John Leguizamo On Why Hollywood's Representation Of Reality "Causes Great Harm"
"I had to try to clean my speech, change it, you know, so that it didn’t have such a street accent…"
Growing up we've all looked up to Hollywood's glamour, and maybe even had our own dreams of being the next Marilyn Monroe or George Clooney. But what is it really like for a Latino in Hollywood? In an interview with Big Think, John Leguizamo shared his thoughts on being a person of color in Hollywood, and more, in America.
"As a Latin person, you know, minorities, black people have to do it as well, we have to immerse ourselves in white culture and learn about white culture," he said in a video with Big Think. "And it’s all we were taught in school and in movies, so we learn but it’s not reciprocal, you know? It’s not a reciprocal thing that happens that white culture wants to learn about Latin culture or black culture."
However individuals like Jane Elliott, former third-grade teacher and anti-racism activist, are the heroes paving the way to what Leguizamo calls "the new America." One day after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., Elliott conducted the "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes" exercise with her class, labeling students as inferior and superior due to the color of their eyes. This showed them what it was like to be a minority in the land of the free.
"I mean tackling it in my industry it’s like Hollywood is so—Oscar is so white that which was the symptom of a disease," said Leguizamo. "Which is Hollywood is not making movies or being conscious about including Latin and black people in their movies when we’re almost 50 percent of the population. So it’s a very unbalanced representation of reality and causes great harm, especially for youth who need to see themselves in movies."
How about a Latino or black representation in Hollywood for our youth that does not only consist of roles like gang members, criminals and drug lords? Knowing the options he had as an actor, Leguizamo struggled to be cast in non-Latino roles.
"I had to try to clean my speech, change it, you know, so that it didn’t have such a street accent," he explained. "But it didn’t matter because I was still recognized visually as a Latin person. So even if I changed the way I sounded or the way I behaved it didn’t matter because I wasn’t going to get cast in those roles anyway because I identify as a Latin person."
He continued, "so then I gave up and I was like you know what? Forget it. I’m not going to try to fit in. I’m going to stay the way I am and I’m going to write for my culture." In which he did, becoming a producer, screenwriter and play-writer, putting on for minorities in films like Carlito's Way, the Ice Age series and his newest film, The Infiltrator.
Because of school organizations who push for minorities to join the arts and people like Leguizamo and Shonda Rhimes who write the roles for them to play, we are now slowly but surely seeing the Kerry Washington's and Zoe Saldana's of the world blossom in Hollywood.
"It’s kind of like Viola Davis said, the reason she won that Emmy was because somebody finally gave her the role that she needed to win," said Leguizamo. "Because she’s always had the same talent and she’s always been around, but finally somebody wrote the right role that was ample enough for a person of color to win an Emmy."
Outside of Hollywood, mayhem has continued after the brutal police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Regardless of ethnicity, gender, skin color, sexual preference or race, people have kept the conversation going in a united front against police brutality and discrimination, both through their mobile devices and on the streets, including Leguizamo.
"We’ve known for decades that black people and Latin people have been accosted harshly by police and nobody believed it," he shared. "Nobody believed it and they just, you know, they were crying wolf. And now because of technology and cameras everywhere you see what’s going on. It can’t be hidden anymore."
However, with a black president in office, a Dominican-American almost in congress and a woman running for president, he says the America he is seeing today is not the same one he saw when he was younger. Even in today's #BlackLivesMatter movement, the diversity of the people standing in unity looks very different from what it looked after the verdict in the Rodney G. King trial.
"The beautiful thing is that Latin people are going to decide who the next president is and we count and we’re important and to me that’s part of the new America," he said.