Why Latino Movie Stars Have Never Been More Necessary

(L-R) Robert De Niro and Édgar Ramírez star in Hands of Stone. Photo: Rico Torres/La Piedra Films

Jonathan Jakubowicz is a Venezuelan-born filmmaker whose latest movie, Hands of Stone, opens Friday.

A question for you: What was the last mainstream movie you saw that had a Latino lead? Does even a single one come to mind? Not easy, is it? Now, to make it even harder, can you think of the last mainstream movie you saw where the Latino lead wasn’t a thug or a criminal? It’s tough, isn’t it?

I don’t condemn Latin movies with crime and violence. In fact, many years ago, I was fortunate to make one. It was a kidnapping thriller called Secuestro Express, set in Venezuela, and it became the biggest box-office hit in the history of the country. (It also enraged Hugo Chavez, who accused me off being part of a Jewish conspiracy to end “the revolution,” and even mentioned in his state of the union address that he didn’t understand why I was still a free man. Within hours, I had fled the country.)

Yet ever since I moved to Los Angeles, nearly every script I’ve been sent has featured Latin drug dealers, rapists, or criminals of some other kind. It's true my filmmaking style fits the genre, but this pattern is not limited to me. Everywhere I look in American movies and TV shows, I see few, if any, positive Latino characters. Even when the filmmakers are Latino, most Hispanics I see onscreen are criminals.

I’m reminded of these damaging stereotypes whenever I hear Donald Trump talk. In his very first speech announcing his candidacy, he described Mexicans as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists — in other words, reinforcing what has been the standard depiction of Latinos in movies. Trump didn't invent the stereotype. He's merely taking advantage of it for political gain, speaking to an audience that doesn’t find his words offensive since they’ve come to think of Latinos in the way he describes them. On CNN or Fox News, we watch Trump calling Mexicans drug traffickers, and then we change the channel to any number of scripted shows featuring Mexican drug traffickers. If you’ve been fed the same idea for your entire life, as most mainstream Americans have, it’s a lot easier to accept it as truth.

Even before Trump's candidacy had become a possibility, it was this unfortunate state of affairs that prompted me to search for a project about a positive Latino figure. That's how I found the story of Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán. The son of an American Marine who had an affair with a local, Durán grew up in the streets of El Chorrillo dreaming of providing a better life for his family, and defending the honor of his often humiliated people. He began working with American trainer Ray Arcel, and in time became one of the greatest fighters in history, serving as a symbol for the oppressed — a Latino Muhammad Ali, a bad-boy personality with a massive heart who gave an identity to his nation. Durán’s story is an epic.

I wrote the script in close collaboration with Robert De Niro, who plays Arcel, and we were able to put together an impressive cast, including Édgar Ramírez as Durán, and rounded out with up-and-coming Latino and African-American actors. It seemed like the perfect package — but no Hollywood studio wanted to finance it. The mini-majors and the indies didn’t want it either. Their suggestions were what you might expect:

"Can Durán be played by Leo DiCaprio or Colin Farrell?"

"What about Duran's wife — she's blonde, anyway. Can we get Scarlett?"

"How about making Durán the villain and Leonard the hero? If it’s about Leonard, at least we could cast a proven African-American movie star.”

I get it. Even in the era of CGI franchises, Hollywood runs on the star system. But we will never have a proven Latino movie star unless we cast Latino actors as Latino leads — and if you’re telling the story of Roberto Durán, you have to come correct. Boxing has been dominated by Latinos for decades, and yet there’s never been a mainstream boxing movie with a Latino lead. Continuing that trend with our film would have been unforgivable.

We did not give up. I will never forget De Niro’s words: "Go to Panama. Sometimes money has to have a reason to invest in a movie. You’re more likely to find that reason in the land where Durán is a national hero.”

Following his advice, my wife and I moved to Panama and spent a year meeting with businessmen and -women, government officials, and major companies — anyone who was interested in seeing Roberto’s story told. In time, the nation got behind the movie and we got the funding we needed to make it the way we wanted. We premiered Hands of Stone at Cannes, where it received a standing ovation that made us all cry. When it comes out this Friday, it will be on thousands of screens in the United States and around the world. It’s the widest release for a Latin movie in history, a rare happy ending for what seemed like an impossible dream.

Our film succeeded against the odds. Most similar efforts don't end well — movies with positive Latino leads simply don't get made. This year saw the emergence of an important conversation about the Oscars and diversity, but there was barely any mention of the lack of opportunities for Latinos. It's true that three brilliant Latinos — Alejandro Iñarritu, Alfonso Cuaron, and Emmanuel Lubezki — have recently dominated the Oscars’ Best Director and Best Cinematography fields. The problem of a lack of Latinos behind the camera is slowly being solved and the results speak for themselves. But in front of the camera, the problem of representation has not changed, and my fear is that with a major presidential nominee spewing hateful rhetoric toward Latinos, the negative stereotypes about our community will prove even harder to dislodge.

Our culture is at a crossroads. We need to show viewers that Latinos are not predestined to become criminals. We cannot reverse a set of stereotypes without the help and unwavering support of the entire industry. Racism doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's always a consequence, never a cause. A race-baiting opportunist can only take over a nation if his feelings are shared by the masses. Even if Trump doesn’t win, the xenophobia he’s unmasked cannot be forgotten. Content in entertainment has been proven to have political consequences. We can no longer ignore that.