What’s Hollywood got against Latinos?

Editor’s Note: Felix Sanchez is the chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

Felix Sanchez: New MPAA data show Latinos' moviegoing continues to rise. But Latino roles sorely lacking in films

He says the way Latinos are shown figures heavily in how the nation and world picture this growing group

CNN  — 

Neatly tucked away in just-released data provided by the Motion Picture Association of America is this revelation: While overall 2016 box office attendance remained flat, the number of Latinos going to the movies remains on the increase.

Felix Sanchez

Latinos remain over-represented among frequent moviegoers relative to their overall percentage in the US population. Their attendance has been trending upward for years: from 2015 to 2016 it grew from 7.9 million to 8.3 million (its all-time high was 11.6 million, in 2013). Similarly, during 2015-2016, attendance for African-American frequent moviegoers grew from 3.8 million to 5.6 million; for Asian-American frequent moviegoers, it rose from 3.2 million to 3.9 million.

Put another way, in 2016, Hispanics comprised 18% of the US population, but over-indexed at 23% of frequent moviegoers. African-Americans and Asians combined represent 20% of the population and accounted for 26% of frequent moviegoers. Taken as a whole, people of color now account for 48% of frequent moviegoers.

Yet nowhere in the MPAA’s 2016 Theatrical Market Statistics report was the issue of portrayal — the elephant in the report — discussed. But, in theory, if effectively mobilized, US ethnic and racial minorities could control the purse strings and have a decisive effect on whether the US film industry has a financially successful or a disastrous year.

The disturbing underbelly of this news? A 2014 study by Columbia University Professor Frances Negron-Muntaner, titled “The Latino Media Gap,” revealed that, “From 2000 to 2013, among the 10 films with the highest domestic growth per year, Latino lead role appearances decreased from 2.8% in the 2000s to 1.4% in the 2010s.”

Appallingly, Latinos represent a quarter of frequent moviegoers, yet are the most under-cast demographic in US films. Neither the MPAA nor the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences have adequately addressed this lack of Latino portrayal.

Why is Latino portrayal important? Not only should the film industry be responsive to a key demographic that helps it achieve financial success but, more importantly, it should recognize that the way Latinos are shown figures heavily in how the nation and the world picture this important demographic group.

It’s easy to understand why Latinos have been caught up in Donald Trump’s litany of narrative deception, begun early in his campaign, in which he has repeatedly slandered an entire ethnicity. After all, the American public has almost no reaction when a “well-dressed” white man travels to New York to kill a black man; in contrast, when two unauthorized Latino teens are accused of rape, White House press secretary Sean Spicer and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, sound the alarm, using allegations of one crime to paint every Latino immigrant as Willy Horton.

Why have Americans bought into the false depiction of people from the Middle East as terrorists and undocumented Latinos as rapists, but not assumed a similar blanket fear of white males, even when high-profile crimes are attributed to this group? The answer turns on what we know sub rosa about these groups. When the narrative about minority groups that we are fed in the popular (and political) culture is thin, there is all kinds of opportunity to layer it with disinformation, filling in the blanks, too often, with ugly, racist assumptions.

But when pop culture offers us rich content — say, about white males — then when a person in that group is implicated in a crime, this becomes only a small part of the truth we mentally assemble for that group.

US-born Latinos and Latino immigrants are caught in a media crossfire. The right assaults us with hysteria while the left erases or marginalizes us from the American film landscape.

The film industry is filled with denial about representational issues. Only recently, Variety reported that Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the iconic and liberal-leaning television series “The West Wing,” asserted that Hollywood is a genuine meritocracy and that he was unaware of Hollywood’s existing diversity problem.

Fortunately, not all in the business have lived such a sheltered life. In contrast, the family foundation of esteemed Academy Award-winning film director George Lucas last week presented the University of Southern California Film School with a second endowment of $10 million to provide financial assistance to Hispanic and African-American students, matching an earlier gift of the same amount, for a total of $20 million to support USC’s student diversity program.

It’s time for the MPAA and the AMPAS to show leadership and develop a plan to bring Latino diversity up to par, while also increasing the quality of African-American and Asian lead roles in US films. The alternative is a campaign by the 48% of frequent moviegoers — injured by poor image reflection in American films — to shun the box office until films #reflectLatinos and other minorities.