‘McFarland, USA’: The Latino-American experience
by Christina Campodonico
Neil Patrick Harris made a telling joke on Oscar Sunday: “Today we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest — sorry brightest.” The sharply pointed and intentioned pun took aim at a problem that has dominated media chatter, leading up to the industry’s biggest night — the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees and in the Academy’s electing body.
For anyone who doesn’t have a penis, white skin, or 50+ years under his belt, the 2015 Oscars showed that Hollywood is a less than nurturing setting for non-white, non-male and young talent to be seen, heard and recognized. So it is in an exclusionary environment such as this that McFarland, USA becomes a welcome and uplifting breath of fresh air.
Based on a true story, the film follows a down-on-his-luck teacher and track coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) (yes, he’s white, male and probably 50+), as he trains a team of underdog high school runners, all sons of Mexican field workers, to compete in the state’s elite cross country championship. Though a classic David v. Goliath premise drives the film (which is backed by Disney), director Niki Caro doesn’t shy away from showing the harsh realities of McFarland, the California Central Valley town for which the film is named, or the racial tensions that arise when White and his family move to town. There is no sugarcoating of socioeconomic disparity either.
When White and his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and two daughters (Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher) — all blonde and fair-skinned — roll into the dusty village, lined with barred up convenience stores and scattered with stray dogs, brown-skinned pickers pause from their weary sojourns home to look up at these pale newcomers riding in comparative luxury. Their arrival initially has the feel of a space crew landing on an unknown planet — dangerous territory for a storyline that could easily lend itself to a colonial-minded, white savior complex.
But in this world, White and his family are the aliens who must come to understand a new language and its culture — not change it. When the family goes out to eat at the lone, local eatery, White asks if they have “burgers.” The cashier curtly replies, in a voice that moves fluidly from Spanish to English, that they offer only “quesadillas” and “enchiladas,” “hamon” or “asada.” No American hamburgers or French Fries here.
While food alone seems like a trite signifier of cultural difference, it’s a sincere attempt by Caro and her team to give voice to a community that has mostly been hidden or misrepresented on screen.
A landmark media study by USC Annenberg found that though Hispanics buy an estimated 26% of movie tickets, they only have 4.2% of speaking roles. Hispanic females are more likely to be depicted nude on screen and Hispanic males are more likely to be “shown in tight, alluring, or revealing clothing.”
Aside from the tanks and running shorts that the boy runners sport as they race through beautifully shot fields and vistas of Central California — (we’ll give that a pass since this is, after all, a sports movie) — McFarland, USA makes a concerted effort to speak to the Mexican-American, immigrant experience.
As a Latina of Ecuadorian descent who grew up in a predominantly Mexican-American, working to middle class community in Southern California, I recognized elements of my family and my neighbor’s heritage on screen. With others in the audience, I laughed a knowing chuckle when Señora Diaz insists that White’s 15-year-old daughter must have a quiceañera and stuffs Kevin Costner with too many enchiladas — a moment all to reminiscent of my grandmother filling my plate with plantains and lentejas.
I was reminded of my friends from high school, who struggled to go to college, when the father of lead runner Thomas Vallez tells his son to stop reading because it will ruin his eyes. It’s a tacit, yet cutting euphemism I recognize from my peers and their family’s prejudices: “There’s no good in studying if you can’t afford it in the first place.”
And with the audience’s communal groan, I cringed a bit when Kevin Costner attempted to speak Spanish to the Diaz boys’ father, only to realize that the family patriarch actually speaks perfect English. I myself have had the similar, yet opposite experience — being spoken to in Spanish, even though I don’t know more than a few words.
But perhaps such misunderstandings about language and race are inevitable, occupational hazards of living in an increasingly diverse, global and multicultural world. And I don’t mind that, too much, because these moments in the film are well intentioned. The thing is that these moments, which make the film feel culturally relevant and quite authentic, aren’t necessarily unique to the Latino culture, but actually significant to the shifting narrative of America. The Hispanic population is expected to grow to 129 million by 2060 and among those many millions, a good share will be going to the movies.
With those numbers in mind, I hope that films in the spirit of McFarland, USA continue to be made, not just to show “diversity” on screen, but to show the great deal of gumption, authenticity and heart that resides in every great American story, whether it’s black, white, brown or otherwise.