We Need More Afro-Latine Representation in Superhero Films
We Need More Culturally Relevant Afro-Latine Representation in Superhero Films
In the last few years, I've been really excited to see more Latine characters taking up space in sci-fi and superhero franchises. We had Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez in the Marvel film "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," "Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse" gave us Miles Morales voiced by Shameik Moore, and we cannot forget the amazing triumph that was Tenoch Huerta's character Namor in "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." And then we almost had "In the Heights" star Leslie Grace as "Batgirl," which left fans heartbroken in 2022 when the film was abruptly axed in post-production.
These are definitely steps in the right direction, but it's nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of representing the people who are actually watching these movies. I was surprised to learn that Latines accounted for 29 percent of movie tickets sold in 2020 but make up 19 percent of the population, according to a study by the Motion Picture Association (MPA). There are more superhero movies with Latine characters in the works, including "Flash," which will have Supergirl played by Colombian-American actress Sasha Calle. "Blue Beetle" will also feature Latine lead Xolo Maridueña. And Colombian actress Rachel Zegler will portray a goddess with superpowers in "Shazam! Fury of the Gods." But if we're talking about Latine representation, where are the Black Latines?
A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that "one-quarter of all U.S. Latinos self-identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean or of African descent with roots in Latin America." So why aren't films and TV series reflecting that? I know acknowledging African and Latine heritage in tandem is oddly enough still difficult for some people, but superhero films are potentially the perfect catalyst for a national change in perception of who Afro-Latines actually are.
The US also has an issue with Afro-Latines because they prefer casting who they think "looks Latine," thereby influencing what everyone sees as Latine.
Filmmakers are imagining universes of people with superpowers caused by aliens or radioactive spiders, but they can't figure out how to work in Black Latine characters? Latinidad has had a complicated relationship with Black folks since the concept of Latinidad was created to homogenize and erase an extremely diverse population made up of different races and ethnic groups that span 33 different countries. The US also has an issue with Afro-Latines because they prefer casting who they think "looks Latine," thereby influencing what everyone sees as Latine. Not to mention the actors we do see cast are not only very light-skinned but more often than not they end up playing culturally American characters.
There are so many actors who I didn't evem know were Afro-Latine because they never publicly speak about their heritage. Now I realize they weren't allowed to because it had to be Black or Latine, not Black and Latine. Moving into this next decade, real representation is going to require changing the stereotype that all Latines look like Sofia Vergara, J Lo, and Salma Hayek. It's also going to mean allowing Black Latines to play characters that are not only culturally specific but also culturally accurate.
After the triumph that was "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," it's pretty clear that culturally expressive Latine stories can coexist in superhero and sci-fi universes. And so far, the only Afro-Latina actress killing it in sci-fi and superhero genres is Zoe Saldaña, who is known for playing Gamora in the Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers franchises as well as Neytiri in "Avatar" and "Avatar 2: The Way of The Water." She is now the first actor to have four movies make over $2 billion each at the box office — which is huge! But her presence in these films also highlights where there needs to be growth and change because although she's a trailblazer in these roles, she's not playing Afro-Latinas or even Black characters in these roles. She's an alien, she's blue, she's green, she's CGI, and she's not the main character.
Blactina Media founder Nydia Simone says it's precisely the omission of her Afro-latinidad in these films that have (at least in part) allowed Saldaña to become a household name.
"Saldaña has created her own lane by carving out a space in the sci-fi and superhero genre by playing 'race-less' roles that allow audiences to focus on her strong characters instead of being pigeonholed into stereotypical roles."
"Zoe Saldaña has been holding it down for Afro-Latinas for a long time yet she's been stripped of her Afro-latindad in the majority of the roles she plays," Simone says. "Saldaña has created her own lane by carving out a space in the sci-fi and superhero genre by playing 'race-less' roles that allow audiences to focus on her strong characters instead of being pigeonholed into stereotypical roles."
As always, the expansion and development of Afro-Latine characters will fall on the people behind the scenes, who are overwhelmingly white and projecting their version of the world onto the rest of us. Simone's company, Blactina Media, is partnering with studios to empower and hire Afro-Latine professionals in front of and behind the camera with the Plátano Pipeline project. She believes that in order to tell authentic, nuanced, and universal Afro-Latine stories, they must be told and developed by Afro-Latines.
"We're making it happen poco a poco," Simone says. "From Diana Peralta's 'De Lo Mio,' which was acquired by HBO in 2019, to FX's 'Pose,' which broke so much Afro-Latinx talent, and the Plátano Pipeline which is a program for Afrolatinx and Afro-Caribbean professionals in Hollywood."
It's pretty clear, as it always is, that in order to have more diversity on screen, we need to have more diversity and equity off screen and behind the scenes. We need Afro-Latine creators, directors, writers, and grips — folks in every position — in order to tell these stories authentically. Afro-Latine talent in every area of filmmaking don't need anyone to tell their stories for them, they just need someone to pass the mic and open their wallet.