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For Latinos in the film industry, Mexican directors’ Oscar success is a ‘mixed bag’

With Mexican directors having won three of the last four Oscars in that category and Guillermo del Toro the odds-on favorite to win another on March 4 for “The Shape of Water,” we thought we’d ask some American Latino filmmakers how inspiring this phenomenon is.

We got some unexpected answers. While all expressed admiration for the artistry Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”), Alejandro G. Inarritu (“Birdman,” which also won Best Picture, “The Revenant”) and del Toro brought to their contenders, most professionals saw no doors opening for homegrown Hispanic artists because of that success.

And great as those honored movies were, there was general consensus that something was missing from all of the prestige productions.

“You know, these guys are brilliant, nobody can question that,” noted Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a Pasadena-based advocacy group for Latinos in show business and media. “You look at their films and you say ‘wow,’ they’re nominated with good reason. From that point of view, we all have to applaud them.

“But I’m disappointed in that they have not brought American Latinos into their productions,” Nogales added. “Not as actors, not in high positions as producers and so forth. So what good are they for the American Latino community, meaning those individuals who were born or immigrated to this country and are part of our social/cultural history here in this nation?”

Producer-director-actress Fanny Veliz

Actress, director of the feature “Homebound” and CEO of Avenida Productions in Burbank, Fanny Veliz was inspired by Inarritu’s 2000 Mexican debut feature “Amores Perros” to make films that honestly portray the American Latino experience. It’s not what she sees in her hero’s later, English-language work, though.

“Unfortunately, these Mexican directors are making the whitest films there are!” Veliz observed. “’Birdman,’ that film took place in New York and was the whitest film, so much so that it kind of takes you out of the story because it’s New York — like really? There could be no person of color, no Latinos?

“It’s a heartbreak because we’ve helped them to get to where they are, we supported their films,” Veliz noted. “And they can’t even cast us in one role? They have the power, they’re in there, but it’s like they forgot where they came from.”

“Birdman” earned acting Oscar nominations for Michael Keaton, Emma Stone and Edward Norton. Leonardo DiCaprio won a long-elusive Best Actor statuette for “Revenant.” Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were the only actors seen in “Gravity”; she got a nomination. Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer are all nominated for “Shape of Water,” a film with a strong inclusiveness message — but only one small role credited to an actor with a Latin name.

“It feels like we have less opportunities to get in those doors because Hollywood has this romantic idea of finding talent internationally, and then they bring them here and neglect the talent that they have in their backyard.

— Yennifer Behrens, actress-producer-director

Del Toro, who won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for Best Director in London Sunday, had not responded to requests for comments before this story was published.

Perhaps the lack of U.S. Hispanics both onscreen and behind-the-scenes in the Mexicans’ award-winning productions would not sting so much if Hollywood hired Latinos in proportion to either their population or higher moviegoing demographic percentages. At 18 percent of the U.S. population, Hispanics made up 23 percent of frequent moviegoers in 2016, according to a report by the Motion Picture Association of America. A USC study from that same year found that the percentage of speaking Latino characters in popular movies since 2007 was consistently 5.3 per annum.

That noted, some in the community are sympathetic to the professional pressures the Mexican directors might feel when they work in the English-language film industry.

Producer-director-actor Mauricio Mendoza

“I don’t have issues with it because I think everybody deserves an opportunity just to be in the entertainment business,” said actor-producer-director Mauricio Mendoza, who with his wife Yennifer Behrens runs the Sherman Oaks production company True Form Films.

“These directors come from Mexico, and I understand that they have to cast A-list actors. As we all know, right now there is not one Latin actor like that that can open a film. I understand why they have to cast the way they cast, because they also need opportunities and have to cast this way because that’s how people will go see their movies. But that’s unfortunate.”

“I love those guys,” busy TV actor Esai Morales, who co-starred in one of the most successful American Latino movies, 1987’s “La Bamba,” says of Cuaron, Inarritu and del Toro. “Would I wish that they would have roles for me? Sure. But I also realize that their greatness and success does not lie in their depiction of their own communities, but of society in general.

Actor Esai Morales

“It’s a tough call to make,” Morales says of minority representation in movies. “You can’t PC art. There’s only so much you can do.”

And yes, there is inspiration to be found in the acclaim for the Mexican directors.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Natalie Meza, a Mexican-American senior in Cal State Northridge’s Film Production program and a Hollywood Foreign Press Association fellow. “It’s inspiring and it’s really good to have representation, to see that it’s not just one group. When people think of directors, a lot of them think of white males, so it’s really amazing to see people from different cultures representing the field. It’s just showing the younger generation of filmmakers like me that there’s not only one group that can be represented. It’s exciting to see the change in Hollywood that is happening.”

“It is inspiring,” added Andrew Reyes, another CSUN Mexican-American film student and aspiring director. “It’s tough for anybody to break into the film industry, and when we see Latino filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro claiming these prestigious awards, it is truly inspiring. They’re expanding the windows of opportunity for aspiring Latino filmmakers such as myself and the students here at CSUN. We’re really trying to challenge and fight the good fight on diversity.”

Actress and True Form producer Behrens, who recently directed her first short “Mi Amor,” seemed to sum up the feelings of U.S. industry Latinos about the Mexican directors’ remarkable run at the Oscars.

“I have a mixed bag of feelings when it comes to that,” she said. “It’s great that at least the Mexican directors are getting the accolades and are getting the opportunities to really play in the A-list game. It’s fantastic and very exciting.

“I just feel that the Latino Americans who are all here in the United States, working really hard, it feels like we have less opportunities to get in those doors because Hollywood has this romantic idea of finding talent internationally, and then they bring them here and neglect the talent that they have in their backyard. I just think opening those opportunities for us would be fantastic.”

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