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Filmmakers Look Behind Hollywood’s Lens on Race

A group of activist filmmakers combat racism and make change inside and outside Tinseltown.

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Other times, as in some of the films of Sidney Poitier and some of the Charlie Chan films, even the approved, mainstream vehicles manage to undermine racism in refreshing ways. Hollywood Chinese features a clip from The Mountain Road in which James Stewart’s character talks about a woman played by Lisa Lu as if she doesn’t speak English—an assumption Dong says he encounters in daily life—and she answers him in fluent English.

“When I meet people,” Dong says, “they often ask, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘I’m from San Francisco.’ ‘Oh, I mean where’s your family from?’ When two white people meet, is that the first thing they ask?”

ReelInjun_121610.jpgUnfortunately, the majority of Hollywood’s representations of people of color have fostered the false impressions that prompt such questions and assumptions. In Reel Injun director Neil Diamond mentions John Ford’s celebrated Stagecoach, in which the white characters race across the southwestern landscape besieged by hostile “savages” on all sides, as a particularly damaging work. This popular, prize-winning film starring John Wayne, widely considered a classic, has shaped ideas about Native Americans for generations. Reel Injun raises the question of what happens when Indian kids recreate movie battles between cowboys and Natives. The Indians lose every time, right?

“I really believe,” says Nancy De Los Santos, “that when any young child sees somebody that looks like them doing something that they admire, that’s how they start to get the wheels turning in their brain and in their heart saying, ‘I can do that.’”

What’s true for children, she finds, is true for adults as well. Exposure to positive models is all-important. “Jimmy Smits stated very clearly that seeing Raul Julia on stage made him decide he could be an actor. The same basic thing happened when I got into the business. I always loved television and film, but it wasn’t until I went to the University of Texas and met a Latina who was in charge of television production that I knew I could do it.”

While the overall quality of Latino representation has improved, De Los Santos says, “The quantity just isn’t there.” The problem will be solved, she predicts, only when more Latino writers get a place at the table.

bronze_screen_121610.jpg“I think it’s a challenge for the non-Latino writer to create a three-dimensional Latino character,” De Los Santos says. “It’s not impossible, but it’s a challenge. Here in L.A., many Latinos are in the service community. The non-Latino community knows Latina maids and Latino chauffeurs and gardeners. What you know is what you’re going to write about. An actor can always bring something more to a role, but I think it starts with the writing. Usually it turns out that people hire someone they know to do the writing, or any other job. The people who are doing the hiring are not Latino or African American. It’s a very difficult cycle to break. And more authentic images are not going to be created until Latinos and African Americans are at the table.”

Opportunities for writers are fewer in the current financial environment, De Los Santos realizes, so her longed-for increase in the quantity of Latino images is unlikely to happen soon. The change in majority consciousness that healthy representation could engender would also affect that representation in turn, in a kind of feedback loop.

“We all have a primal need to see ourselves,” De Los Santos says, summing up. “That’s why cavemen put their handprints on the walls in caves, to say, ‘We were here.’ We should all be in the movies.”

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