TCM’s latest edition of Race in Hollywood, an ongoing series of retrospectives that examines ethnic representation in American cinema, turns its focus to the Latin community and the depiction (good, bad and otherwise) of its people by the Hollywood perspective. The month-long series runs Tuesday and Thursday nights May 5th – May 28th beginning at 5 p.m. (PST).
The showcase of 40 films, past and present, are programmed to demonstrate the progression of how Latino characters and culture have been depicted in cinema over the years. Each night’s collection of films will center on a particular theme, such as the silent era, border towns, musicals, interracial relationships, and social problems. Also included in the festival line-up will be some contemporary films making their first appearance on TCM, including Robert Redford’s “The Milagro Beanfield War”, star-making vehicles “La Bamba”(Lou Diamond Phillips) and “The Mambo Kings” (Antonio Banderas), and the modern day Western, “Lone Star”.
As usual, the venerable Robert Osborne will be on hand to introduce each evening’s lineup, and joining him in hosting the festival will be UCLA professor Chon Noriega. Professor Noriega is the author of “Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema”. This notable authoritarian is the editor of nine books, including “Visible Nations: Latin American Cinema and Video” and “I, Carmelita Tropicana: Performing Between Cultures”. Noriega’s vast experience also includes the position of curator for numerous media and visual arts projects, including “Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement”, which is currently traveling to venues in the U.S. and Mexico.
Professor Noriega spent a few minutes with me on the phone last week to discuss the series and his participation with the selection process, which he said was “based on an emphasis on the U.S./Latino experience and its portrayal”. For example, the lack of Westerns is due to traditional Hollywood’s Eurocentric tendency. “We didn’t decide to exclude Westerns”, said Noriega. “The films just need to be substantially engaging with a main Latino character”.
He clarified that the choices were “more about the image, not the Actor, such as Rita Hayworth or John Gavin”, who were well established stars of Mexican birth but rarely, if ever, represented their lineage on the silver screen. Ironically, more often than not in vintage Hollywood, Latinos were portrayed by the biggest stars of the time, regardless of ethnicity or the lack thereof (such as Spencer Tracy and John Garfield in “Tortilla Flat”). It was the rarity and not the norm for an actor such as Ricardo Montalban to have been given the luxury of representing his true heritage on celluloid. Fortunately for the Latin lover, Noriega explained, he was already a big star while “on contract with MGM during a notable time when the studio was taking up social subjects under studio head Dore Sherry”.
Each film in the series suitably reflects what Hollywood had to offer at the time of production. In addition, there are particularly noteworthy titles that stand out for their impact upon the ever-diversifying American public. “Giant,” Noriega stated, “is the major Hollywood film that deals with the Mexican population and that had an effect on the Mexican/American population”. From Mercedes McCambridge’s realistically disdainful treatment of the field hands, to Rock Hudson’s reaction to his son, and Dennis Hopper’s marriage to a Mexican girl, the situations were represented honestly in a film whose enormous star profile (translation: guaranteed box office revenue) included Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean.
Although there were many more films he would have liked to include in this year’s series Noriega said regretfully, “Touch of Evil was on my master list, as was Zoot Suit and Born in East LA”, choices had to be made. Overall, the list is a strong one, if light on readily recognizable titles. What is offered is an impressive variety of actors from Lupe Velez to Rita Moreno, and Anthony Quinn to Edward James Olmos. Given TCM’s reputation for reverence (and thoroughness) of similar topics, “Latino Images in Hollywood” should hold up to its predecessors (African-Americans in 2006 and Asians in 2008) in TCM’s Race and Hollywood series, entertaining the classic movie fan while profiling a timeless social issue.
To learn more about TCM’s Latino Images in Film series, please visit the Turner Classic Movies website.