range and style, so when I, naively, was trying to build my career, those were my examples,” the soft-spoken Martinez says. “But what I was getting in the ‘80s as a young Latino actor was, ‘You’re going to be a gang member and you’re going to go in and rob the bank.’  I had to then learn about pigeonholing.  I had to learn the power of no.”

Martinez’s latest role?  A migrant laborer on a tomato farm on ABC’s “American Crime”.  The “power of no” often runs hard up against the need to pay bills and beef up a resume.  The show was cancelled last year.

Another ABC program, “Modern Family,” has been heralded as a depiction of America’s ethnic diversity.  But the main female character – portrayed by the immensely untalented Sofia Vergara – is yet another Hispanic trope: the sexpot.

Twenty years ago critics wondered aloud why the highly popular show “Friends” didn’t feature any Black characters, given that it took place in New York City.  Well, it didn’t have any Asian or Hispanic characters either.

Again, not much seems to have changed for Latinos in popular culture since 1983.  The late Lupe Ontiveros once calculated that she’d portrayed maids and housekeepers some 200 times in her 30+ years as a professional actress.  Yes, I’ve seen plenty of Hispanic housekeepers – have even known a few.  But most of the Hispanics I’ve seen and known throughout my life – even those outside my own family – have been well-educated, well-spoken, gainfully-employed, law-abiding, military-serving U.S. citizens.  These are MY people – not the illiterate wetbacks scurrying across the border at midnight or hyper-violent drug cartel leaders.  I’m not familiar with those latter groups.  I can’t identify with them.  Neither can most other Hispanic-Americans.

So why don’t we see more of us on television or in the movies?  I suppose my life as a 50-something freelance technical writer taking care of his elderly mother is too bland for the American entertainment – an industry still dominated by mostly White (usually Jewish) men.  And I won’t start a life of crime just to get attention and maybe a reality TV show!  Hell, that would cut into my writing time!

The ordinariness of the average Hispanic-American is perhaps why I had such a hard time getting my debut novel published.  Traditional publishing houses couldn’t see the reality in a book with Hispanic characters who are well-educated and speak perfect English.  Yes, one publisher actually told me that a little more than a decade ago!  That’s why I’ve resorted to self-publishing, which I’ll get to in a different essay.

The only way I see things changing for the general American perception of Hispanics – aside from letting the ‘Old Guard’ die off – is for Latinos to get angry.  Yes, just flat out pissed off and demand more AND better from the entertainment industry.  To some extent, that’s already happened with the cancellation of shows like “Kingpin” and “Jonny Zero”.  But we have to point out – forcefully – to TV and film producers that they don’t have a true understanding of who we all are.  Who we really are.  Stereotypes are pathetically old school and don’t have a place in 21st century societies.

Years ago some White people at my father’s workplace told him he wasn’t like “other Mexicans”; that he was “different.”  He honestly didn’t know what to make of it, but I did when he mentioned that to my mother and me at dinner one evening.  “They’re stereotyping you, Dad,” I told him.


Image: Erik De La Cruz, Latina Lista

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Racing Oscar

Sunday night’s Oscar ceremonies provided the usual displays of celebrity fashion and idolatry.  When Angelina Jolie arrived to present the screenwriting awards and stood at the stage’s edge with her right leg prominently jutting through a severe slit in her designer gown, I realized no one in their right mind can take this stuff seriously.  Every year at this time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences excretes these coveted statuettes amidst the tabloid revelry and calls it ceremonious.  But, like all other awards shows, the Oscars are nothing more than popularity contests; particularly in the acting and directing categories.  Henry Fonda once noted that it was ridiculous to nominate five actors for an award, but then select only one to receive it.  Katherine Hepburn, for example, is still considered one of America’s greatest actresses; the Academy bestowed four Best Actress Oscars upon her.  But, in my opinion, she has nothing on Meryl Streep who picked up her third Oscar Sunday night.  Hepburn never truly acted; she just sort of behaved.  She was too arrogant to let herself disappear into a character.  Streep, on the other hand, becomes almost indistinguishable whenever she takes on another persona.  Again, just my view.  If you want to see genuinely talented competition, watch a high school speech and debate contest.

