Hollywood has only just finished patting itself on the back for the most diverse awards season ever, but one major group was conspicuously absent from the party. Only a handful of Latinx actors have been nominated for an Oscar and only six have ever won one – most recently Lupita Nyong’o (who’s Kenyan-Mexican) in 2014, and then Benicio Del Toro for Traffic, 20 years ago. Latin Americans account for 18% of the US population but they’ve had just 4.5% of speaking roles in the top Hollywood movies of the past decade. Of the top 100 movies of 2019, 44 featured no Latinx characters who had any dialogue.
This could be the year things change, though. And if they do, it will be largely down to one person: Lin-Manuel Miranda. The phenomenal success of stage musical Hamilton (which he composed, wrote and starred in) clearly opened Hollywood’s eyes – and wallets. Disney paid a record $75m (£53m) for Hamilton’s film rights (it was released last year on Disney+), and next comes In the Heights, adapted from Miranda’s earlier musical, partly based on his childhood in a New York Latinx neighbourhood. Its star, Anthony Ramos, made his name in the stage version of Hamilton. Before that, he was on the verge of quitting acting, so scarce were opportunities for Latinx actors.
Then, later this year, comes Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, another New York Latinx tale. It’s not clear how much Hamilton was a factor in Spielberg’s detour into musicals, but we know he went to see it on Broadway. To his credit, Spielberg is correcting the sins of the 1961 version (which won 10 Oscars), casting Latinx actors in the appropriate roles, where the original “browned up” actors such as Natalie Wood. He’s had to borrow a few Hamilton alumni to do that, such as Ariana DuBose, who plays Anita. Spielberg also finds room for the original Anita, Rita Moreno.
Latinx talent has always found success against the odds in Hollywood, from Jennifer Lopez to Pedro Pascal to directors Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro, but to some extent they’ve had to renounce their own culture to find it. By contrast, as well as foregrounding Latin-American actors, these new stories deal specifically with Latinx identity and its place within American society. In the Heights not only puts on a show, its focus on hard-working “dreamers” strikes a chord with the present-day reality.
As for Miranda himself, he’s everywhere. His upcoming projects include Latinx-centric animation Vivo, Netflix live-action musical Tick, Tick … Boom! (starring Andrew Garfield), songs for Disney’s Little Mermaid remake, and a Rita Moreno documentary. He might not be flying the flag solely for Latinx culture any more, but if awards season 2022 looks very different, his work will be done.