Are Latinos still silenced or unseen in film despite population growth?

Latinos are the second largest racial/ethnic group in the United States, accounting for about half of the nation’s population growth over the past two decades. Despite this significant demographic presence, it is disheartening to realize that the representation of Latinos in American movies remains alarmingly low.

According to the latest study from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (AI2), just 5.5% of speaking characters on the big screen are Hispanic or Latino. Shockingly, this proportion has not significantly changed in the past 16 years, even as the U.S. Hispanic population grew by 23% in the past decade alone. Moreover, even fewer Latino actors (4.4%) were cast as leads or co-leads in films. It is worth noting that less than 1% of these roles were filled by Afro-Latino actors, with only eight actors fitting this category. Furthermore, only 2.6% of the Latino characters were born in the United States. These statistics highlight a stark disparity in representation and indicate that Latinos remain underrepresented or relegated to supporting roles in the film industry.

AI2’s sponsored study, which examined the 100 highest-grossing movies annually from 2007 to 2022, revealed a disturbing trend. In no single year did all six major studios, along with Lionsgate, release at least one Latino-led film. Among these studios, Warner Bros. released only three films with Latino leads in 16 years. This lack of representation is particularly disheartening for the Latino community, considering that they represent 49% of Los Angeles, known as the entertainment capital of the world.

Delving deeper into Hollywood’s decision-making process, the study compared the production and marketing spends, as well as the distribution size, of movies starring Latinos versus non-Latinos. Researchers discovered that movies with Latino leads received less financial support, especially in terms of production budgets. The median cost for Latino-led movies was $10 million, while movies without a Latino actor received a median budget of $25 million. Remarkably, there was no significant difference in box office performance between the two groups. Interestingly, Latino-led movies from the sample had a higher median Metacritic score, indicating the potential quality of these films.

“These findings illuminate that Hispanic/Latino stories are supported with fewer resources. That means that not only films themselves are under-resourced, but the Hispanic/Latino actors starring in these movies probably receive lower compensation,” commented Stacy L. Smith, the founder of AI2. She further emphasized that this reality compounds the issue, as there are already limited opportunities for Hispanic/Latino actors, and the existing roles are less lucrative.

The study also examined onscreen representation intersectionally and qualitatively, revealing few LGBTQ+ or disabled Latino characters. Additionally, more than half (57.8%) of the Latino protagonists in last year’s movies were depicted as criminals, perpetuating stereotypes and tropes. These findings highlight the persistent misrepresentation of the Latino community in film, reinforcing outdated and mistaken beliefs about their experiences. This lack of authentic storytelling prevents both Latino and non-Latino audiences from being able to advocate for more genuine narratives.

Behind the camera, the study found that just 4.6% of the directors in the 16-year sample were Hispanic or Latino. Out of this small percentage, only 30.5% were U.S. born, and less than 1% were women. Alarming as it may be, only five Latinas directed at least one of the 1,600 movies analyzed in the study. This lack of diversity and representation behind the scenes further perpetuates the underrepresentation of Latinos in the film industry.

AI2 concluded its report with recommended solutions for progress. These recommendations include having at least two Hispanic or Latino executives on each distributor’s greenlight team, auditioning Hispanic and Latino actors for roles that do not explicitly specify their ethnicity, creating lists that include Hispanic and Latino talent for agents, specifically soliciting submissions from Hispanic and Latino filmmakers at film festivals and nonprofit organizations, designating funding for Hispanic and Latino projects by philanthropists, hiring Hispanic and Latino talent for branding and advertising campaigns by corporations, and ensuring Hispanic and Latino constituent creatives have access to production funds and tax credits for filming locally through legislation.

Although AI2 acknowledges the reluctance of the film industry to heed these recommendations, their proposed action items serve as catalysts for change. It is crucial for the industry to recognize the importance of authentic representation and provide equal opportunities for the growing Latino population. Only through increased visibility and diverse storytelling can the film industry truly reflect the rich mosaic of American society.

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