What Is Ailing Hispanic-American Cinema?

Kurt Thurber

Where is the Latin-American Tyler Perry? In his career, Perry has earned more than $500 million with his movies alone.  This does not include the earnings from stage productions and his television show. Madea, Perry’s alter ego, has made bank by bringing African-American “urban” theater to the silver screen. According to the 2010 United States Census, 12.6% or 38.7 million of the total U.S. population is African-American, and 16 percent or 50.5 million  are of Hispanic or Latino descent.


While the demographics show that a larger portion of the population is Hispanic-American, their impact in popular culture and media is not proportionate. Some aspects of pop culture reflect the greater increase in Hispanic-American numbers — the popularity of musicians such as Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, for example. A closer examination shows discrepancies, however. Yes, rappers and college sophomores all have Scarface posters. But the film stars an Italian-American, Al Pacino, and is directed by an Italian-American, Brian De Palma, and the story revolves around a Cuban gangster --- a start, but not quite the Hispanic-American cinema tour de force this article craves.


Arguably one of the most recognizable movie stars in the world today, Will Smith has starred in two of the top 100 all-time grossing movies, Independence Day ($522 million) and Men in Black ($435 million). Smith has also starred in the biography films of all-time great boxer and 20th Century icon Muhammad Ali  and the true story of rags-to-riches stockbroker Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness.  The biographical tales of successful Hispanic-Americans have yet to be told with such star power (sorry, Lou Diamond Phillips does not count).


The disparity between African-American and Hispanic-American actors in box-office drawing power is significant. Three African-American actors – Samuel L. Jackson (#1), Eddie Murphy (#3) and Will Smith (#15) rank  in the top 15 of all-time actors in box-office profits.  Antonio Banderas is the only Hispanic-American on the list at #44. Amongst actresses, Whoopi Goldberg is ranked at #10 and Hispanic-American actress Eva Mendes comes in at #77.


Despite the rankings, Hispanic-Americans have had a high profile in Hollywood. Director and Texan Robert Rodriquez’s hits include Sin City, Predators and the Spy Kids franchise. Rodriquez and Spanish-born actor Antonio Banderas made the cult-classic “El Mariachi” trilogy (El Mariachi, Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico). The movies explore the tradition of Mexican society against the modernity of its relationship with the United States. Banderas has had commercial success with The Mask of Zorro ($250 million worldwide) and as the voice of Puss-in-the-Boots in the animated Shrek series.  The 50 million person question remains as to why there isn’t a more prominent Hispanic-American genre in film? Do Cheech & Chong movies count? Where is the Hispanic-American version of Ray?


Hispanic-American actors seem to have fared better on the small screen. Cuban-American Desi Arnaz was the first Hispanic-American to be a prominent T.V. personality as the husband, both on and off-screen to comedienne Lucille Ball. However, Arnaz was a supporting member to his iconic and red-haired wife. Following Arnaz, television shows such as Chico and the Man starring Freddie Prinze Jr. or Ugly Betty starring America Ferrira found audiences with Hispanic leading actors. Despite becoming hits and part of the pop culture lexicon, they never reached the ratings or popularity of The Cosby Show.


Finally, there is the man born Carlos Estevez. Charlie Sheen has pursued a successful movie career starring in two Academy Award-winning movies, Platoon and Wall Street  with an Anglo stage name like his father Martin Sheen. Charlie Sheen was the highest-paid actor working in television as the star of Two and a Half Men prior to being fired. 


While on occasion American audiences are willing to read subtitles for a movie, for the most part, large audiences stay away from foreign-language films. Obviously, language is the foundation to any society whether it is a unique lexicon or a specific accent. Scriptwriters and filmmakers face the challenge of telling a Hispanic-American story that can be communicated to both Spanish- and English-speaking audiences. Successful Spanish-language movies like Y Tu Mama Tambien and Pan’s Labyrinth grossed $13 million and $37 million in the United States, not quite blockbusters.


There are great Hispanic-American stories to be told. The Zoot Suit riots, Ceasar Chavez’s struggle for immigrant workers’ rights, and many more stories from the turbulence of urban life to Hispanic-American bravery in many different United States military engagements. Times are still changing. The Daily Show has a Latin-American correspondent, Al Madrigal. Marvel Comics has released a new half-Hispanic/half-black Spiderman.


Hollywood has tried.  Our Family Wedding, starring America Ferrera, revolving around the racial tensions between the families of a Hispanic-American bride and African-American groom, failed with both critics and audiences. Fast Food Nation, based on a best-selling book about the role of Latin-American immigrant workers in the food industry, also fared poorly.  It does not mean the movie industry should stop looking for the great Hispanic-American tale. Maybe they should just ask Tyler Perry to produce.

Author Bio:

Kurt Thurber grew up in Caroline County, the only landlocked county on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. After matriculating through the public school system with no distinctive accomplishments whatsoever, he attended Mary Washington College, graduate school at Villanova University and completed a successful apprenticeship as a masked vigilante crime-fighter. He is ready for a "highbrow" discourse on any number of subjects. Did Han Solo shoot first? Heck and yes. What was MacGyver's first name? Angus. Can anyone put baby in a corner? Yes, Patrick Swayze from heaven. Read more of Kurt Thurber's musings at his blog www.historyguffaw.com.

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