Argo And The Trouble With Hollywood Logic

By Latoya Peterson

(L-R) Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in “Argo” and the actual Tony Mendez. Via ABC News.

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?

Further Reading:
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]

  • Anonymous

    Zayas is not a white man. He looks lighter than he actually is in that picture you put up as he naturally has a olive complexion.

    Besides since when does simply a light complexion mean someone is white? If that were the case, people like rapper Heavy D would have been considered “white” but naturally he was not.

    Mendez is not a Latino white man.

  • Anonymous

    Problem is that Tony Mendez is not a “white latino”. You can’t go by that picture up there since that is Mendez as a senior citizen. Find a picture of Mendez from that time period and you’ll see how little Affleck looks like him.

  • Vanessa

    This is an excellent post that highlights the implications that movies like Argo, which choose white actors over actors of color, has in Hollywood both for actors of color and the stories of people of color. As someone who wants to pursue a career in Hollywood in order to create films with a more positive and well-developed representation of minority and female characters, it is a relief to see others constructively criticizing the decisions made in the film industry regarding race. Argo is only one of many films that either erase the ethnicity of their source material, like 21 and the notorious The Last Airbender, or darken Caucasian actors in a move uncomfortably similar to blackface, and I like that you call the movie out on it. You also establish that the reason this often happens is that Hollywood holds some “truths,” which includes the idea that “audiences don’t relate if the leads aren’t white.” However, I noticed that you don’t challenge whether this is in fact a reality or simply the rationale of a conservative industry. CNN contributor Roland Martin points out that African Americans have been widely accepted in music, sports, and a variety of public media, and that there is no reason to believe the trend would not follow for Hollywood movies. Would you say Hollywood has real fears, or are just afraid of a proverbial boogeyman in the closet?

    I also noticed that you focus on the financial difficulties actors of color face getting into the mainstream media. While this is an important topic to address, since people in the film industry constantly
    tell us “it’s all about the money,” I wonder what you have to say to those that insist that good storytelling doesn’t hinge on the character’s ethnicity. Monetary concerns are more of an apologist argument, which at the very least indirectly acknowledges that the problem exists, and that other factors make it difficult to fix.
    However, some refuse to believe there is a problem at all. Variants of this argument have been used by nearly every movie that has faced casting controversy, from Hunger Game’s casting director David Rubin to The Last Airbender’s M. Night Shyamalan. I myself recently was speaking to a group friend about good television shows with diverse casts, when one person angrily demanded to know why people thought a racially diverse cast automatically makes a story good. While not the point I was trying to make, my reasoning and those of the others in the car did not convince him. Why then, should we care so
    much about the ethnic background of a character, especially if it’s not specifically discussing marginalized existence, as you pointed out with Precious and Slumdog Millionaire? These are just other avenues of discussion I would be interested to see you address, but all in all I thoroughly enjoyed your article.

  • Pingback: Article on race, casting, and Hollywood | Media Aesthetics

  • Julio Ricardo Varela

    Thanks for linking back to the Rebels! It gave me the chance to read this very well-written and layered piece that extends the discussion and dialogue. Loved reading it.

  • Pingback: Almost Afternoon Pages | Sadie Magazine Blog

  • Elton

    This is frustrating. Obviously, movie making is a business, but it’s also a creative enterprise. Is there any possible way for some aspects of movie making to be slightly freed from the death grip of money?

    I realize we are in a slow economy, and when money is tight, it becomes even more difficult to stray from thinking only in terms of money. That’s why virtually every movie in theaters today is a franchise. They’re safer. I look around and it seems that every restaurant and store is a franchise, too. In hard economic times, we are less free with our money, and stick to established names. We stick to things that look “safe,” and to Hollywood, safe means white.

    The usual response is that people of color must vote with our wallets, but how can we when the choices are limited? What are some other ways we can affect the beginning of the movie making process, rather than just choosing from the end results?

  • Elton

    This is frustrating. Obviously, movie making is a business, but it’s also a creative enterprise. Is there any possible way for some aspects of movie making to be slightly freed from the death grip of money?

    I realize we are in a slow economy, and when money is tight, it becomes even more difficult to stray from thinking only in terms of money. That’s why virtually every movie in theaters today is a franchise. They’re safer. I look around and it seems that every restaurant and store is a franchise, too. In hard economic times, we are less free with our money, and stick to established names. We stick to things that look “safe,” and to Hollywood, safe means white.

    The usual response is that people of color must vote with our wallets, but how can we when the choices are limited? What are some other ways we can affect the beginning of the movie making process, rather than just choosing from the end results?

