If you’ve seen Marshall, the origin story of future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, you’ve seen Mark St. Cyr. The actor plays August, the boyfriend of Thurgood Marshall’s frenemy, poet Langston Hughes.
While August might be happiest acting as a support system for Hughes, St. Cyr is hoping to stand out from the crowd and make a big dent in Hollywood. Marshall is just one of the major plays St. Cyr has under his belt; he’s also starring in the upcoming webseries Giving Me Life: In the Land of Deadass, which St. Cyr described as Friends, if Friends was directed by Issa Rae. The webseries has made its world premiere Oct. 24 at the New York Television Festival and has been featured as a Kickstarter creator-in-residence.
I’m glad I got a chance to speak to St. Cyr and learn more about his character in the film, his experiences on set, and what it’s like to be in the same room with Empire‘s Jussie Smollett and Chadwick Boseman, who has played Jackie Robinson in 42, James Brown in Get On Up, and the Wakandan king T’Challa in the upcoming Marvel juggernaut Black Panther. Check out these five moments from our conversation.
On playing August: I play August and the key thing that August does in the film is he represents the outside world. Marshall is kind of in a small, claustrophobic courtroom world—he’s trying to solve the case at hand [involving] Sterling K. Brown [star of NBC’s This Is Us]. In the middle of the movie, he takes a break from that small courtroom and comes back to his hometown of New York to see what the world going on. [People] in the black world have their own opinions on how it’s going to go. August and Langston Hughes represent what the black elite artistic culture are thinking about Marshall at that moment. August supports the opinions of Langston Hughes as he and Marhsall duel it out at the jazz club.
On working with Jussie Smollett: He’s great. He’s incredibly humble and very warm and open. He shared a lot of wisdom with me, I was able to ask him about things that could help me on my own journey, and he was very gracious and generous and he did a great job.
On playing opposite Black Panther‘s Chadwick Boseman: It’s pretty cool [laughs]. It’s a little surreal. He’s a man—you get used to thinking he’s going to jump on top of cars, and then you see him in hair and makeup getting his hair [styled] into Marshall’s. It’s a funny juxtaposition, but it’s cool.
Everybody’s celebrating Chadwick and it feels like when one of us succeeds in a major way, all of us succeed in a major way. The fact that it’s being made at all is a [big win]. There’s just a lot of energy supporting that film and getting that [energy] so far before it’s been released– that’s a victory in and of itself. Having an opportunity to be a part of that energy is really great.
What St. Cyr learned about Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes: Marshall’s all about going inside the system and changing the laws. He’s very direct in his method and Langston Hughes is about creating art that moves people and stirs people from the inside out, writing about it in a way that…moves people’s conscience. It’s kind of a covert mission whereas Marshall is guns blazing. In the movie, Marshall disagrees with the way Langston goes about [challenging racism] and I think that’s still something we deal with now.
What moviegoers can learn from Marshall: People see Marshall as this iconic figure who won everything he ever did and went to the Supreme Court and lived happily ever after. I think a lot of times, people need to see the struggle chapters of some of our heroes, and I think this is the moment to show you [that] he was a man and he was not invincible. He may have become an American hero, but he was [human]. Our heroes are human…but they are capable of doing great things, as we all are. The world is always going to need heroes.♦
This article was edited and condensed.
Latinx representation in Hollywood is something that seems to be suspiciously under the radar, even though it’s highly important, as the Latinx identity is one that is diverse and multifaceted. Despite characters like Sofia Vergara’s Gloria in ABC’s Modern Family and the casts of Lifetime’s Devious Maids and TNT’s Queen of the South existing in the media, there’s still more that needs to be done in Hollywood, such as focusing more on darker-skinned tones, racial diversity, and whitewashing. For every Gloria onscreen, there’s only one April Sexton, Yaya DaCosta’s Afro-Brazilian role on NBC’s Chicago Med, or Carla Espinosa, Judy Reyes’ proud Dominican character on NBC’s Scrubs. Even the roles like Vergara’s role—which is a “sexy Latina” stereotype—need work in order to exist outside of the stereotypes that have been wrongly attached to Latinx characters and actors.
