Conflict & Justice

Did Argo Whitewash an American Hero?

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Argo has been one of last year's most celebrated films. Ben Affleck directed the movie and stars as the CIA operative who masterminded the escape of six US embassy employees from Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis. That man's name is Tony Mendez, and Latinos in and out of Hollywood have questioned whether Affleck, a dyed-in-the-wool WASP, should have played Mendez, who is Mexican-American on his father's side. Slate and Huffington Post commented on the issue when the film hit theaters in the fall, and stories have continued to appear on, in the Latino press, and in the blogosphere. One blogger detailed many recent instances of whitewashing in celebrated films.
Moctesuma Esparza, a film producer and the CEO of Maya Cinemas, is troubled that a Latino actor was deprived of the powerful, unstereotypical Latino role as a CIA agent. "Mexican-Americans and Latinos aren't getting a fair shake in Hollywood to create careers and become stars," he told Kurt Andersen. Moreover, because the film is all most people will ever know of the event, it deprives the Latino community of a historical hero.
In an interview, Tony Mendez said that he doesn't consider himself Hispanic, and expressed no reservations about Affleck portraying him. "That's really not the issue," for Esparza. "The issue is how does society see us? How has America seen us? If you have a Spanish surname and you look like someone who might be Mexican – or even if you're blonde – you're discriminated against."
Esparza sees Affleck's casting as emblematic of a movie industry with no compunctions about casting white non-Latinos to play revered figures, such as Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata, or Jeffrey Hunter as World War II hero Guy Gabaldon. (In a sign of progress, Johnny Depp recently turned down the role of Pancho Villa.)
In an opinion piece he wrote for La Prensa San Diego, Esparza, speaking as a producer, says that an A-list Tony Mendez wasn't necessary to guarantee the film's commercial success. "There was a whole host of characters in the movie where you could have cast around with other stars, and had an unknown, if you wanted, in the role of Mendez. That could be done – I've done that – it's not difficult. It's considered in Hollywood all the time."
â?? Should the Tony Mendez role have gone to a Latino actor? Tell us in a comment below.

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Tagged: San DiegoTehranAmericaUnited StatesNorth AmericaGuy GabaldonJohnny DeppJeffrey HunterBen AffleckKurt AndersenTony MendezMarlon Brandorace and ethnicityfilm.