I would really love it if on February 22 this headline were proven wrong. That’s partly because living in Argentina means I’m emotionally obliged to root for Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales) as it competes for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, just as I rooted for the Albicelestes in July during the World Cup. Loyalty aside, Relatos Salvajes was one of my favorite movies of 2014, but it’s not going to pick up any awards. Not in the US anyway.
And no, I haven’t even seen the other nominees in the category. But I don’t need to see those films to make the case that one of them will win (probably Ida, since it’s gotten the most buzz, or Leviathan as it won the Golden Globe).
Relatos Salvajes won’t win because it doesn’t fulfill popular US stereotypes of Latin America. Despite perfectly capturing the feelings of frustration and ineptness that can come with living in Argentina, Relatos Salvajes doesn’t reinforce the stories the U.S. is accustomed to hearing about its southern neighbors. There are no mentions of corrupt regimes, no coups d’état, no dictators. No illicit drug trade. And though the film depicts the intersection of race and class in South America, the majority of the characters are white Hispanics, an identity much of the U.S. is not prepared to deal with or even acknowledge exists. This is not Latin America as we’ve come to know it. This movie doesn’t even have tango! How is Hollywood supposed to know where this film even takes place?
Argentine films have twice won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. La historia oficial (The Official Story) won the prize in 1986 for its portrayal of a family adopting a child shortly after the end of the 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship. El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) won in 2010 for telling a story bookended around that same conflict. Contrast to that Nueve reinas, a drama about two con men that while considered a classic of Argentine cinema, has received very little recognition outside of Latin America. The most recent Latin American film, prior to Relatos Salvajes, to have been nominated for Best Foreign Language film was Chile’s No in 2013. The film depicts a 1988 ad campaign for a public vote to remove dictator Augusto Pinochet from power. It is Chile’s first and only nomination in the category. Also recently nominated for the award was Peru’s La teta asustada, which centers on the after-effects of Peru’s period of extremist violence in the 1980s. It lost the prize to El secreto de sus ojos. The film is also Peru’s only nomination.
The singularity of the Academy’s recognition of the Latin American experience extends beyond the Best Foreign Language Film category. Catalina Sandino Moreno earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her turn in María, llena eres de gracia, a rare feat for non-English language roles. Her character is a young, impoverished Colombian woman who agrees to act as a drug mule by swallowing capsules of cocaine to bring them to New York. Both Sandino’s performance and the movie itself earned widespread acclaim in the US Benicio del Toro is the only Latin American actor to have won an Oscar for a Spanish-speaking role; he was awarded Best Supporting Actor for Traffic, in which he plays a Mexican cop hunting members of a drug cartel.
This is not a criticism of those above films, which are wonderful and deeply moving. But what they share in common is that they all fulfill common perceptions of Latin America as a place of violence, drugs, poverty, dictatorships and instability (although the role of the US in many of those dictatorships is best left off the table). Of course those very issues affect many parts of Latin America, and those stories should be told. But they are not the only ones.
In her TED talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about “the danger of the single story”. The Nigerian author discusses the singular image Western culture has of Africa, which erases the diversity that exists in the continent. Like Africa, Latin America often exists in the popular US imagination as a monolithic region, one of wild landscapes and subjugated peoples, when in fact it is home to a multitude of nations, cultures, races, ethnicities, classes and languages.
Just as Adichie’s fiction on middle-class Nigerians like herself was rejected for not being “authentically” African enough, Relatos Salvajes‘ characters are too middle-class, too free from repression to be “authentically” Latin for US audiences. The single story, Adichie says, “robs people of their dignity.” The stories of dictatorships and poverty are just as important as the stories of the educated or middle-class. Adichie also admits to her own preconceptions of Mexico as a place of violence and instability before she visited Guadalajara and found a normal, functioning city. And as far as the US is concerned, Latin America is one giant Mexico. But
Mexicans Latinos can only exist as subjugated to be visible in the US.
