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New study finds that popular movies continue to marginalize Hispanic/Latinos

As Hispanic Heritage Month kicks off around the United States, a new report offers evidence that despite national attention, Hispanic/Latinos are still neglected in popular films.

The report examines the prevalence and portrayal of Hispanic/Latinos in film and is the second in a series from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Stacy L. Smith, and partners UnbeliEVAble Entertainment and Wise Entertainment. The current study serves as an update to previous findings by evaluating top-grossing movies from 2019. The investigation assessed leading and co-leading Hispanic/Latino actors and all Hispanic/Latino speaking characters across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019, as well as the presence of Hispanic/Latinos working behind the camera as directors, producers, and casting directors. An additional qualitative analysis explored stereotyping of Hispanic/Latino actors and characters in films from 2019 and compared results to an analysis spanning 200 top films from 2017 and 2018.

Very few Hispanic/Latino actors fill leading roles in popular films. A mere 7% of films from 2019 featured a lead/co-lead Hispanic/Latino actor, which is not significantly different from the 3.5% of leads/co-leads who are Hispanic/Latino across the 13-year time frame. However, more than half of leading/co-leading Hispanic/Latino actors were girls and women across the 1,300 movies examined, including 6 of the 7 lead/co-lead actors in 2019. Yet, Hispanic/Latina girls/women still represent only 1.9% of all leads/co-leads across 1,300 films.

“As companies celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month through online posts, events, and employee resource groups,” Smith said. “The evidence is clear that concern for inclusion happens when convenient or expected and not when it comes to greenlighting films by, for, and about the Hispanic/Latino community.”

Hispanic/Latino leads/co-leads face a significant age-related barrier. Only 1% of all 1,300 films featured a Hispanic/Latino lead/co-lead age 45 or older — including none in 2019. Only 3 of these roles were held by a woman 45 or older; two were Jennifer Lopez.

The study also explored how many leads/co-leads were Latinx — defined as Latinos born in the U.S. and not of Spanish origin (unless in combination with another Latino ethnicity). Five percent of 2019 leads/co-leads were Latinx, as were 2.2% of all protagonists. Moreover, only 6 Afro-Latinos worked as leads/co-leads across the 13-year time frame; 3 held lead/co-lead roles in 2019.

“Whether in leading roles or across all speaking characters, the absence of Hispanic and Latino actors and characters is noticeable,” said Ariana Case, the study’s lead author. “This community represents nearly 20% of the U.S. population and nearly half of Los Angeles residents and yet remains almost invisible on screen.”

Turning to all speaking characters, a mere 5.9% of all speaking or named characters in 2019 were Hispanic/Latinos of any race. There has been no change from year to year in the prevalence of Hispanic/Latino speaking characters. Overall, only 5% of all 51,158 characters identified across the full 1,300 film sample were Hispanic/Latino.

“Representation on screen matters for our community — it shapes not just how others see us, but also how we see ourselves,” said Eva Longoria, President and CEO, UnbeliEVAble Entertainment. “It’s imperative that our media includes narratives that uplift Latino and Hispanic voices. We need to see ourselves in storytelling and we need the world to see the joy, the power, and the heart of our community in ways that are still all too rare. Media can make a difference in our world and we need to see real change,”

Yet, prevalence does not tell the full story. In 2019, 35 movies did not feature a single Hispanic/Latino speaking character across the plot, which is consistent with over-time trends. A total of 567 movies out of 1,300 were missing Hispanic/Latinos, meaning 43.6% of the most popular films of the last 13 years didn’t feature even one Hispanic/Latino character.

The invisibility of Hispanic/Latinos grows even more dire when considering women: 59 films, or more than half of the top movies of 2019, didn’t have one Hispanic/Latino girl or woman as a speaking or named character. Across 13 years, a total of 856 films completely erased girls/women from the Hispanic/Latino community.

Hispanic/Latino LGBTQ characters and characters with disabilities are almost completely absent from top films. In 2019, 98 out of 100 films didn’t feature a single Hispanic/Latino LGBTQ character, and 95 were missing Hispanic/Latino characters with disabilities. These totals are similar from year to year: 95.4% of 500 films from 2015 to 2019 did not have even one Hispanic/Latino character with a disability and 98.8% of 600 films from 2014 to 2019 erased Hispanic/Latino LGBTQ characters.

