Like the constant fighting in state legislatures over classroom curricula show that history—or at least the composition of which stories should be taught, and from what perspectives—is subjective. That includes Hollywood’s rich tradition of biopics, which relate to an audience whose lives are worth immortalizing on film. Whether in textbooks or on screen, most of the protagonists of our shared cultural history have belonged to the same demographic: Elvis, Oppenheimer, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Hughes. Those individuals undoubtedly had a major impact, but Hollywood also devoted resources to spotlighting relatively lesser-known white men, such as Jordan Belfort, Frank Abagnale, and Hugh Glass (and that’s just one movie star’s filmography).
Biopics about people of color do exist, of course, especially when it comes to undeniable icons like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. But one community – the the second largest racial or ethnic group in the country – is especially underrepresented when it comes to history as told by Hollywood, which makes some of this year’s releases all the more remarkable. Flamin’ Hot, A million miles away, Cassandro And Radical are films that differ in genre, theme and tone, but what they all have in common is that they are based on the true stories of Latino men (particularly of Mexican descent). And together they offer audiences new entries in the collective cultural canon.
“These films mean our true stories are finally being told – us stories, not tropes,” said Brenda Victoria Castillo, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “And not just any film about Cesar Chavez. We have so many Latino legends in our history, and it’s time for the world to see who we are, how diverse we are, and what we have accomplished. We are part of the American story and they are finally hearing about us.”
Searchlight was released in June Flamin’ Hot, a comedic take on the story of marketing executive Richard Montañez, who invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos while working as a janitor at Frito-Lay. (In reality, Montañez’s claim to fame is actually in disputewhich only further underlines the potential of Hollywood’s mythic power.) Amazon has two films during Hispanic Heritage Month: A million miles away (premiering September 15), the inspiring story of José Hernández, who worked as a migrant farm worker as a child before eventually becoming an engineer and NASA astronaut, and Cassandro (which had its world premiere at Sundance ahead of its September 22 streaming release), a meditation on sexuality, faith and family through the life of Saúl Armendáriz, whose lucha libre alter ego pioneered gay pride amid the macho wrestling scene. Unlike the other three films, Radicalbased on the transformative work of educator Sergio Juárez Correa, is an entirely Mexican (not Mexican-American) story, but is expected to reach a crossover audience thanks in part to star and producer Eugenio Derbez when it hits U.S. theaters. and Mexico this fall, after winning the Festival Favorite Award at Sundance in January.
The effect of watching all four of these films in one week – as I did – is to be immersed in a different vision of North American culture and history, one in which Latinos are found in fields and factories, but also in boardrooms, classrooms, laboratories and Space Shuttles and, as Juárez Correa (Derbez) tells his students, possess limitless potential. More importantly, the films are mostly devoid of an outsider’s perspective, though some of Montañez’s (Jesse Garcia) amusing voiceovers feel like a boost on behalf of the film. gringos.
“I think we’re used to a lot of Latino and Mexican representation being done in a way that satisfies American audiences,” says A million miles away director Alejandra Márquez Abella, adding that migrant farm labor was an area she wanted to portray authentically. “I was concerned about portraying the fields as a horrible place, but I was also concerned about making it a romantic, beautiful place that everyone enjoys, because that’s not the case either. It was a difficult balance to do justice to those experiences.”
Márquez Abella, who makes her English-language and Hollywood studio directorial debut with this film, saves the inspiring feel-good vibes for Hernández’s remarkable personal journey. Under her careful direction, both migrant labor and the upward mobility of the Hernández family over the decades are depicted in a simple way, without a camera fetishistically dwelling on the characteristics of poverty or changing economic status. The effect of this matter-of-fact, culturally authentic representation is that the viewer is more easily able to tap into the emotional experiences of the characters, without the distraction of exoticization or otherization.
“The more authentic and specific, the more universal (a film) ultimately becomes,” said Julie Rapaport, head of film creation and strategy at Amazon MGM Studios, which gave the green light A million miles away last February (the project was first conceived at Netflix) and Cassandro in October 2020. Rapaport adds that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that such stories are considered “niche” based on the backgrounds of their protagonists, Amazon has taken advantage of this opportunity: “The fact that we would speaking to an audience that doesn’t necessarily always emphasize that was actually positive.”
The fact that these films are based on true stories can go a long way in combating stereotypes in the media and public attitudes. “In the media, migrant workers and immigrants more broadly are often reduced to their economic value or immigration status,” said Define American manager of entertainment partnerships and advocacy Dulce Valencia, who A million miles away a depiction of immigrants as “human beings with hopes, fears, families, loves and dreams that are sometimes so big they go to space.”
Meanwhile, “wrestlers are like a mirror of how Mexicans see themselves; However, Mexican society is very sexist and misogynistic and still very Catholic,” says Armendáriz, who has been the subject of several documentary treatments, including 2018. Cassandro, the Exotico! “I hope with this (narrative) film… that people will have the opportunity to get to know my true self through their screen.”
Cassandro is the first narrative feature from Oscar-winning documentarian Roger Ross Williams, who was inspired to pitch the film after directing a 2016 New Yorker short doc about the luchador. “There is much more freedom in the narrative space to reimagine Cassandro’s world, its implications and outcomes, all of which invite the audience to examine their own lives and biases around underrepresented or marginalized subjects,” says Williams. “I think this affects the way we interact with them and how we view them in real life.”
There have been Latino-centric biopics before – including Stand and deliver (1988), Selena (1997) and Frida (2002) – but until this year they were few and far between. “When films feature stories about Latinx people, they have historically been known to focus on trauma or stereotypical themes related to drugs and crime. National reporting does not focus on how the majority of Latinxs living in the U.S. were born in the U.S. and how all Latinxs living in the U.S. contribute to the country economically and culturally,” said Ana-Christina Ramon, director of the Entertainment and Media Research Initiative at UCLA and one of the lead authors of the yearbook Hollywood Diversity Report, which found that Latinos represented just 2.3 percent and 6.1 percent of theatrical and streaming movie leads, respectively, in 2022. “Stories of Latinx triumph and achievement are also largely absent from textbooks. So it feels meaningful to see even a handful of films in less than a year with Latinx leads depicted with their own agency and ambitions.
But this relative abundance of Latino representation – which includes the superhero tentpole Blue Beetle and YA adaptation Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe – comes at a time when screenwriters and especially actors are unavailable to promote their work due to the ongoing labor strikes, meaning the stakes couldn’t be higher. “I really hope this isn’t just this year’s wave,” said Diana Luna, executive director of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, one of 27 Latino advocacy groups that came together to write a joint open letter expressing she urged the audience to #SupportLatinoCreatives during this pivotal moment.
The success of these films could open the doors for more biopics of exemplary, historically ignored individuals whose stories would otherwise be lost to the passage of time. Being a product of the American public school system, I don’t even know who to introduce from Latino history, so I asked more informed sources to pitch someone.
Jovita Idar, says Cruz Castillo, who works at NHMC with his mother, Brenda, as an external relations and digital media manager. According to Castillo, Idar was a journalist at the turn of the centurye century who stood up to the Texas Rangers when they tried to shut down her newspaper: “This Mexican woman stood up to these white guys on big horses and told them to back off.”
One can only hope that an industry in constant search of intellectual property is paying attention.