Facing the facts: Latino and Hispanic communities continue to be marginalized in film

Authentic, intentional representation is necessary to shift stereotypes and is a business imperative.

A report released by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative on Wednesday found that Latino and Hispanic characters accounted for only 5% of speaking roles in 1,300 popular films. This number was despite the Hispanic and Latino population accounting for almost 20% of the U.S. population and almost 50% of the city of Los Angeles population, according to the study.

Graph depicting Hispanic/Latino characters missing in film

However, authentic representation is necessary because films are a powerful medium to shift culture.

“Casting a positive light on Latinx characters, normalizing the breadth of our identities and making sure we are proportionally represented on film is how we challenge stereotypes and shift the narrative for generations to come,” said Ana Flores, the founder and CEO of the #WeAllGrow Latina network.

The report titled “Hispanic and Latino Representation in Film: Erasure On Screen & Behind the Camera Across 1,300 Popular Movies” also found that only 3.5% of leads in these movies released from 2007 to 2019 were Hispanic or Latino, with over half of them being women.

Actress Cameron Diaz was the top performer, appearing as a lead in five of the 1,300 films.

“One piece of data that really stood out is that the top actor in the shortlist of Latinx leads/co-leads across 1,300 top-grossing films is Cameron Diaz,” Flores said. “No one can deny anyone’s identity, but the fact is that Cameron has never led with her Latina culture nor is she widely seen by audiences as a Latina. If we account for actors who authentically represent the vast Latinx cultural experience, then the number dramatically dwindles.”

The study also found that the medium of film continues to propagate stereotypes. Characters are often typecast in stereotypical roles, with 29.8% of characters portrayed as criminals, 39.3% participating in organized crime and 21.4% shown in depictions of violent crime, the study found.

Ana Tessier, a senior communication major and a student researcher at the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, highlighted that the visibility was not reflective of the breadth of the community.

“The representations that we do see tend to be pretty homogenous, excluding Afro-Latinos, queer Latinos, disabled Latinos,” Tessier said. “When you look at who holds power in Hollywood and who has held power since its inception, unfortunately these findings are not surprising.”

In a sample of 100 films in 2019, 35 films had no Hispanic/Latino character, 59 had no Hispanic/Latina character, 95 films had no Hispanic/Latino characters with disabilities and 98 films had no LGBTQ Hispanic/Latino characters.

Another finding shows that only 4.2% of Hispanic/Latino directors worked on the 1,300 top grossing movies. This number was even lower when it came to female directors, with only 3 out of 1,447 directors of the sample size identifying as women of Hispanic or Latin origin.

Tessier, however, called for more intentional representation.

“Representation is more than studios filling numbers and hiring Hispanics or Latinos just because,” Tessier said. “We need to make sure traditionally marginalized Latinos are leading the way and telling their stories.”

Yalda T. Uhls, founding director of UCLA’s Center for Scholars & Storytellers said she agreed effective representation is critical for young people to see themselves in media in addition to challenging stereotypes.

“I found research done by Nickelodeon to be a very poignant example of this kind of impact,” said Uhls, who works in bridging the gap between research and media creation. “They found that when kids are asking how they would cast a Hispanic/Latinx person, many said ‘I don’t know,’ demonstrating how little they see this ethnicity on screen.”

Increasing authentic representation in movies is a business imperative for studios too. A 2019 white paper, released by movie research firm Movio, revealed that when a marginalized community was represented on screen, audience attendance increased by twice the usual rate. For example, the Latinx audience for the movie “Coco” increased by 75% compared to the attendance for “Incredibles 2.”

Previous research by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative has made waves in Hollywood circles and has become a measuring scale for film critics.

“Film critics pay attention to our reports so when big blockbuster movies are released, people use our reports to assess the merits of such media,” Tessier said. “This might not seem too important, but it’s a big step— we’re telling these studios that we’re not just passive consumers and we see how they’re excluding us.”