Two of the latest instances of Hollywood’s failure at Latinx representation are X-Men Sunspot and Dr. Cecilia Reyes. The Afro-Latinx characters, which will be part of the new X-Men film The New Mutants, will be played by Henry Zaga and Alice Braga. Zaga is Brazilian, but he isn’t black or biracial, which removes much of the context from Sunspot’s character, as his characterization stems from the racial issues he’s had to face as a biracial Afro-Brazilian. Alternatively, Braga is Afro-Latina, but being light-skinned, she’s able to exhibit a privilege that the original, darker-skinned actress up for the role, Rosario Dawson, can’t. Again, it takes an important piece away from a character that is not just Puerto Rican, but defined by her place in the African Diaspora.
Throughout this year, I spoke with several Latinx creators about how they feel about Hollywood’s Latinx representation and what can be done to make it better. This is a longform piece, so I’ll break this up into several sections:
- The roles afforded to Latinx actors in Hollywood
- Whitewashing and brownface in Hollywood
- The good and bad of Hollywood’s Latinx representation
- Wrapping up—why you must take Latinx representation seriously
The roles afforded to Latinx actors in Hollywood
Latinx actors, like many POC actors, are offered less than their fair share of meaningful roles. When they are offered roles, they’re often racist.
“When Latinx actors do get roles, I feel they’re oftentimes stereotypes,” wrote Desiree Rodriguez, Editorial Assistant for Lion Forge sci-fi comic book Catalyst Prime and writer for Women on Comics and The Nerds of Color, in an email interview. “The Spicy Latina, the Buffoon, the Tough Chick Who Dies, the Sexual Exotic Fantasy, the Drug Dealer, the Gangster, and so on.
“…What I find frustrating is when Latinx actors do get roles, it’s a struggle and they are locked into stereotypes,” said Rodriguez. “I’m a huge fan of Diego Luna, but the first role I saw him in he played a Cuban – when he is Mexican – man who was basically the exotic fantasy for the white female lead in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. This isn’t even getting into how Afro-Latinxs, Asian-Latinxs, and other mixed raced Latinxs are barred from roles because they don’t fit Hollywood’s pre-packaged idea of what being Latinx looks like.”
“I think currently, while we are seeing more visibility, the current roles that are offered or available to Latinos are the role of a servant position, like a maid or something that falls in line with the stereotypes people have about Latinos, like maybe a sidekick or a criminal,” said Janel Martinez, founder and editor-in-chief of Ain’t I Latina, a site celebrating Afro-Latinas and Afro-Latinx culture.
“For example, in Orange is the New Black, a lot of people were hyped about the fact that there was a great representation of Latinas in the actual show, which is awesome, but when you look on the flipside of that, this is a show about women in jail,” she said. “Also, Devious Maids, [co-produced by Eva Longoria], it’s a full cast of Latinas, two of them identifying as Afro-Latina, and they were maids. I think people are seeing the visibility, people are excited to be able to say if you’re watching the show, you’re seeing our representation…but I think it’s still in a very limited scope. I find that it’s not just a Carrie Bradshaw or just someone who happens to be a Latina but maybe they’re the magazine editor in the movie. Their identity, while it’s important, isn’t in line with stereotypes and then manifested in the character that they essentially embody.”
“Typically, I see lots of immigrant, day laborers and criminal roles going to Latinx actors,” wrote Gerry Maravilla, Head of Crowdfunding at Seed and Spark and writer-director of Cross, in an email interview. “I think this comes from often lack of interaction on behalf of writers and filmmakers with Latinx people in the real world. As such, they rely on what they’ve already seen in films or what they see from the vantage point of their more insulated experience.”