Behind the camera, 4.2% of directors of these 1,300 films were Hispanic/Latino. There was no difference over time: 4.5% of directors in 2019 were Hispanic/Latino. Only 3 Hispanic/Latina women worked as directors across 13 years. The ratio of white men to Hispanic/Latina women directors across 1,300 films was 200 to 1.

There were 35 individual Hispanic/Latino directors across 13 years. A total of 34.3% of these directors were U.S.-born, while 65.7% were international. Only 2 directors were Afro-Latino.

Among producers, 3% were Hispanic/Latino, and most were men. Only 21.9% of Hispanic/Latino producers were women, and overall, Hispanic/Latina producers represented less than 1% of all producers across 1,300 top movies. As casting directors, Hispanic/Latinos are also rare, filling 3.3% of these roles in 13 years. Yet, Hispanic/Latinos have undeniable influence behind the camera. When a Hispanic/Latino director or casting director was present, the presence of Hispanic/Latino characters on screen increased notably.

Stereotyping of Hispanic/Latino characters is still a hallmark of portrayals. The qualitative results demonstrate that depictions of Hispanic/Latino characters still involve criminality, poverty, immigration, and a focus on Hispanic/Latinos as foreigners.

More than one quarter (29.8%) of Hispanic/Latino speaking characters and 39.5% of top-billed Hispanic/Latinos across 100 movies of 2019 were depicted as criminals. While few top-billed characters were involved with organized crime, more than one-third (39.3%) of the Hispanic/Latino speaking characters portrayed as criminals had some link to crime syndicates. Moreover, 21.4% of Hispanic/Latino speaking characters and 40% of top-billed characters involved with crime were violent offenders. The depiction of Hispanic/Latinos in top movies from 2019 not only communicates that this community is dangerous, it continues the trend observed in the previous study.

A total of 13.2% of top-billed and 13.8% of all Hispanic/Latino speaking characters were portrayed as poor or with a low income. Additionally, films reinforce the idea that Hispanic/Latinos are “foreign” through depictions of characters as immigrants (13.2% of top-billed, 8.5% of all speaking characters) or living outside the United States (26.3% of top-billed; 43.6% of all speaking characters). Only 33.3% of the characters examined were U.S.-born Latinos. Nearly half of top-billed characters (47.4%) and 56.4% of all Hispanic/Latino characters demonstrated that they spoke or understood Spanish, and over one-third (37.2%) of all Hispanic/Latino characters spoke no English at all. Of the 97 characters overall who spoke one or more words of English, 27.8% had a detectable Spanish accent. These findings reveal that popular movies provide a view of this community that is out of sync with reality for Hispanic/Latino Americans.

“How are Latinos almost 20 percent of the American population, but less than 4 percent of protagonists in American films?” asked Congressman Joaquin Castro, former Chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “This alarming study demonstrates that Latinos are almost invisible in Hollywood films, often portrayed as negative stereotypes, and hardly even get a chance to direct movies. Hollywood is our nation’s main imagine-defining, narrative-creating institution. So, when it systemically excludes Latinos or routinely stereotypes Latinos in its product, it contributes to the invisibility and misunderstanding of our community in American society. I've been working earnestly with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to engage with industry leaders to encourage greater diversity and inclusion, and it's clear that Latinos are still very far from being fully reflected, accurately portrayed, and extended equal opportunity. I commend Dr. Stacy Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative for shining a spotlight on this significant inequity in Hollywood.”

“After the first study, we had high expectations about what the market was going to concretely make to fill the void of Hispanic/Latino stories,” said Mauricio Mota, co-president of Wise Entertainment and producer of the Emmy-nominated series East Los High and the upcoming movie, Rezball. “There have always been excuses, but those simply do not make sense any longer. We can’t blame it on the ‘pipeline’: It exists. We can’t blame ‘a lack of stars’: They are there and they over-deliver. We can’t blame it on the absence of below-the-line talent: They exist and have earned the right to get the big jobs. And, last but not least, we can’t say there are not enough Latinx/Hispanic stories: There are 700 million people consuming them. It’s time we are not taken for granted anymore.”

The report offers solutions that span casting, hiring, and the talent pipeline. Based on the Initiative’s previous study and the lack of change witnessed here, these solutions offer guidance for those working in entertainment, as well as advocates, philanthropists, and audience members to increase representation and decrease stereotyping on screen for the Hispanic/Latino community.

The report is the latest from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and can be found online here.