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Commentary

The Silver Screen That Divides Us

Hollywood's proximity to Mexico doesn't translate into realistic film portrayals of its people or culture.

April 24, 2001|LORENZA MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What if you woke up one day and every movie portrayed Americans as dumb, dirty and ignorant? What if every TV show you tuned into showed Americans as fat, lazy and inbred? What if every actor was cast as The Ugly American--greedy, materialistic and arrogant? Welcome to how the rest of the world feels when it watches Hollywood portray its countries and cultures.

No one is as good--or as persuasive--at making other cultures look as simplistic and backward as Hollywood. Whether it's Arabs, Asians or Mexicans, foreigners have always served as a convenient source of amusement, exoticism and danger for Hollywood.

Mexico in particular has suffered the brunt of this myopic depiction. Whether it's the silent-era films or the gun-toting westerns, Mexicans have rarely, if ever, been seen in a complex or flattering light. Lately, Mexico has served as the backdrop for several major studio movies--"Traffic," "The Mexican," "Blow" and "All the Pretty Horses,"--and unfortunately many of the stereotypes and simplistic portrayals remain.

"It's not that [these latest films] are any worse than other films, but the problem is that Hollywood seems to only focus on the negativity of Mexico," said David Maciel, a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Dominguez Hills who has written several books about Hollywood's depiction of Mexico. "Very seldom do we find an uplifting film about Mexico or Mexican culture and society."

Last month, producer Mike Medavoy held a dinner in Los Angeles in honor of Mexican President Vicente Fox that was attended by such stars as Marlon Brando, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, as well as studio executives. The theme of the evening was improving relations between Mexico and the United States.

Actor Ricardo Montalban decided to say something at the event about the way Hollywood has consistently portrayed Mexico in a negative light.

"I wanted to get it off my chest," said Montalban, recalling his speech that night. "I said, 'Mr. President, if we are talking about a better understanding between our two countries, I think Hollywood could do so much to help that understanding. When I was at MGM and they wanted to make me a romantic lead--I was Cuban. With Esther Williams in 'Latin Lovers' I was Argentinian. With Lana Turner I was Brazilian. Those are nice-sounding nationalities. Mexican is not a nice-sounding word and Hollywood is at fault for this because we have been portrayed in this ungodly manner. We are the indolent peon leaning on the cactus. We are the bandits. Hollywood could do a great deal to undo the harm that it has done over the years.' "

But those one-sided images continue in some recent films.

In USA Films' "Traffic," Mexico comes off as a cesspool--seen literally through a brown haze of poverty, corruption, greed and narco-violence. The only exception is Benicio Del Toro's portrayal of a conflicted but ultimately moral cop. Perhaps we owe that to the actor himself. Del Toro said in a recent Los Angeles Times interview that he molded the character to be more complex.

In the original "Traffic" script, Del Toro's character, Javier, was calculating and corrupt. Del Toro, who is Puerto Rican, urged director Steven Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan to add nuance to the part. He helped them understand that the drug war is directly related to Americans' seemingly insatiable appetite for drugs.

For Mexico (as well as Colombia), the human toll is extraordinary, and winning the war is complicated by issues of poverty and hunger.

"So many times we've done movies and used an ethnic group to just make a statement about this and that," Del Toro said in The Times' interview. "I think, 'Hey, it's time to show the other side too.' I'm talking about bucking stereotypes. Mexico has this intense history. It's important to say there's a lot of people, the majority, who are honest, hard-working people."

*

In New Line's "Blow," the only sense of Mexico we get is that it's a place where gringos can go buy some "pot-o." Meanwhile, the depiction of Colombia's drug trafficking in the film was so simplistic that it moved Colombian President Andres Pastrana to write an op-ed piece about it in The Times earlier this month.

"In 'Blow' we see [drug kingpin Pablo Escobar] on his ranch, talking business," Pastrana wrote. "What we don't see are the bombs he set off in Colombia, in shopping malls and on airplanes; or the judges, politicians, journalists and police officers he murdered in cold blood; or the thousands of widows and orphans he and his cohorts created."

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