“By ‘insulated,’ I don’t mean that they live secluded or antisocial lives, but rather the lives they lead don’t actually include Latinx people in any meaningful way,” he said. “Instead, they see the Latinx peoples working in roles like day laborers or think about Latinx gang culture because of its coverage in the media.”
“I think the most important thing to remember about stereotypes is how detrimental they are to Latinx actors who are trying to be cast in roles that are meaningful [as well as] to creators and consumers as a whole,” said Kimberly Hoyos, filmmaker and creator of The Light Leaks, a website designed to support, educate and empower female and gender non-conforming filmmakers. “As a Latina creator, I’m not going to write a character that I wouldn’t personally maybe want to act as. I wouldn’t create someone who is my ethnicity that doesn’t represent something larger as a whole. As a consumer growing up, that’s what I would see, maids and…anything that was oversexualized or overcriminalized. I think that in part pushed me to be a creator so I would be in charge of what was being produced.”
Amy Novondo, singer and actor, said that several people she knows are frustrated with the lack of quality roles.
“[Hollywood] thinks of that over-dramatized telenovela atmosphere and [they think that] Latinos are only capable of that kind of acting their minds,” she said. “I know a couple of Latinos who are really mad about this because we barely get a chance to get into the audition room and when we do, we’re stereotyped right out of the box. It’s like, come on—I want a little more than that.”
Why have these stereotypes stayed around, and why have they kept their power? The answers lie in the pervasiveness of media itself, wrote Rodriguez.
“Media has a lot of power. The images we see, coupled with the words we read or we hear imprint on us however subtly,” she wrote. “It’s something of an irony that the Latin Lover trope can be attributed to Rudolph Valentino’s – a white Italian man – performance in 1921’s The Sheik, while stereotypes like The Domestic – where Latinx characters are gardeners, maids, etc – are perpetrated by popular, well known Latinx actors like Jennifer Lopez. And in Lopez’s case, we have an instance where Hollywood shows how deeply entrenched it is with its discomfort and ignorance dealing with the Latinx identity.”
Rodriguez references The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan, which exhibit Lopez in two roles that reinforce racial and ethnic hierarchies.
“In The Wedding Planner, Lopez plays an Italian woman who is, for all intents and purposes, highly successful and comfortably well off. In Maid in Manhattan, Lopez plays a Latina woman who works as a maid in an expensive hotel, just scraping by as a single mom, and only finds success after she falls in love with a white man,” she wrote. “This creates a distorted image. As an Italian woman, Lopez’s character is an independent and successful career woman who eventually finds love. As a Latina woman, Lopez’s character is a single mom (enforcing the idea that Latino men are absentee fathers/bad family men), working as a maid until a rich white man “saves” her; then and only then does she find success.”
“This is, perhaps, a cynical viewing of what are two separate, and admittedly tropey romantic comedies. But again, media has power. Consciously or not, there’s a negative message to be had in the fact that Lopez’s Latina identity was erased in favor of an Italian one in The Wedding Planner,” she wrote. “By erasing our Latinx identities in favor of white ones, either by erasing the very existence of our Latinx identities or whitewashing them with white actors, media contributes to misinformation about what being Latinx is. Who we are as a collective culture and people – which is highly diverse and layered. Yet these stereotypes are upheld by this continued enforcement of ignorance and whitewashing.”
“[Stereotyping is] very, very detrimental and limiting because when you think of Latin America, we’re talking about over 20 countries and yes, we’re talking about Spanish [as a language] there are other languages [as well]…so I will say that when it comes down to not just representation, but inclusion in Hollywood, a person has to be invested in learning about the culture because there’s so many different moving parts,” said Martinez. “You can be Latino, Latina, Latinx, but you can be black, you can be Asian, you can be white and Latino. There has to be a great understanding of the culture.”
“…I think the work that is needed to really depict a Latino hasn’t been done and I think, specifically, when it comes to the representation, a lot of times they don’t even specify the nationality of the Latino [character]. …[Viewers] don’t even know if this person is Ecuadorian or Puerto Rican or if they’re from Honduras or Nicaragua or wherever because whoever wrote the role[.]”
