Jennifer Lopez was having a moment.
For her performance as an enterprising exotic dancer in Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers,” the Ms. Lopez earned some of the highest praise of her career. A strong awards season campaign was mounted, and she was honored with a string of nominations and wins among film critics’ circles at the end of last year. Momentum seemed to be building for her to earn a nod for a best supporting actress Oscar — with most awards season pundits deeming Ms. Lopez’s chances in the category a fairly sure bet.
Yet on Monday, Ms. Lopez’s name was not among those announced during the Oscar nominations unveiling. The extreme disappointment I feel is twofold.
While the track record of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a measurement of artistic excellence is debatable, its cultural cachet is undeniable. A nomination for Ms. Lopez would have burnished her legacy as an actress, more than 25 years after her breakout role in “Selena.”
Even more dispiriting is what Ms. Lopez’s snub means for Latinx representation more broadly — Ms. Lopez was the only Latinx performer with a real shot of recognition in the major categories this year and seemed to shoulder much of the burden of fending off another #OscarsSoWhite. (A kind reminder that the Spanish-born Antonio Banderas, who earned a deserved nomination for best actor for “Pain and Glory,” is not Latinx.)
The absence of Latinx representation is a longstanding issue for the academy. Had she been nominated, Ms. Lopez would have been the first American Latinx actress singled out by the academy since Rosie Perez, who earned a best supporting actress nod in 1994 for “Fearless.” The magnitude of this quarter-of-a-century gap might be difficult for some to understand at first — the entertainment industry tends to lump together American-born Latinxes, Latin Americans and Hispanics into a monolithic entity, inaccurately plumping numbers in otherwise well-intentioned studies about diversity.
Indeed, the grand total of American Latinx actors ever nominated for film’s highest acting honors totals is four: In addition to Ms. Perez, they are Rita Moreno (who won in 1962), José Ferrer (a winner in 1951) and Edward James Olmos (nominated in 1989).
If only American-born Latinxes were considered in the data research focused on diversity in studio productions and what types of roles they are offered, calling the results dismal would be an understatement. And then there’s the fact that no American Latinx filmmaker has ever been nominated for the best director Academy Award, in part because they are rarely considered to helm the “prestige” films Oscar voters are usually attracted to.
It’s evident that an illusion of inclusion in relation to Latinx people has permeated Hollywood over the past decade. The heavily decorated Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro — collectively referred to as “the Three Amigos” — have served as a flimsy Band-Aid to an industry that heralds their accomplishments as proof that everyone who matches their idea of Latinx is being celebrated.
Mr. Cuarón’s “Roma,” a Latin American behemoth backed by Netflix, took home three awards at last year’s ceremony. This followed closely on the heels of Mr. Iñárritu’s “Birdman” and “The Revenant,” Mr. del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” and Mr. Cuarón’s “Gravity,” all awarded some of the highest honors by the academy. A narrative of substantial Latinx representation was constructed, one that doesn’t acknowledge how that representation hasn’t translated to the screen even in works by Latin American filmmakers. (Aside from “Roma,” which is set in Mexico with Spanish dialogue, those other films starred the likes of Sandra Bullock, Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Keaton.) And stateside Latinx creators have been virtually erased both onscreen and behind the camera.
This year, without any of the men in the overachieving trio in the race, the mirage of collective advancement has vanished. While the Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto received his third nomination, for “The Irishman,” and the Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa was nominated for her documentary “The Edge of Democracy,” they serve as little consolation. Ms. Lopez’s snub should show pundits and other observers how blatant the exclusion truly is, not only from the glitz of the red carpet, but more alarmingly, from the production pipeline as a whole.
A good start on the path to overhauling this outrageous reality is for more people in high places to become aware that Latin American and United States-born Latinx people aren’t granted the same opportunities, nor are their stories, while related, the same.
The few Latin American actresses who’ve been shortlisted for the acting categories in recent memory have delivered monumental performances playing characters exhibiting familiar tropes: Mexico’s Adriana Barraza in “Babel” as a nanny crossing the border who is eventually deported; Colombia’s Catalina Sandino Moreno in “Maria Full of Grace” as a drug mule; and more recently, Yalitza Aparicio in “Roma” as a housekeeper for an upper-middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City.
What’s noteworthy about Ms. Lopez’s turn is that it does not abide by preconceived and clichéd expectations of who a Latinx woman is, specifically one born and raised in the United States.
In a recent interview with Variety, Ms. Lopez recalled the limiting biases that affected the jobs she was offered early in her career: “Maybe 30 years ago, it was very ‘Oh, you’re the Latin girl,’ ” she said. “‘You’ll do Spanish roles; you’ll play maids; you’ll only be limited to this little box.’ ”
Characters that are unambiguously Latinx, but are depicted beyond their cultural identity, are a rarity — in several of Ms. Lopez’s earlier roles, she often portrayed women who could arguably be coded as white. But as Ramona in “Hustlers,” she doesn’t have to erase her ethnicity. Ramona isn’t a Latinx stereotype. There’s no use of Spanish-language dialogue or references to her abuela to make the point that she is a Nuyorican.
But the hints are there — her last name is Vega, and the actress Emma Batiz, who plays her daughter in the film, is also Latinx. And of course and above all, it’s J.Lo in a role she was meant to play, a role that shows off her strengths, while allowing her to become the force of nature she hasn’t always seen herself as.
“I’ve always been so much a romantic, so much about having a relationship, and this woman is the total opposite,” she told A.O. Scott in an interview for The New York Times Magazine. “And to play that, to live in those shoes, to walk in those very high heels, in that skin, made me realize I’m out here on my own. That’s what I need to teach my daughter, that aspect of it, that you can do it on your own.”
Ms. Lopez was Lorene Scafaria’s first choice for Ramona in “Hustlers,” and through Ms. Lopez’s company, Nuyorican Productions, the actress served as a producer of the film. But a couple of questions arise: If it has taken this long for a household name like Ms. Lopez to attain such a meaty and perfectly tailored part, what’s the fate of those emerging Latinx voices without such clout?
And what does it mean that this type of Latinx character — not a maid, not a drug mule, not a nanny — wasn’t acknowledged by the academy?
Ms. Lopez will be fine; her degree of superstardom and ability to produce her own projects should hopefully ensure even more great roles for her. But even if she had been nominated this year, no one person can or should shoulder all that responsibility. It’s imperative to have a wide array of Latinxes partaking in all disciplines.
Pioneers and symbols are important — needed even, as lighthouses in oceans where role models have been scarce — but more so is foundational change to an industry that continues to bet on our money as audiences, but not our talent and stories.
Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film) is a freelance film critic in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Wrap, IndieWire, Vulture and Remezcla.
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