Or, you can be Sofia Vergara. Vergara’s entire career and public persona is the most recent incarnation of the “feisty, fiery, sexy Latina” archetype. Vergara’s career struggled before she went brunette, she claims. “I’m a natural blonde, but when I started acting, I would go to auditions, and they didn’t know where to put me because I was voluptuous and had the accent – but I had blonde hair,” Vergara tells Self magazine. “The moment I dyed my hair dark, it was, ‘Oh, she’s the hot Latin girl.’” Vergara (and her publicity team) found the perfect way to sell her as Latina in a way that is palatable to mainstream American audiences (for the opposite story, listen to Margaret Cho discuss how her network gave her an Asian consultant to help her appear more Asian to American audiences). Thanks for letting us put you in a box, Sofia, or better yet, on a revolving platform.
It may lack drugs or violence, but the fiery Latina archetype can win Oscars too, as Penélope Cruz proved when she won Best Supporting Actress for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Cruz is Spanish rather than Latin American, but the archetype can be transferred to any woman with dark hair and an accent. Relatos Salvajes does have its story of “fiery Latin lovers,” but they are a Jewish couple at a very clearly Jewish wedding, which again complicates Latin American identity as one of multiple faiths and cultures.
There’s room for diverse portrayals of Latin America in the broader culture and in US consciousness, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is simply not the place to go for them. The Academy’s resistance to award diverse stories isn’t just limited to Latin American films, but also notable in its recognition (or lack thereof) of black filmmakers and actors.
Hattie McDaniel was the first person of color to win an Academy Award. She won Best Supporting Actress in 1940 for playing Mammy, Scarlett O’Hara’s slave/maid in Gone with the Wind (full disclosure, I totally love Gone with the Wind, don’t even care that may be kinda super racist). Flash forward to 2012 and Octavia Spencer wins the same award for playing a maid in The Help (a pile of racist revisionist history I refuse to see). Two years later and Lupita Nyong’o wins the same award for playing a slave on 12 Years a Slave. I’m not saying those roles aren’t well-defined or of any interest, but let us just acknowledge for a moment that we don’t even know Mammy’s real name. She is only defined by her servitude to a white woman. And yet, the Academy is determined to keep her legacy alive and relevant.
Again, this is not a criticism of Spencer or Nyong’o or any of their cohorts. They earned their Oscars, and they are not responsible for the fact that the Academy is most comfortable seeing black women play slaves and maids.
You could respond by pointing out that the brutal look at American slavery 12 Years a Slave won many major awards at last year’s Oscars, including Best Picture. And you’d be right, but the Academy seems to feel it fulfilled its quota of films about people of color for the next few years by shutting out just about any non-white films from this year’s ceremony. Not a single person of color was nominated in any of this year’s acting categories, and Alejandro González Iñárritu represents the only non-white person in the major categories.
Historical dramas like Selma are usually total Oscar bait, but somehow the film about the historic civil rights march didn’t stick with Academy voters, as it received nominations only for Best Picture and Best Original Song. But Selma diverges from other dramatizations of racially-charged historical events by lacking any white savior character, and it was widely criticized for portraying President Lyndon B. Johnson as resistant to promoting the Voting Rights Act. A ridiculous criticism considering the film is not about LBJ and all historical dramas take some liberty with historical events to tell a story. But guess which films do have a white savior figure: 12 Years a Slave (Brad Pitt as the benevolent Canadian hippie he imagines he would have been had he been alive in antebellum Southern United States) and The Help (Emma Stone as the nice white lady who uses her maids’ stories to launch her career). Those films received nine and four Oscar nominations, respectively. Academy voters will see what they want to see.
Given that the film was totally locked out from any acting, directing or writing categories, Selma‘s inclusion in the Best Picture category (where the amount of nominees is not limited to five as in other categories) gives the impression that the Academy just wanted to make sure everyone knows it has at least one black friend.
Relatos Salvajes, or should we say Wild Tales (wow, that title did not translate well) as it is known to English-speaking audiences, is most likely to go home empty-handed later this month. Come back when you have more dictators, Argentina.