By Latoya Peterson
There are posts where you already know how things are going to fall out before you even write it. This is one of them.
We’ve talked about the controversy with Argo before. Arturo broke down the man behind the movie back in July:
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.
Many people–including our friends at Racebending and Latino Rebels–have already pointed out that Ben Affleck squandered a prime opportunity to put a Latino actor in the lead for Argo. And we’ve heard the usual pushback that comes to discussing casting in Hollywood.
Trust us, we know it’s hard to bankroll a film that isn’t remaking an 80s toy or a popular superhero franchise. We know that often, prominent actors champion a project and star in it because that is how they can secure the funds to produce the movie. That’s standard operating procedure in Hollywood. And we know the argument already about the number of bankable Latino actors and why studios may have felt more comfortable funding Ben Affleck than funding…well, any other brown actor. (And, despite the fact that the film’s marketing trumpets the fact it is based on declassified information from actual government operations, there are still the fools who have to yell “It’s just a movie!” Seriously?)
But one of the things that we haven’t discussed in much depth is how blaming the environment for the ways movies are made is just another way of sliding the structural racism in Hollywood off the table. And looking at the double-bind of actors of color, we can expect to see this system reinforce itself for the foreseeable future.
Hollywood holds quite a few things to be self-evident and calls these things “truths” of the industry. One of the more interesting ones are the ideas about indie films. Indie films and projects are widely accepted as being the quick way to credibility, both for up-and-coming talent and for established mainstream talent trying to change their perception on the Hollywood market. Hollywood generally doesn’t have a problem with using unknown talent to front indie films; that optimistic thinking seems to end when it comes to people of color. So, there are two rules that operate at the same time:
1. Casting lesser known or unknown talent in indie movies is fine, because they will develop into larger stars and do more amazing things. But…
2. These lesser known stars will most likely not be of color because audiences don’t relate if the leads aren’t white.
The exception to the rule are indies that specifically discuss a marginalized existence, like Precious or Slumdog Millionaire. But once studios get involved, they will cite all kinds of numbers that say actors of color will not provide a decent return on investment. And so, while Jennifer Lawrence rode her much deserved accolades from Winter’s Bone to a star turn in the Hunger Games, that type of trajectory is often out of reach to actors of color.
If you let the Hollywood apologists tell it, this is just a hard truth of Hollywood. So PoCs are supposed to just wait for some benevolent director who believes in colorblind casting, or just hope that a role doesn’t get racebent and content themselves with playing terrorist/thug/geek/sassy neck-twirling clerk #2 for most of their careers.
But why wait? Why not create our own pictures, you may ask? Why are we waiting for mainstream (read: white Hollywood) to notice us before we can make our own stuff? The answer is simple: because it takes time to amass the connections and capital to create a big budget production.
It took Andy Garcia nine years to make his dream project, The Lost City. And this was after being in the business since 1989 and starring in several well-received films. Lee Daniels entered the industry in the late 80s, worked on the business side for years before amassing capital by selling his talent agency and moving over to the production side. Eva Longoria was to capture a first-look development deal after she became an major force in television, thanks to Desperate Housewives. Keep in mind, this fight to collect enough connections and capital to greenlight your own stories works the same way for white performers. Kristen Wiig needed the break on SNL in order to get in position to launch a film like Bridesmaids; Jennifer Aniston was able to leverage her Friends fame into both a film career and the money to invest in stories through her new production company Echo Films. It is hard to break through the noise of the entertainment industry and produce your own work.
But this dynamic hits actors of color harder since they are seen as a liability before they even start performing. And these issues feed each other–so actors of color who can’t get breaks on small films become actors of color who aren’t seen as having the chops to carry their own film/series, which reduces their earning power, which reduces their connections, which hinders them from having the resources and connections to produce their own work on a large scale.
And that brings us back to Argo.
There are many things that Argo did well. I really appreciated how they did not whitewash the Canadian ambassador’s wife (Patricia Taylor, played by Page Leong) and they took the time to show their photo inspiration for the scenes they recreated. I enjoyed learning about a part of our recent history. But watching Ben Affleck roll around with his 70s beard and tired eyes, just made me keep thinking of who else I could have watched. What actor on the verge is scanning casting notices right now, and hoping to be discovered? And why are we so willing to accept the Hollywood status quo when we keep hearing the same excuses year after year?
Ben Affleck casts himself as Tony Mendez in “Argo” [Racebending]
Now Ben Affleck Is Latino: Another Lost Opportunity for Hollywood [Latino Rebels]
Ben Affleck Is No Tony Mendez [XX Factor]
What Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’ Misses About Iran [Daily Beast]
ARGO F**k Yourself – Some thoughts On The Movie! [Iranian.com]
I Was Rescued From Iran [Slate]
How Accurate Is Argo? [Browbeat]
Iran, Politics, And Film: “Argo” or “A Separation”? [Daily Kos]
‘Think Like a Man’ Defies Studio Skeptics, But It’s a Bittersweet Celebration [Colorlines]