• Industry

Controversies About Casting Ignite Debate in Hollywood

A few days ago, Golden Globe nominee John Leguizamo called out the casting of Golden Globe winner James Franco as Fidel Castro in Alina of Cuba: la hija rebelde. The film is a portrayal of Alina Fernández Revuelta, the illegitimate daughter of the leftist leader with socialite Natalia Revuelta. Alina, who was legally recognized by Castro, had a complicated relationship with her father.

The film will be directed by Spaniard Miguel Bardem, a cousin of Javier, with Ana Villafañe, of Cuban and Salvadorean descent, in the main role. Produced independently, it is based on a script by Oscar-nominated José Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries, On the Road) and Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz. Argentine-born Mia Maestro will play Alina’s mother, while other roles have been assigned to Colombians María Cecilia Botero (the voice of Abuela Alma in Encanto) and Alanna de la Rosa.

Cubans Rafael Ernesto Hernández and Sian Chiong, and Haitian Harding Junior complete the multicultural cast.


According to Variety, the film, which will be executive produced by Mexican director Luis Mandoki, will start shooting on August 15 in Colombia and will focus on Alina’s life in Cuba until she emigrates to Spain.

Shortly after the announcement of Franco’s casting, Leguizamo posted on Instagram: “How is this still going on? How is Hollywood excluding us but stealing our narratives as well? No more appropriation Hollywood and streamers! Boycott! This F’d up! Plus seriously difficult story to tell without aggrandizement which would b wrong! I don’t got a prob with Franco but he ain’t Latino!”

Others questioned the casting for different reasons, citing the accusations in 2018 against the actor for sexual misconduct that were ultimately settled out of court last year. Even though Franco will be part of Me, You, the new film by Danish director Bille August, Alina of Cuba will mark Franco’s return to the set after a long absence.

Shortly after, the American producer of the film, John Martinez O’Felan, sent a press release to The Hollywood Reporter that said: “A guy like John Leguizamo has historically been looked up to by Hispanics as one of America’s earliest actors of Latin descent since the 90s and I’ve always admired him as a fellow underdog. But his comments are culturally uneducated and a blind attack with zero substance related to this project. The reality of the ignorance piece falls within his statement suggesting his personal view of being ‘Latino’ because a land mass or living area does not determine a person’s blood history or genetics.”

A closer look at the details could support Martinez O’Felan’s argument as Castro was the natural son of a Spanish immigrant from Galicia, Ángel Castro Argiz. His mother, Lina Ruiz González, was Cuban-born of Spanish descent. Franco is the great-grandson of a Portuguese immigrant from Madeira, an island near Africa that has been part of that country for centuries.

The cultures of Galicia and Portugal are particularly close, and even if the majority of the Latin community in the United States doesn’t perceive Spaniards and Portuguese as part of their group, there’s another perspective that unifies these countries with Latin America, both politically as culturally.

The OEI, formed by 23 countries and based in Madrid, includes European and American countries where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken and includes Equatorial Guinea in Africa. On the entertainment front, the Platino Awards have been celebrating the best of Ibero-American cinema for almost a decade and are growing year after year in a glitzy event that is attended by stars from Latin America, Spain and Portugal.

It’s clear that Leguizamo is right in complaining about the lack of opportunities for Latino actors in Hollywood, something that has improved in the last couple of years thanks to initiatives by companies like Marvel which try to lead by example on diverse casting, creating projects that give each community an opportunity to shine. Still, there’s a lot of room for improvement.

The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released a report almost a year ago that showed that only 7% of films from 2019 featured a lead or co-lead actor from a Latino or Hispanic background and only 5.9% of all speaking or named characters in 2019 were Hispanic/Latinos of any race. These numbers are offensive for a country with an 18.7% Latino population, which equals a potential audience of 62.1 million in the US.

Still, agreeing with Leguizamo in this instance will also support the naysayers who criticize Cuban Ana de Armas for portraying American icon Marilyn Monroe, even though Monroe’s mother was born in Piedras Negras in Coahuila, Mexico. Was Monroe Latina, keeping in mind that her grandparents moved South from the Midwest?

According to some explanations of how the whole system works, the answer is yes, even if Monroe never saw herself as such. Javier Bardem was also criticized for playing Cuban-born and American-raised Desi Arnaz in Being the Ricardos, a role in which he shined, obtaining his fifth Golden Globe nomination (he won in 2008).

It’s true that the Arnaz family held prominent positions in Santiago de Cuba for many years, until Desi was brought to Miami as a youngster due to a different revolution, but it’s very possible that his ancestors moved there from Spain.

Bardem fiercely defended his casting in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter: “I’m an actor, and that’s what I do for a living: try to be people that I’m not. What do we do with Marlon Brando playing Vito Corleone [in The Godfather]? What do we do with Margaret Thatcher played by Meryl Streep [in The Iron Lady]? Daniel Day-Lewis playing Lincoln [in Lincoln]? Why does this conversation happen with people with accents? ‘You have your accent. That’s where you belong.’ That’s tricky,” he said back then.

Bardem later said, “Where is that conversation with English-speaking people doing things like The Last Duel, where they were supposed to be French people in the Middle Ages? That’s fine,” he continued, “but me, with my Spanish accent, being Cuban? What I mean is, if we want to open the can of worms, let’s open it for everyone … We should all start not allowing anybody to play Hamlet unless they were born in Denmark,” he added humorously.

The debate is certainly aggravated by decades of American actors playing Latino characters in Hollywood, while genuine Latino talent was relegated to playing maids, gang members and thugs. But in Latin America, the same is true. White actors are given the best roles, particularly on television, even in countries where they are a minority, a situation that is now slowly improving.

It’s also true that some of the great legends of cinema of Latin background, such as Mexican-born Anthony Quinn, made a career of playing characters of every nationality. His case is also a good example of the complexity of this issue.

Quinn was the son of an Irish immigrant, but he felt totally Latin, as he told this reporter many years ago when asked if he could do an interview in Spanish: “I’m Mexican, Sir!” he complained, probably from years of fighting for his true self in the very White Hollywood of the 50s and 60s.