J. Lo Is The Only Latinx Actress Over 45 To Hold A Lead Role In The Last 12 Years

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You knew J. Lo was unique, but a new study puts her on a whole new level.
In over 1,200 top-grossing box office films between 2007 and 2018, only two Latina lead roles were played by an actor 45 or older. Both were Jennifer Lopez — and with a lead role in the upcoming blockbuster ensemble Hustlers, she’ll soon be breaking her own record.
This per a new report by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in partnership with National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) and Wise Entertainment, tracking the erasure of Latinx people in film, on and off-screen.
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The numbers are dismal. Latinx characters made up only 4.5% of the 47,268 total studied. Only 3% of movies featured Latinx actors in lead roles. Along with J. Lo, the most frequently hired Latinx actors included Cameron Diaz, Eugenio Derbez, and Jessica Alba, who between them held 16 of those 35 lead roles surveyed.
Across the 100 top-grossing films of 2018, 47 were completely missing a speaking or named Latino character, and 70 were missing Latinx women. Latina characters were also found to be more likely to be sexualized than their Black or Asian counterparts.
“No matter which part of the film ecosystem we examined, Latinxs were vastly underrepresented,” Dr. Smith said in a statement released with the study. “This community represents nearly half of Angelenos, 39% of Californians, and 18% of the U.S. population. 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.”
Indeed, behind the camera, things are no better. Latinx directors made up only 4% of the total number, and just 3% of producers. Patricia Riggen, who helmed 2015’s The 33, was the only Latinx woman out of the 1,335 total directors studied. For reference, Latinx people made up 18.1% of the total U.S. population in 2018, the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority, according to the Census Bureau.
It’s a disparity that’s reflected in Hollywood’s most coveted awards. Only five of the 50 films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in the last six years boast Latinx directors or producers, and four of them were directed by Alfonso Cuarón or Alejandro G. Iñárritu. (The last is Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro, which won in 2017.) Over that same period of time, only one Latinx woman was nominated for Best Actress: Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio, who was also the first indigenous woman ever to get the nod.
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But as the study shows, even when Latinx characters do appear, it’s usually in a negative context. Twenty- four percent of all Latinx speaking characters across 200 popular films were shown to be criminals, 12% were “temperamental or angry,” and 36% isolated, without community, or anything specifically tying them to their heritage.
These statistics aren’t just disappointing — they’re potentially dangerous.
“The erasure of the Latino community in film creates a void that has been allowed to be filled by hateful and violent rhetoric,” Mauricio Mota, Co-President of Wise Entertainment and producer of the Emmy-nominated series East Los High, stated in a press release.
We currently have a president who has no trouble dealing in harmful tropes and baseless stereotypes. Latinx asylum seekers are being locked up and separated at the border, and dehumanized and vilified by the Trump administration and their supporters in order to justify it. If the only depiction we see of Latinx people on-screen is of violent gangs, or poor, rootless immigrants, it becomes easier to dismiss their concerns and their rights.
It’s also bad for business. As more and more people move towards the comfort of streaming movies and TV from their couch (let’s face it, sweatpants > real pants), the film industry is currently struggling to retain theater-going audiences. In a recent New York Times feature called “How Will Movies Survive The Next 10 Years?” industry leaders ranging from J.J. Abrams to Lena Waithe weighed in on the marked shift in movie-viewing habits, and how that will impact Hollywood going forward. Latinx audiences represent $1.7 trillion in consumer spending, making up 23% of movie tickets sold. Obviously, representation and diversity matter beyond crass dollars and cents, but the fact is that the industry has a financial stake in making sure everyone has their story told in an authentic and realistic way.
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Gina Rodriguez summed up the urgency of the situation best in a powerful Variety essay pegged to the release of Miss Bala, the rare studio film led by a Latinx actress, filmed on location in Mexico, and boasting a 95% Latinx crew.
“To be seen and heard is a simple human need,” she wrote. “To be invisible in a world of loud voices is heartbreaking and dehumanizing. The under-representation of Latinos in Hollywood both on and off screen is not just a feeling; it’s a sad reality.”
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