‘Argo’ reactivates Ben Affleck’s star power and the debate on race

In 1979, the Iranian Revolution was in full swing. The Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was exiled and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rose to power. By late October, the Shah was in the United States and in November, the U.S. Embassy  was taken over. The majority of hostages were taken and held for 444 days, but six escaped. The movie, “Argo,” is about the imaginative escape.

In California, where there is a sizable Persian population things were got ugly at that time. There’s an even larger Latino population in California that used to be part of Mexico. Just as with 9/11, people who looked Middle Eastern–Persian, Arab or even Latino were faced with misplaced racial hate.

The irony of  “Argo,” is that it comes out during National Hispanic American Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15). At a time when we should be celebrating the important contributions of Latinos, we are instead watching Ben Affleck re-affirm his place in Hollywood.

Affleck is of English, Irish, Scottish and German descent. Tony Mendez, the real-life CIA agent upon whose exploits the movie “Argo,” is based–Affleck’s third movie as director, is not white. While casting the six diplomats that Mendez rescued, the filmmakers came up with some astoundingly visually similar actors, Mendez and Affleck couldn’t be further apart. In the photo of Tony Mendez being thanked by then-President Jimmy Carter, Mendez looks black and possibly Latino.

As many Latinos have come to the unnerving realization, perhaps due to historical interracial relationships, say during the Moorish invasion of Spain or the general proximity to the Mediterranean trade or even much later minglings on American soil, many Latinos resemble the peoples of North Africa and Western Asia. You can’t help but think that this might have contributed to the success of Mendez in this wildly inspired extraction operation. After all, does anyone remember that the hostage takers released 13 women and African Americans in mid-November of 1979?

Race was a salient point in the ideology of the revolutionaries who held the Americans hostage. One has to wonder if the real Mendez played the race card  and if his success was due to his not fitting into the white American profile. The 13 hostages that were released on Nov. 19-20 (the hostages were taken on Nov. 4) were women and African American men. The four women were secretaries. The men were mostly military (Air Force and Marine Corps guards plus one administrative officer).

The reasoning was that these were minorities oppressed by the American system. From what I recall, the movie “Argo” doesn’t mention the release that happened at the beginning of the three months the six spent as house guests of the Canadian embassy.

Race was also part of the modus operandi of an certain MIT group. In the 2008 American heist drama called “21” the decision was made to cast mostly white actors.  The MIT Blackjack Team that Ben Mezrich wrote about in his best-selling book, “Bringing Down the House,” which inspired the movie were mainly Asian American. Although Mezrich’s account is heavily fictionalized, he based only one character, Kevin Lewis, on a single real-life person, Chinese-American Jeff Ma. The team pretended to be rich Asian-born kids out to waste their parents’ money.

The movie “Argo”  is well paced and well-acted. Although we know how it ends, the story is told as a race between the escape and the people working to re-assemble the shredded American embassy documents that will identify the six diplomats. Affleck puts his strong jawline and heroic Captain America-esque good looks to use here. His Mendez is earnest and smart. His idea, touchingly, comes from his son’s interest in “Planet of the Apes.” Why not pretend to be a film crew looking for an exotic location to film a “Star Wars” knock-off? “Star Wars” was filmed in Tunisia. This one needs a similarly Middle Eastern or West Asian desert location. With the help of his good friend award-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), Mendez convinces producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help set up a fake production company, Studio Six.

As director Affleck sets up a stark contrast between the ease that the Studio Six twosome have against the privileged though threatened existence of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) and his wife with their six “guests.” The six house guests aren’t heroic; they are uncertain and filled with doubt. They rise and falter in ways that are unexpected and at times inspiring.

Yet the movie becomes just another white man saves the world, when it could have enlarged our understanding of what it means to be American, an American of a different color. “Argo” could have shown how much this country owes to non-white Americans.

The movie also failed to differentiate between the Iranian Revolution in terms of how they treated women and allows viewers to make assumptions based on other popular misconceptions of Islam such as the association with female genital mutilation and the oppression of women. The practice of genital mutilation is older than Islam and genital mutilation is practiced by Christians and Jews from certain areas of Africa. The 15-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for attending school only reaffirms the American image of Islam and adds to the perceived threat the average viewers would feel about the women hostages kept in the Canadian embassy. If the movie had mentioned of the release of the secretaries mid-November, before the Canadian caper  engineered the escape of the six, would have lessened this perceived threat and shown a more complex view. Women are oppressed in Iran, however, the threat of death wasn’t over the heads of female hostages nor the women among the six involved in the Canadian caper.

And why not a Latino spy played by a Latino or at least someone who could pass? Robert Rodriguez gave us the 2001 “Spy Kids” with showed a Latino family (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara as the kids and Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas as their parents) who were spies and that began a series with the most recent moving coming out in 2011. If kids can accept a Latino playing a Latino why not adults?

The legacy of Latinos as spies is worth noting. “Garbo, the Man who saved the World,” or Joan Pujol Garcia was born in Barcelona (14 February 1912) and was active during World War II as a double agent. He was awarded in recognition for his services by both the German and British governments, faked his death and lived the rest of his life as a bookseller. Mendez and Garbo make one wonder if 007 should have been Latino.

Mendez didn’t have to fake his death and instead of selling books, he’s written about his CIA experiences in three books. The world can mourn that Pujol Garcia never did.  Garbo was obviously a gifted story teller as well.  Mendez began as an artist, an illustrator and tool designer for Martin Marietta, according to Wikipedia. His artistic background made him adept at forging, creating disguises and, perhaps, even relating to other artistic people. His son is a sculptor. Mendez and his wife now are board directors of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. and now live in Maryland.

17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trevor Horton
    Oct 29, 2012 @ 21:25:07

    “In the photo of Tony Mendez being thanked by then-President Jimmy Carter, Mendez looks black and possibly Latino.” It’s a poor observation because the photo is clearly underexposed and even Carter is mostly in shadow. The camera exposed for the white walls and so the people in the foreground appear dark. Mendez has given interviews if anyone cares about his skin color.
    More problematic, what do you mean “looks black”? You need to define your terms. Latin Americans are also often not counted on the basis of physical appearance. The New York Times routinely says “Latinos can be of any race” when they show demographic charts.


    • Jana J. Monji
      Oct 30, 2012 @ 01:09:41

      Hey, Trevor:

      Looks can be deceiving. I sometimes call myself a Japotina (was using Japino but that seems to mean Japanese-Filipino). I grew up near the border so my culture is very Latin influenced. So I’m familiar with Latino culture.

      The owner of one of my favorite restaurants is Latino, but I don’t think anyone will think he looks Latino because he’s ethnic Japanese.

      No one in Japan, thought I looked American or Japanese. South Chinese, Guamanian, Filipina, Korean, but not Japanese. How do you think my ancestors feel about that?

      By definition, Mendez looks black. Merriam-Webster says that even Irish can look black. The deciding factor is the dark pigmentation of the skin.

      Could the Mendez in the photo with Jimmy Carter have passed for a minority? More easily than Jimmy Carter or Ben Affleck. Could he have passed for North African? Could he have passed for Southwest Asian (Persian or Kurd)? I think so.

      As for the photograph, a good photographer would dodge and burn. I’m guessing that the White House photog has to be pretty good. You can see the darker range of values in his suit and even some detail in his dark hair.


  2. Chi
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 02:37:24

    This was an excellent articulation of an argument I often find myself too emotional to concisely make. I find myself increasingly frustrated with Hollywood and its need to whitewash history in a way that always, always ultimately empowers the white man, and very few else. At the cost of sensitivity, nuance, intelligence, logic, integrity, and even the bare truth, it continues to happen over and over again. Angelina Jolie can essentially put on black face, Saldana, recently, is given the mantle of only black woman in the world and cast, no matter how inappropriately, as such (her new role as Nina Simone is a great example of this), Asians are almost entirely absent, Latinos, etc, and nothing. Oh there may be some outcry, but then is quickly fades away. Hollywood does not reflect the current state of America. Everyone knows that. And in dealing with exclusion as opposed to inclusion, the Hollywood machine is actively perpetuating racism and allowing the racist history of this country to go unchallenged, and therefore remain insurmountable.


    • Jana J. Monji
      Oct 30, 2012 @ 03:27:39

      Would love to hear your opinions on other movies. One of my next essays will be on “Cloud Atlas” and there is that race issue.

      I forgot about the Jolie one. Thanks for reminding me!


  3. Dawn
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 15:09:35

    You make excellent points in this article. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t even think about this angle until I did some googling after returning home from the movie. One small disagreement from a personal standpoint–Tony Mendez doesn’t really “look black” to me. But that’s a minor quibble, all in all, because I agree that he might have passed as someone with Southwest Asian heritage. (http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-ECMIJXDt-iI/UHmHfNiHvcI/AAAAAAAADwQ/ZlQE7NGJalE/s1600/tony_mendez_1- OPTI-288×300.jpg) Your article makes me curious about Mendez’s own feelings on this subject.


    • Jana J. Monji
      Oct 30, 2012 @ 20:00:08

      Check out the Merriam Webster definition of black. Because black can be applied to Southwest Asians, North Africans and Asian Indians. And there are the black Irish.

      I’d be more curious as to the feelings of the Iranians who came into contact with the “film crew’ under Mendez.


  4. Stefán Halldórsson
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 16:10:12

    I do believe Carla Gugino played the character of Ingrid Cortez in the original Spy Kids trilogy.


  5. penismighterthansword
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 16:15:00

    Every time a white man is cast as a black/hispanic/asian character, the same old argument surfaces – is there a black/hispanic/asian actor that could have done an equally good job, and why wasn’t he cast ? All the silly racial lobbyist groups rage about this as if race should be the only deciding factor (It isn’t). What’s this, Affirmation Action Version 2 ? Not casting a Mexican as a Mexican or a Japanese as a Japanese amounts to perpetuating racial hatred ? I’m just glad Mr. Affleck didn’t succumb to the pressure from those war-mongering antagonistic pricks who get a power trip from laying on the guilt thick on white men.

    And why would I want Hollywood to be a reflection of real life ? I go to the movies to escape from real life. If The Office was an accurate reflection of my workplace, 50% of the actors would be Filipinos, 20% would be Mexican, 10% would be European, 10% would be American, and 10% would be Chinese. Yes, I am Chinese. And I don’t care if Ben Affleck or Tom Hanks or Hugo Weaving or some other white actor plays a Chinese character, so long as he does a good job.


    • Jana J. Monji
      Oct 30, 2012 @ 19:57:46

      I think you missed my point. In the case of this movie, race and minority status was an issue with the Iranians who took the hostages. They made a statement to that regards and released 13 men and women on that basis.

      For that reason, a person who looked like Mendez would have an easier time in my opinion in Iran at that time than someone who was Caucasian or looked Caucasian.

      I also pointed out that after 9/11 groups of Arabs, Latinos and Persians were victims of misplaced hate. It was because of how they looked and now what they were.

      I guess you might be a fan of the 1944 drama “Dragon Seed,” but I find it hard to take anyone seriously who uses such a ridiculous pen name. Your nom de plume screams: I have real emotional issues.


  6. Catbus
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 16:19:58

    At least one of the hostages who was held the entire time was Latino, he was from my hometown.

    I am 1/4 Hispanic, but I look white. My home town has a large Hispanic population, but many of the Hispanic kids I went to school with wouldn’t accept me as one of them, because of my Scandinavian last name and fair skin. Even though I was closer to my Mexican-American relatives and grew up with that culture, I felt shut out and excluded by my school mates.

    I makes me wonder, what is a Latino person supposed to look like?


  7. Johnny R
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 16:26:08

    In Spy Kids, Ingrid Cortez is not an actress but the name of a character. She is played by actress Carla Gugino who is not Latina; she is English-Irish on her mother’s side with a father of Italian descent, as her name suggests.


    • Jana J. Monji
      Oct 30, 2012 @ 19:48:24

      You were the second person who pointed out my mistake. I corrected it. Thanks for the catch.

      I think there are many Latinos who can pass for Italian such as Andy Garcia who played Vincent Mancini in “The Godfather Part III.” Many Latinos and Italians can pass for North African or Southwest Asian in my opinion. How do you feel about Vincent Spano in “The Black Stallion Returns”?


  8. Kelvin
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 19:19:19

    I am sorta confused: what is the Jolie one?


    • Jana J. Monji
      Oct 30, 2012 @ 19:43:46

      One of the comments is about Angelina Jolie who played Mariane Pearl in “A Might Heart.” Pearl is Dutch (father’s side) and Afro-Chinese-Cuban (mother’s side). She’s black, Asian, Latina AND white and grew up in France.


  9. Trackback: Criticwire question: Who’s the best director working today under the age of 40? | Pasadena Art Beat

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