  • Leilanea

    I think this is an interesting issue- but one where the term ‘racism’ falls short. There is intersectionality at play here. Antonio Mendez is a White Latino, not mestizo or Black. He has a White actor playing him, so the charge of racism falls a bit flat. Could Carolina Herrera be played by a White actress without Latino roots? I am against that, but it wouldn’t be racism- it would be xenophobia. The race is the same, the ethnicity isn’t. Or how about the majority of Mexican presidents (their lightskin already an indicator of White privilege and racism within their own communities)? I think here the idea is “White Americans will be cast to play any White role”, this however leaves no place for a) White actors who have Latino roots b) White non-American actors (see any hero film that takes place abroad. The hero will always be played by a White American, even if he is supposed to be non-American, the only roles given to non-American Whites although the entire film takes place abroad will be the villains. Any film that takes place in Nazi Germany, any Eastern Europe state incl. Russia, Greece (see Captain corelli’s mandolin), Italy etc. EVER).

    • http://www.facebook.com/adil.mohammed.370 Adil Mohammed

      Yeah, this is something that pisses me off about American anti-racist discourse. It’s so… American. One can go to any Spanish speaking country in the Americas and find guys who look like Ben Afleck. One can be a Spanish-speaker or descendant thereof and still be white. One can have a Spanish surname and be a monolingual White American. We (the non-U.S. world) don’t all look at race the same way you do. Stop labeling white people as POC because they have a Spanish surname. It’s insulting to the POC in the Spanish speaking world who suffer racism at their hands.

      • Anonymous

        I’m confused. Affleck is not latino, whether we’re talking about white latinos or non-white latinos.

        It’s still whitewashing.

        And what’s the source on Mendez being a white latino?

        • happyappa

          Mendez is not a “White Latino”, so people like the posters you replied to are wrong.

          Here it says he is part Mexican, Welsh, and Italian. From his book:
          http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/1999/nov/22/nevada-man-details-his-years-as-master-of-disguise/

          • Anonymous

            That seems like flawed reasoning to me. It seems to imply a “one drop”
            rule on Whiteness- if you have some non-White ancestry, no matter how
            small and even if you are identified as White by others (thus get White
            privilege treatment from them), you’re out. I think you can have some
            Mexican indigenous ancestry and still be White (Again: see my Banderas
            post below). And the article explicitly states that his appearance made
            it easy for him to ‘pass’ (I don’t mean that in any way negatively,
            simply to quote Mendez himself from the article: “What you want to do if you are going to be an operations officer is you want to blend in …”)

          • happyappa

            But this movie and casting is ignoring the entire non-white side of Mendez. How is it that it always works out for the white actors? If a white actor claims they have .000001% Native American blood in them, they think it’s okay to play a Native American character. This movie is about a real person who is mixed race (white and nonwhite), and again, a white actor plays the part.

            “And the article explicitly states that his appearance made it easy for him to ‘pass’”
            And I don’t know how Ben Affleck can blend in if he’s just white. This is whitewashing. Mendez can “blend in” for a reason.

    • Anonymous

      Where are you getting this idea that he is a “white Latino”? That picture put up on this article is not a fair comparison because that is of Mendez now who is in his 70s. If you look at a picture of Mendez from that era he looks nothing like Affleck. In fact people that I know who have seen it say the movie ends with images of the real life people and they notice that everyone had a noticeable resemblance to the actors who portrayed them except for Mendez.

      An actor that looks like Mendez from that time and is a good actor is the guy who plays Angel Batista on Dexter. He should’ve been hired but of course he wouldn’t have because he is actually a Latino and Latinos don’t get casted as leads.

    • bunburina

      I totally agree. I was thinking that perhaps Diego Luna could have played Antonio Méndez quite convincingly. However, Diego Luna and Ben Affleck do look alike – both being white, dark hair, eyes, olive skin, et al. Someone in the previous post about Argo mentioned Kuno Becker, who is Mexican yes, but his father in Austrian – also white hispanic. The issue here doesn’t seem to be miscasting an actor of a different race, but of a different ethnicity.

  • Mickey

    Same ish, different day. I am done with Hollywhite and their whitewashing of characters that are actually POCs. I also read that Salma Hayek wanted to play the role of Alicia Lopez-Harrison de Lardé Nash, the love interest and eventual wife of Russell Crowe’s character in “A Beautiful Mind”, based on the life of John Nash. She lost it to Jennifer Connelly. The real Alicia Nash was from El Salvador, a Latina. Although, Salma & Alicia’s physical appearances differ as well as their nationalities (Salma is Mexican), she could have played the role. Thankfully, she has her own production company.

  • Anonymous

    What’s not mentioned here is how some people are framing this movie as Affleck’s “comeback”, despite how he’s been better off than 99% of actors, directors, and writers in Hollywood ever since “Good Will Hunting”. And people bought it. To some, he’s already no longer the butt of people’s jokes but suddenly A Serious Director Who Needs To Be Taken Seriously.

    If it takes whitewashing of a lead character to rebrand Affleck’s public image; I’ll continue to hold it against him, and laugh at most jokes at his expense without guilt. It’s a shame. As someone who read “Master of Disguise”, I did think it’d make a good movie. Since that ship has sailed with Affleck’s “Argo”, we’ll likely not see a proper adaptation of that story anytime soon.