Hollywood's Latinx representation is dismal: Why don't movies look more like America?

A new wave of Latinx-led TV is building, and yet inclusion rates in top films lag far behind the U.S. population

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published August 27, 2019 3:00PM (EDT)

Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, Constance Wu and Lili Reinhart in Hustlers (2019) (IMDB/Annapurna Pictures)
Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, Constance Wu and Lili Reinhart in Hustlers (2019) (IMDB/Annapurna Pictures)

Movies featuring strippers as lead characters have a history of struggling at the box office. “Striptease” and “Showgirls,” which both came out in the mid-'90s, had disappointing opening weekends, making just about $10 million each, while costing about $50 million to make.

“Hustlers,” which debuts September 15, may subvert the trend. With rumored production costs of about $20 million, The Hollywood Reporter is predicting a $24 million opening weekend.

Inspired by the viral New York Magazine story “The Hustlers at Scores,” the movie tells the story of a group of former strip club employees who begin stealing money from Wall Street executives during the 2000s financial crisis. Its star-studded cast — including Keke Palmer, Cardi B, Lizzo, Constance Wu — is led by Jennifer Lopez.

According to a new study by USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in partnership with the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP), Lopez’s involvement in the film makes it anomalous in another way. The report, “Latinos in Film: Erasure On Screen & Behind the Camera Across 1,200 Popular Movies,” found that between 2007 and 2018, only two Latina lead roles were played by a performer 45 or older — and both were Jennifer Lopez.

This isn’t the only disparity illustrated by the study. Researchers found that only 4.5% of all 47,268 speaking or named characters across the last 12 years were Latinx, as were a mere 3% of lead or co-lead actors. There was no meaningful change over the time period examined.

The study pointed out that, in addition to Jennifer Lopez, the most frequently hired Latinx actors were Cameron Diaz, Eugenio Derbez, and Jessica Alba, who held 16 of those 35 lead roles surveyed between them.

This is especially striking because, according to a Pew study, Hispanics are expected to be the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the United States by 2020. Currently, 77% of U.S. states and territories have a Latinx population greater than the percentage seen in Hollywood films.

In a statement released with the study, lead researcher Stacy L. Smith said that no matter which part of the film ecosystem they examined, “Latinos were vastly underrepresented.”

“This community represents nearly half of Angelenos, 39% of Californians, and 18% of the U.S. population,” Smith wrote. “At a time where Latinos in our country are facing intense concerns over their safety, we urgently need to see the Latino community authentically and accurately represented throughout entertainment.”

An interesting point found in the study is that diversity in film increased when there were Latinx film professionals behind the camera. But currently, 4% of directors of the 1,200 films surveyed were Latino; only one director of the 1,335 examined was a Latina.

“The Latino community has not been prioritized, and it is imperative that we shed light on the glaring reality of Latino representation in film," said Benjamin Lopez, Executive Director of NALIP, in a statement. “NALIP has positioned itself to be the elegant solution to this complex problem through our commitment to building the pipeline of Latino talent and sustainable development in the industry.”

The study stands in direct contrast to the shift in representation we’ve seen on television in the last five years. As Salon’s Melanie McFarland wrote earlier this month, that the Latinx TV crossover is already here with shows like “Los Espookys” and “Alternatino.”

“In this moment, viewers have their pick of a number of series that depict Latinx culture not as a separate, different existence, but as ingrained in the fabric of North America,” she wrote. “This does not solely refer to dramas such as Showtime’s ‘Vida’ or the CW's extraordinary ‘Jane the Virgin,’ concluding at the end of this month, veteran series that celebrate Latinx culture as core to their storylines.”

Concluding the report, Lopez wrote that he hopes the findings will inspire the film industry to follow suit.

“Professor Smith’s research must guide decision-makers to the conclusion that there is immense value in collaborating with and investing in the Latino community,” he wrote.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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