Martinez also talked about how the different languages, slang words, and other cultural identifiers that make up Latin America aren’t taken seriously as characterization tools.
“When we see the portrayals on our screen, those things are not necessarily taken into account,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a strong grasp on what it means to be Latino, either Latino in America or Latino abroad.”
Hoyos said that stereotypes are at their most insidious when people don’t even recognize them as such.
“I think the most dangerous thing about stereotypes is that to the untrained eye, they’re not seen as anything negative…To the average viewer, if they see one crime movie with Latinx as they gang members or the thugs, they may not even call that movie racist,” she said. “They might be like, ‘Oh, other movies do that.’ It becomes a normalized thing, and I think that’s why need to educate ourselves as a whole. I think a lot of that goes to correcting others when we see problematic media as a whole.”
Maravilla echoes this point by examining the news’ portrayal of Latinx Americans.
“I think these stereotypes originate from a similar place as the kind of roles that go to Latinx actors. They come from an isolated or insulated experience from Latinx people that prevents them from seeing or understanding them as complex, three-dimensional people,” he wrote. “When you look at other films, Latinx people are often criminals, immigrants, blue-collar people, and when they look at news coverage, this is also typically our depiction.”
“As filmmakers try to balance telling an engaging and affective story, it’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of making a narrative work at a story level, he wrote. “Because their focus or interest isn’t necessarily on accurate cultural representation, they rely on stereotypes to satisfy their story needs, but end up not fully realizing (and in some cases just not caring) about the harm these stereotypes are doing.”
Next: Whitewashing and brownface in Hollywood
You learned a little bit about the inner-workings of Pretty Dude creator Chance Calloway in his #RepresentYourStory article; now he’s back in a full-length interview!
Pretty Dudes has recently wrapped its two-part season finale as well as filming for its theme song music video, all of which is available on the series’ YouTube page. Calloway, who is currently in the middle of casting for the second season, said he is even more consumed with the mission to cast inclusively.
“We purposefully put out a call for more actors with marginalized backgrounds and conditions,” he said. “We want people with skin conditions or disabilities, people who you typically don’t see represented on screen. …We want everybody[.]”
I was happy to speak to Calloway about why he created Pretty Dudes, why he thinks fans are attracted to the series, and his take on the talk about representation that’s consuming Hollywood at the moment.
Go check out the webseries, which you can watch here. You can find Calloway on Twitter. Pretty Dudes releases a new episode each Tuesday, and you can also keep up with Pretty Dudes on Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Facebook. You can also support Pretty Dudes through a donation via PayPal.
What was the inspiration for Pretty Dudes?
I would say probably the main thing is that I love those sitcoms where everyone lives in one house, like The Golden Girls and Living Single. But…they’re pretty much monochromatic, no matter how you look at it. So…I really liked the idea of having an inclusive environment where we’d be able to talk about a lot of different things, not just have, “Oh, this week, the Latino neighbor comes over,” or “this week, we have the gay sister.” I wanted it to be every week. I figured that would free up more storytelling, but that is also the reality for most people, myself included–we have people with different lifestyles than we have, so I wanted to really explore that and put that out there because I’m thinking if I’m…missing that, then there are other people as well.
A lot of your viewers are clamoring for that storytelling. How important was it for you to have that kind of diversity and the kind of cast that you do have? How important was it for you to cast a multicultural range of actors?
It was very important. When we were doing the initial casting, the only role we specifically requested a certain race for was Ellington because we’d set up this entire storyline of him being black. But all the other characters [ethnicities] weren’t mandatory. [For some of the characters] I specifically did not ask for any Caucasian actors because I didn’t want to be overwhelmed with a lot of white actors who could get cast in anything else and not have an opportunity for these actors of color who are working in the industry but never get to play any three-dimensional roles. I wanted to have that reality play out based on the casting, and thankfully, we were able to pull it off.
Webseries including yours are pushing Hollywood further more than the mainstream is. What do you think about the fact that there are a lot of webseries out there doing what folks have wanted Hollywood to do for a long time?
I think it’s great. The great thing and difficult thing about making webseries is that they’re often independently funded. So even though that creates a financial struggle, it allows for a freedom in storytelling and in choices of how you tell that story. So, the mainstream industry won’t greenlight something because they want something that’s safe. Whereas if I just wanted to make it, I could just make it, and a viewer out there could see it and get exposed to a whole world they never would have been exposed to before if it wasn’t for [a] particular series. There are a lot of things about the trans experience or the lesbian experience that I had no knowledge of until I started watching webseries and that’s something that you’re not going to get from Hollywood. I think that’s great because we can be bold in our storytelling and we can really do whatever we want. I think that’s huge.
What kind of response have you gotten from fans of Pretty Dudes?
Oh gosh! It’s been really positive. I’ve been really excited because you never know what you’re going to get. We had pretty much filmed the entire season before the first episode came out…So to put that much blind faith and trust into a project when you don’t know what the response is going to be is a little nerve-wracking. But the stories we keep hearing from people is “This happened to me” or “This happened to my friend,” and people who are really appreciating the inclusion in the storytelling. So, that’s positive.
In the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of discussion about casting, whitewashing, inclusion, diversity, erasure, all that kind of stuff.
As someone who is trying to make stuff that is combating those issues, how have you been taking in the conversations that have been going on right now?
Two-fold. One is that over the last five years, the majority of films that have focused on whitewashing, on white savior narratives have bombed spectacularly at the box office, so that’s been so vindicating–other people aren’t just accepting what Hollywood’s putting out. But on the other hand, it’s frustrating because it reminds you that these are the tastemakers, so to speak, who keep greenlighting these things, which have bombed spectacularly, then you have wonderful content that don’t have any kind of backing who are changing the game, who are making great strides, and it makes you wonder how long it’s going to take before Hollywood wakes up and realizes [this] is where it’s at.
You have a Hollywood film like Hidden Figures, films like Moonlight, Get Out, that have done amazing things, because people are looking for something fresh; people are looking to see themselves represented. It really kind of boggles the mind that you have Death Note and Ghost in the Shell, and they’ll come up with any excuse [for] whitewashing. They’ll even bring up feminism to excuse whitewashing, as if those two things don’t overlap in the Venn Diagram of representation and where Hollywood needs to move to. Like the whole thing with Tilda Swinton [in Marvel’s Doctor Strange]–[the excuse is] it’s so powerful to cast a woman, well they could have cast an Asian woman in Doctor Strange. I don’t get why that’s when things are so quick to descend [into] whitewashing and using white as the default and expecting the rest of us to just kind of show up for it as if we’re okay with it.
And even that argument with feminism–it basically says that white women are women and everyone else is just people.
That doesn’t make any sense at all because like you said with Doctor Strange, if they wanted a female Ancient One, they could have cast any woman. An Asian woman preferably, but any woman could have been cast, it would have been a nod towards feminism, not just a white woman.
Right, exactly. And then they’ll bring up tropes and that they’re trying to protect from those tropes. “If we had cast an Asian man, then we would have been accused of this.” If you look at a lot of the conversations that white filmmakers are [having], they’re never, ever conflicting with people of color. It’s always them saying “People would have said.” Well, who did you talk to? Did you have a room of people with varying opinions and went forth from there? The answer’s always “No,” otherwise, that’s what they’d be referencing. They would be saying, “We had test audiences,” or “We talked to this group of people,” but it’s always like, “We know that these types of people would have said this.” Well, did you ask?
…There needs to be diversity behind the screen as well as in front of the screen. The reason why people behind the screen keep making those mistakes…is because they’re not having conversations among a diverse group. You can go back to the Project Greenlight episode where Matt Damon basically shouts down Effie Brown, just shouts her down about her being wrong instead of listening. You have room for the white guys and one black woman, and you’re not going to listen to the black woman when she’s talking about diversity in the casting, and that’s where the major problems come in.
I purposefully reach out to have female crewmembers on Pretty Dudes, because with me writing the majority of the episodes–even though I’m an at intersection [of being] a gay black man, that still has nothing to do with the fact that I’m writing women characters. So, I know that what I’m writing may be problematic, so I want as many women to read it and tell me what they think as possible because I am not a woman, and I’ll never be a woman. I don’t know what that’s like. In order for me to write a story or a character that’s not problematic, I need voices behind the screen who are going to give me a different point of view. If you look at the situation with Iron Fist or even Ghost in the Shell, you have a lot of white men who are telling you what you’re supposed to think and feel. I’m kinda over that.
Or you have Scarlett Johannson telling you what to think. I still don’t understand how she thinks we’re supposed to think she’s not playing an Asian woman.
Thank God for Black Twitter and Shaun [Lau] of No, Totally and all the other voices out there [including] Asyiqin Haron [for Geeks of Color]. I love the fact that people are bold enough to speak up on a platform that we do have, to say “No, this is not good and these are the reasons why.” If you’re still [not listening], then you are choosing not to listen. It’s just like the co-creator of[the Iron Fist comic book] when he referred to Asian people as Orientals and he said, ‘I know that’s not the word.’ Okay, so you’re blatantly being racist, you’re blatantly showing that you’re unwilling to change. That’s the reality of it all, just blatant disregard. I call it “willful ignorance” of a lot of people, to just live in this darkness because that’s what they’re comfortable with, and they feel it doesn’t impact them. White isn’t the default, and that really needs to change.
— Pretty Dudes (@PrettyDudesWeb) March 11, 2017
Onto a lighter topic, what shows do you watch on a regular basis?
I just started Riverdale, which is a guilty pleasure of mine because it’s just diverse enough for me to feel like, “Okay, cool.” I’m a huge Archie Comics fan. I’m still finishing up Black Mirror. I think I only have one episode left. That show is amazing. I just started Season One of How to Get Away with Murder because I’m super behind. …I feel like when this interview is over I’m going to to think of five more, but those are the ones I’m watching. I’ll always go back to my tried-and-trues, which are A Different World, Golden Girls, and Community. I’ll watch those any day of the week.
I do want to give shout out–my friend Danielle Truett, her show Rebel just started on BET. I love that this is a show about police brutality through the eyes of a black woman, especially because black women are usually at the forefront of all social change–if you have Hollywood tell it, that’s not the case. But Black Lives Matter is started and led by black woman, and I love that Rebel is looking through those eyes as well.
My final question–with everything that we’ve talked about, where do you see the industry going as far as being more inclusive?
What I think what’s happening is that people are gravitating towards inclusive filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Cary Fukunaga. You can see the people who have the…passion to be more inclusive are the ones who are getting an audience–Donald Glover with Atlanta, Issa Rae with Insecure. I think what’s going to happen is that you’re going to keep seeing people watching those shows, those channels, those movies, and Hollywood’s going to have to change or Hollywood’s going to continue to stay behind the longer they stay set in their ways. It’s likely that the industry could recover [or] the industry’s going to metamorphosize into something we don’t completely anticipate, because it’s fascinating that a film like Moonlight won Best Picture. Now, all of these other filmmakers like me, I all of a sudden thought after Barry Jenkins won that I had superpowers. …You just put in the dedication and the talent, and you can change the course.
There are a lot of upcoming filmmakers…who are invigorated by what they’re seeing and by seeing this type of representation, it’s pretty inescapable. But I think we also have to do that not just for black people and queer people, but we have to continue doing that for Asian people and Indigenous people and Latinos. We have to keep going forward and I think it’s also important that we band together, as we did with Ghost in the Shell. All of the marginalized communities have to support each other; that’s the only way we’re going to overturn how things are now.♦