Racebending Alert: The Story of Antonio Mendez Hits The Big Screen

By Arturo R. García

The more you read about Antonio Mendez, the more his exploits make Burn Notice look like Get Smart: the Colorado native who grew up in a single-parent household went from answering a random want ad to a 25-year career in the CIA as an “espionage artist,” specializing in helping assets get out of tough situations.

“I would say the whole thing was like James Bond but even better. I was involved in Moscow creating tradecraft, knocking the socks off the KGB,” he told Open Your Eyes magazine in 2008. “If you are surrounded by an army of that kind of counterintelligence and you can still do your business, Bond doesn’t even get close to that.”

Mendez went on to write two memoirs about his experiences in the field. But his most celebrated operation, an extraction of six U.S. diplomats from Iran in the first days of the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeni, was the subject of a 2007 article in Wired Magazine. As Joshuah Bearman wrote, this particular plan would take a more cinematic turn – literally – than the usual covert actions: Mendez actually created a fake movie production.

To build his cover, Mendez put $10,000 into his briefcase and flew to Los Angeles. He called his friend John Chambers, the veteran makeup artist who had won a 1969 Academy Award for Planet of the Apes and also happened to be one of Mendez’s longtime CIA collaborators. Chambers brought in a special effects colleague, Bob Sidell. They all met in mid-January and Mendez briefed the pair on the situation and his scheme. Chambers and Sidell thought about the hostages they were seeing each night on television and quickly declared they were in.

Mendez knew they had to plan the ruse down to the last detail. “If anyone checks,” he said, “we need that foundation to be there.” If they were exposed, it could embarrass the government, compromise the agency, and imperil their lives and the lives of the hostages in the embassy. The militants had said from the beginning that any attempted rescue would lead to executions.

In just four days, Mendez, Chambers, and Sidell created a fake Hollywood production company. They designed business cards and concocted identities for the six members of the location-scouting party, including all their former credits. The production company’s offices would be set up in a suite at Sunset Gower Studios on what was formerly the Columbia lot, in a space vacated by Michael Douglas after he finished The China Syndrome.

Bearman’s article chronicling Mendez’s faux production, Argos, has now been adapted into a screenplay of the same name, to be produced by George Clinton’s Smokehouse films and directed by Ben Affleck. Great opportunity for a Latino actor, right? Well, according to Variety magazine, Affleck’s already found the perfect leading man:

Yup. Himself.

Given Affleck’s much-hyped involvement in the Project Greenlight series years ago, where he helped make the career of fledgling directors, it’s disappointing to hear he won’t take the same chance with a Latino actor for Argos. As shown on the graph at right, taken from a 2006 study by UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center, shows that only Latino actors are requested only 5.2% of casting breakdowns, and get 1.2% of lead roles. Unless Affleck and company reverse course, Argos could go down as a missed opportunity on par with 21, which erased the real-life Asian-Americans who inspired the film in favor of “more marketable” white leads.

Thanks to reader Mike G. for the tip and the links!

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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  • Rand Ortega

    Great.  Hollywood whitewashing yet again. When will this evil stop? When will the idiot, racist Hollywood suits realize the film market is a global market, accepting of lead actors of all races?  So many fantastic, capable Latino actors would be perfect in this role. It’s “The Last Airbender” box office failure all over again. 

  • richard

    yo ben, do yourself a favor and pay attention to continued whitewashing of history. it will save you “spiritual millions” on your internal laundry bill when you attempt to clean the damage that whitewashing causes globally and personally. mendez should played by a latino actor. period. share the spotlight homie. you are getting older and have more responibilities beyond yourself. your in a position model some positive change. listen up.

  • Nera

    It was funny about about one minute until the reality of it sank in and then I just felt disappointed.  Ben Affleck knows better.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nirvana24 Chinwe Okorie Ŧ

    Wow Ben was just in my good grace.. very disappointed and he calls himself a liberal. 

  • nicepebbles

    What a shame! Off the top of my head, Jon Seda or Benjamin Bratt. Additionally, I would’ve thought Affleck has learned to stay behind the scenes or at least take a bit part.

    • BlackLizLemon

      I agree, Benjamin Bratt would be great in this.

    • http://twitter.com/lfresh lfresh

      Agreed, Benjamin Bratt would be fantastic in this.

  • Iggles

    Haha! The irony is Ben Affleck looks like he could be Latino! When I look at him, I wonder if he has mixed-race ancestry that he’s hiding. He’s has an olive complexion and dark hair and eyes! A lot of mid-westerners do too, and if you dig a bit deeper you find out they have Native American or Latino/Mexican ancestry somewhere…

  • KarennaH

    As much a I’d love to see a Latino actor in this role, as a Latina, I cannot for the life of me think of one big enough to risk a very big budget production on. I’m sick to death of Edward James Olmos, and besides the fact that neither Wilmer Valderrama or Kuno Becker can act their way out of a Ziploc baggie, much less a paper bag or carry an entire film, I’m not sure if non-native English speakers to play the role of a sixth-generation American (like this CIA guy is) is any less an offensive choice than Ben Affleck. So who does that leave us with? Bobby Cannavale (yawn) or an unknown Latino actor (triple yawn)?

    I really don’t know what the answer is, other than I’d much rather go see Ben Affleck, who at least seems passionate about the story and will probably (if his other films are any indication) make it at least mildly interesting and professional, rather than have to sit through, yet again, some half-baked, half-developed “authentically American Latino” film just because it’s supposedly good for me and my community. I’ll take Affleck in a popcorn flick like this over the Brussels sprouts approach of god-awful Latin films like “Spoken Word” or Interchangeable Border Crossing Film or Serious Drama About Immigration No. 1,045 any day.

    • Anonymous

      Charlie Sheen?  But that would bring down the wrong kind of publicity.  XD

  • Anonymous

    Ben Affleck is such a tool. I agree with Grace; is there anything that can be done to get a Latino actor in there?

  • Grace

    So terrible and ridiculous that I actually laughed on the inside (reading this in public). I’m just mad. Is there any action that can be taken to get a Latino actor cast?