Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Latino should have played lead in 'Argo'

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
January 10, 2013 -- Updated 1557 GMT (2357 HKT)
Ben Affleck plays the lead role of Tony Mendez in
Ben Affleck plays the lead role of Tony Mendez in "Argo," which he also directed.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oscar nominations on Thursday, and Ben Affleck expected to get one for "Argo"
  • Affleck plays real-life Latino who helped diplomats escape in Iran hostage crisis
  • Ruben Navarrette: Affleck should have used a Latino actor to play role
  • He says it cheats actor out of a job, and the Latino community out of a hero's story

San Diego, California (CNN) -- The upcoming Oscars are no stranger to causes or controversy. And this year, there is a strong dose of both surrounding the film "Argo" -- and its star and director, Ben Affleck.

This controversy bubbled up when the buzz started that Affleck could get an Academy Award nomination for best director when the announcements are made Thursday.

Read more: Academy Awards 2013: And the nominees are...

"Argo" tells how an ingenious and daring CIA agent helped orchestrate the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980. In November 1979, about 300 Islamic students stormed the U.S. Embassy and 66 Americans were taken hostage. But six U.S. diplomats escaped and were hidden at the Canadian Embassy by the Canadian ambassador and his wife.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

The CIA agent -- Antonio "Tony" Mendez, played by Affleck -- successfully led the mission to evacuate the Americans, which involved Mendez and his associates posing as a Canadian film crew that was eager to make a movie in Iran.

Read more: 'Lincoln' leads field in British film awards nominations

The real Tony Mendez was awarded the Intelligence Star for Valor, and other honors, for leading the rescue. He later wrote a memoir, detailing the events in Tehran.

Inside 'Argo' with the real hostages
The true story behind 'Argo'
Mendez on "wheels up"

"Argo" is loosely based on Mendez's book. Better make that, very loosely based. As movie critics and others have pointed out since the movie opened a few months ago, the filmmakers took lots of dramatic license with the story. Mendez's role is played up, while that of the Canadians who helped hide and protect the Americans is played down. Some scenes depicted in the film never happened. Some characters are composites of several real people.

Read more: Why 'Django Unchained' stirs race debate

In other words, it's what you would expect from a Hollywood feature film based on a historical event. It's not a documentary. It's meant to be taken with a grain of salt, and to be entertaining.

Still, there are some Latinos -- in and out of Hollywood -- who think that, in this case, the filmmakers, and especially Affleck, pushed the concept of creativity too far. They say Affleck missed an opportunity to put more Latinos on screen. Moreover, they say, Affleck improperly claimed, for himself, the choice role of Mendez when he should have cast a Latino actor instead. They insist that the director didn't just cheat a Latino out of an acting job but the Latino community out of a feel-good story about one of their own who won acclaim for a heroic deed.

The critics are right, and their cause is just. Affleck should have tried to cast a Latino to play Mendez. That's common sense, and it would have made "Argo" a better movie. Affleck also didn't do himself any favors by trying to dismiss the criticism with a glib remark that essentially said that it really doesn't matter that the actor playing Mendez isn't Latino since Mendez himself isn't, shall we say, overtly Latino.

Read more: The biggest, buzziest movies of 2013

At a recent forum intended to publicize the film, Affleck responded to a question from the audience about the controversy by noting that "Tony does not have, I don't know what you would say, a Latin/Spanish accent" and that "You wouldn't necessarily select him out of a line of 10 people and go 'This guy's Latino.' "

Ouch. At least Affleck didn't slip and say "line up."

"So I didn't feel as though I was violating something," he said, "where, here's this guy who's clearly ethnic in some way and it's sort of being whitewashed by Ben Affleck the actor."

Johnny Depp set a better example. Several months ago, Depp turned down the role of Mexican revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa in another film. He said that the role should go to a Latino. I praised Depp at the time for showing that, besides being a great actor, he is also a person of character.

Read more: A (Richard) Gere shift for Oscars?

The exclusion of Latinos from Hollywood is an old story. This is still a black and white world, where Latinos rarely get cast in the leading role. We're the gardeners and housekeepers, the gang leader and drug dealers, the nannies and farm workers. That's it. There has been some progress, of course. But not enough -- not when you have a Latina in the Supreme Court, three Latinos in the U.S. Senate, and Latinos heading Fortune 500 companies.

I could blame the environment of Southern California, in which most Hollywood writers, producers and directors live and spend most of their time. When they get up in the morning and drive to work, most Latinos they encounter are subservient. We clean their homes, cook their breakfast, trim their hedges, park their cars and otherwise help them get through the day.

Still, you can push this argument too far, and wind up going down a dangerous path -- one that ultimately sets back the greater cause of trying to get television networks and film studios to create a broader range of meatier roles for Latino actors and actresses.

After all, it's a short walk from saying that a director should have cast a Latino to play a Latino to arguing that only Latinos can play Latinos. And, if that's the argument, then on what moral high ground do Latinos stand to also push -- as we should -- for Latino actors and actresses to be considered for generic and mainstream roles that could have gone to white actors? We can't have it both ways.

Even if Latinos succeed in making their point about this one director and this one movie, it could backfire. We could win this battle, and still lose the war.

But before Latinos can be fully integrated into America and not considered outsiders, we have to take every opportunity to push for inclusion and fairness. And acknowledging that Latinos have the skills to play themselves is a good start.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT