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.