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updated: 3/9/2011 9:30 AM

Hollywood's Latino snub

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We already knew that Johnny Depp is one of the most gifted actors of his generation and capable of delivering memorable performances.

Now we also know he is a man of character. Depp recently turned down a prime film role that was his for the taking -- perhaps because, judging from his public comments, he realized that he never should have been offered the job in the first place and that it should have gone to someone else.

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This reminds me. I bet you thought that Hollywood stopped making black-and-white films years ago. Not so. In fact, they are still the entertainment industry's stock in trade.

Just ask any of the small but growing number of Latino writers, directors, producers and actors who don't get a fair shot at jobs in show business even though the industry is based in a city that is nearly 50 percent Latino.

The latest insult was the casting of Depp to play Francisco "Pancho" Villa, the iconic Mexican revolutionary, in an upcoming film by Serbian director Emir Kusturica. The film -- "Seven Friends of Pancho Villa and the Woman with Seven Fingers" -- will co-star Salma Hayek, and it is set to begin production later this year.

There's only one problem: There is no leading man. Depp has dropped out of the project. The exit was probably a bit sticky, given the late notice and the fact that he and Kusturica are said to be friends.

The explanation, for public consumption, is that Depp had too many other commitments. But, if you want to know the real reason, just listen to what the actor said a couple of weeks earlier. At a news conference promoting his new film, "Rango," Depp was asked about the possibility that he might play Villa. He said that the project was "up in the air" and that he was facing a "dilemma" because, as he put it:

"I feel like it should be played by a Mexican," he told the assembled media. "Not some mutt from Kentucky. . . . I still feel very strongly about that."

Now that Depp has stepped away from the project, his possible replacements include two Latinos: Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal and Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro. Kusturica will soon meet with both men, and pick his Pancho.

This is good news, especially to someone who has a strong institutional memory of what Hollywood used to be like for Latinos and an unvarnished perspective on what it's like now.

Moctesuma Esparza has produced more than 20 films, many of them with Latino subject matter. For his labor, the filmmaker has received dozens of awards. His upcoming films include "Without Men" with Eva Longoria and Christian Slater.

And yet, Esparza said on a panel that we were both on recently that he didn't start getting the respect of his peers until he started making films about non-Latinos. Up to that point, I would imagine, he was seen -- unfairly -- by the Hollywood establishment as less of an artist and more of an activist.

Now the CEO of Maya Cinemas, a theater chain that caters to Latinos in the United States, Esparza casts himself in both roles. The artist appreciates, as he told me, "the potential of what human beings are capable of doing" in playing someone of a different race or ethnicity. But the activist sees things like boneheaded casting decisions in the context of what has been Hollywood's ugly history with Latinos. After all, for much of the 20th century, Latinos were depicted on film as either Latin lovers or border bandits.

"They made a whole series of movies where white people played Mexicans," Esparza recalled. "And they were generally evil characters."

It's this history that makes what the filmmaker calls "brown face" -- the practice of non-Latinos playing Latinos -- so very troubling.

"It says that they think we don't have the talent to play ourselves," he said.

And why is that?

"Hollywood is a very insular community," Esparza said. "They don't venture beyond their circles of acquaintances. We're the valets, nannies, messengers, security guards and maids. That's who they see."

It's a shame that, when it comes to Latinos, an industry built on imagination doesn't have much of it.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

2011, The Washington Post Writers Group

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