Cubans Inside the Hollywood Academy

(Yul Vazquez, Ana de Armas, Libia Batista, Arturo Sandoval)

2020 has been delivering some dizzy punches, both bad and good (hello Corona). This particular punch is a good one, and most certainly, a watershed moment for Latinos represented at the Oscars. Since we celebrate all things Cuba, it’s only natural we shout-out the Cuban members invited to sit at the table.

First and foremost, a hearty congratulations to Ana de Armas, Yul Vasquez, Libia Batista, and Arturo Sandoval. The announcement is a reminder that change comes slowly but surely if one sticks to their guns, change can happen. Just 5 year ago, the Oscars got hammered with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite which spread like wildfire among industry and fans, each calling for more diversity. It’s important that we honor its creator, April Reign, who birthed the hashtag to jumpstart this conversation. At the time, she found out that the Academy membership was 92% white and 75% male.

That means that older white dudes were dominating the game. Another shocking fact is that in its 90 year history, the Academy gave an Oscar to only 1 woman director (only 5 had been nominated in history, but 1 had ever won).

And so began the campaign. April’s viewpoint? “I believe in a meritocracy” she once said. “Cast a wide net, nominate the most talented and most qualified individuals, and the best person should win”. Regarding the fact that older white males were most likely voting for their peers, she adds “but if you aren’t viewing the films, then you cannot be sure that you have actually seen the most talented and qualified”.

Flash forward to yesterday, the big announcement. The Academy announced on Tuesday that it had invited 819 artists and executives as part of its 2020 membership class. The invitees are 45% women. There are also 36% underrepresented ethnic/racial communities, and 49% are international, representing altogether 68 countries.

In her Variety piece in Jan 2020, April had claimed that the “fastest growing demographic of moviegoers is the Latinx community” further pushing our culture. “They’re almost never represented with respect to Academy nominations, or within the ranks of the Academy. That’s not the way it should be.” We agree with her wholeheartedly.

What makes me most joyous is the fact that 2 out of the 4 Cubans are very connected to the island still. Traditionally, Cuban representation in Hollywood has been reflected more from the diaspora, rather than voices from the island. In fact most “Cuban” films are not even filmed in Cuba (see Robert Redfords Havana, or Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls). Note: To be fair, this is because of the confusing and controlling bureaucracy of the Cuban government, as well as the confusion of US Embargo laws pertaining to banking, which altogether means most US Studios simply shy away from the complication, thereby taking their Cuban-themed scripts to Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico to pose as a Cuban location. This is something that saddens a thriving young and hungry local scene, who yearns for more international movie projects. This topic is entirely a separate blog post.

Back to the topic at hand, which is the need for more LOCAL Cuban film representation in the Academy, and less diaspora representation. Need I remind everyone that a large percentage of the Cuban-American population shun the island, and present a negative viewpoint of the country (which certainly does not push local filmmakers). The only film that was ever nominated for Best Foreign Language Film was 1994’s Fresas y Chocolate (aka Strawberry and Chocolate), an early foray into LGBT discourse, and exploration of political, cultural, and sexual preferences in 90’s Cuba. Fresas y Chocolate has been the only nominee for a Cuban-based director.

I must also admit, our local film business has not churned out gobs of Oscar-worthy options either. Overall, the local industry craves nurturing on several fronts. It was only last year, that the Cuban government officially granted local filmmakers to be seen as legal entities for production services.

One local ally is Ana De Armas, a Cuban-born actress with literally 5 films released in 2020, mostly recognized for playing Marta in Knives Out. Her recent Vanity Fair cover means this young talent is coming out guns blazing. Based in Hollywood, Ana visits her family in Cuba often, keeping close ties with her homeland, actually celebrating Christmas 2019 with friends on the island. She co-starred in The Wasp Network (Netflix) a film primarily filmed in Cuba in 2019. Her voice inside the Academy will truly reflect local productions and talent.

The other is Libby Batista, a prolific casting agent who has been casting local Cuban productions for 25 years, including Un Traductor which was last years Cuba submission to be considered in the Foreign Film category. The film was created by Cuban-born directors the Barriuso brothers, with their mother lending to the art direction. The brothers scripted a movie about their father, a professor yanked from the halls of university and thrown into the chaos of post-Chernobyl hospitals set up in Cuba. His new assignment? To act as a translator for Ukrainian mothers with dying children and Cuban doctors. These are important stories to tell, and having Libby inside the Academy allows her to be part of the conversation.

Yul Vazquez is another actor of Cuban-American decent, having been born in Cuba 1965 but left early and conquered an American career – with 88 film/TV credits, including a variety of roles including American Gangster, War of the Worlds, Sienfeld, HBO’s The Outsider, Che, Magic City, and recently in Natasha Lyonne’s (another new Academy member) show on Netflix, Russian Doll. We haven’t seen Yul hang out in Cuba much, but I know for a fact that he is eager to visit, and our film community welcomes this veteran to come collaborate.

The fourth Cuban invited into the Academy is Arturo Sandoval. Considered Cuba’s Louis Armstrong, and avid bebop trumpeter, Arturo has become a bit of an elder statesman of the international jazz circuit. Having defected over 30 years ago, we sadly lost communication with one of our greats, and would like to send a big overseas hug, and congratulate him on this prestigious membership. I don’t foresee Arturo visiting Cuba anytime soon. Hey, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad.

The announcement has been positive for all foreign talent, including the Cuban nation.

If the 819 new guests accept their invitations, it will bring the total Academy membership to 9,412 members. This would allow 45% of new members to be women and 36% from underrepresented ethnic and racial communities. This is what you call progress. It has taken 5 years of consistent messaging by all races, but the battle was won… for now at least. Let’s see how this new machine works in practice.

Until then, please support art-house theaters. Please download and stream independent films, and lift these films up to friends and family. This will be the next big challenge for Cubans — how to buy/support films instead of watching via the ubiquitous pirate culture called “El Paquete” (which I presented back in 2018 at the Annenberg Cuba exhibit in Los Angeles).

Baby steps. One day at a time. We hope to catch up to the world soon enough.

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