This Wednesday, the 29th, will mark the 72nd anniversary of the 1940 Academy Awards where Hattie McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as “Mammie” in Gone with the Wind.  McDaniel was the first African-American to be nominated for and to win an Oscar.  She was also the first African-American to attend an Oscar ceremony, although she had to sit at the back of the room in the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.  Her win was bittersweet.  It marked a cinematic milestone for Black Americans.  But, Gone with the Wind arrived in theatres to face as many protests from the NAACP as it did accolades from fans of Margaret Mitchell’s book.  Civil rights activists denounced the film’s stereotypical portrayals of Blacks.  McDaniel even sat out the film’s premier in Atlanta, saying she had other obligations.  In reality, she wasn’t welcome.

It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario now, especially considering the leftist bent the American cinematic community seems to possess.  But, observing this year’s contenders, I noticed three new faces: Viola Davis, a Best Actress nominee for The Help; Octavia Spencer, a Best Supporting Actress nominee also for The Help; and Demián Bechir, a Best Actor nominee for A Better Life.  Spencer won in her field.  More importantly, though, I noticed the roles they played were as stereotypical as ‘Mammie,’ anomalies in 21st century American films.  Or maybe not.  The Help is a period piece about a young White woman who decides to write a controversial book from the point of view of Black maids amidst the civil rights struggles of early 1960’s Mississippi; instead of – say – one of the maids suddenly discovering her literary muse and writing her own story.  A Better Life is a contemporary tale about a Mexican immigrant father who chooses to stay in the United States to provide (as the title implies) a better life for his son, while working as a gardener in East L.A.  Regardless of their respective storylines and grandiose intentions, both films play into conventional roles often assigned to Blacks (housekeepers) and Hispanics (immigrant gardeners).  To be fair, I haven’t seen either film – and I don’t intend to see them.  I’ve watched plenty of formulaic characterizations of Blacks and Hispanics in films and on TV.

But, you’d think in the 72 years since Hattie McDaniel won her Oscar, things would have changed for both ethnic groups.  Obviously, Hollywood isn’t as liberal as the talking heads on FOX News claim it is.  Despite years of progress and social consciousness – with celebrities publicly calling for more AIDS research, support for animal rights, etc. – the American entertainment community often likes to stick with what’s popular, or at least with what it knows.  Much like corporate America, the biggest movie studios are run by old and middle-aged White men.  So, it’s easy to deduce that Hollywood’s country club elitists still can’t see Blacks and Hispanics occupying more mundane professions like accountants, doctors, architects and technical writers.  We’re still pushing mops and lawn mowers in their minds.

They may not be able to see beyond those typical characterizations, but I certainly can – because that’s pretty much all I’ve seen of Blacks and Hispanics.  We’re educated and hard-working just like…well, just like you’d expect the average American citizen to be.  One only has to watch an episode of The First 48 on A&E to see more Blacks and Hispanics wearing law enforcement uniforms than gang colors.  Blacks actually have fared pretty well in film and television in recent decades.  They’re no longer presented as the ‘happy Negro,’ content with merely singing delightful Walt Disney songs, or delivering coy punch lines.  Hispanics, it seems, have yet to arrive, despite some concerted efforts like Chico and the Man and, more recently, George Lopez.  And, Native Americans haven’t even made it to the gate.  Some years ago a friend of mine who was of Vietnamese extraction lamented the constant portrayals of Asians as “wacky scientists” or “goofy doctors.”

“At least you’re shown as doctors and scientists,” I told her.  My people are still shown as gang members and illegal aliens.”

Blacks certainly have come a long way since Hattie McDaniel floated across the silver screen in proper kerchief and apron.  Hispanics also have made considerable strides since Desi Arnaz became the first Hispanic on American television.  Native Americans haven’t migrated much from the Little Big Man days, although there was that blip called Dances with Wolves.  I guess Hollywood and Academy executives are still smarting from Marlon Brando’s stunt at the 1973 Oscars.  I don’t fault Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Demián Bechir for taking on their respective roles.  In a business where unemployment hovers around 100%, people have to grab what they can.  But for all the headway and enlightenment we’ve achieved, The Help and A Better Life insinuate that Blacks and Hispanics occasionally have to be reminded of our proverbial place in society and how we shouldn’t stray too far from that standard.  I sense “our people” have to placate the money-laden powers in Hollywood every once in a while, if they want to keep working.  For better or worse, though, here we are – and circumstances have improved.  Change is often slow, yet unstoppable.  As philosopher William James once said, “Human beings, by changing the inner attitude of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”


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