Fidel Castro Movie Producers Did Race Science To Cast James Franco, Which Immediately Backfired

Late last week, it was announced in a Deadline exclusive that James Franco would play Fidel Castro in Alina of Cuba, from director Miguel Bardem, with screenplay by Oscar-nominated Jose Rivera and Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz.

Most of it was your typical Deadline fare, a trades-y casting announcement full of lengthy PR quotes, but this section on how and why the producers had cast James Franco really jumped out at me (emphasis my own):

[John Martinez O’Felan, the project’s lead creative producer] adds, “Finding and convincing James Franco to play Castro, was a fun and challenging process and has been the collaborative work of the universe, because our director’s original order was to find an actor who holds a close physical resemblance to the real Castro to build from, along with finding someone Alina Fernandez would strongly endorse. To get there on such a tough look to cast, we used Fidel Castro’s ancient Galician heraldry as our focal compass, and then combed through the entire ranks of actors with Latin roots in Hollywood to find someone who has a similar facial structure. In executing a close search into our hopefuls through the eye of Spanish and Portuguese genealogy which the Galicians held, we found that James, by far, had the closest facial likeness of our Industry’s leading actors, meaning that the focus would be to build out his character accent and we’d have a stunning on-screen match to intrigue audiences and bring the story to life with true visual integrity.”

God only knows how we’re meant to parse weasel phrases like “we used ancient Galician heraldry as our focal compass.” Galicia is a region of Northwest Spain near Portugal, and heraldry is the practice of assembling familial coats of arms, but how that translates to a casting process I have no idea. I guess there were banners?

Point being, taken as a whole, it sure sounds a lot like “we found some actors with Spanish, Galician, and/or Portuguese roots and then we measured their skulls to see whose most closely resembled Fidel Castro.”

At a certain point, the Hollywood brain trust collectively decided that episodes like John Wayne playing Genghis Khan and half the non-Puerto Rican cast playing Puerto Rican in the original West Side Story was kind of embarrassing. Not to mention cruel to the many authentically-their-own race actors fully capable of playing characters of similar heritage. People began to recognize this phenomenon as “whitewashing,” and took steps to avoid it. And that was good!

Unfortunately, there’s nothing the corporate world excels at like coopting genuinely progressive sentiments and twisting them until they become onerous, unworkable, and/or entirely self-defeating mandates. “Actors should play characters of similar heritage” is a solid rule of thumb, but it’s easy to get into the weeds pretty quickly, considering that “race” is kind of a construct, the boundaries between races are blurry, and ultimately we all came from the same place so who is “authentically” of a particular place kind of depends on which time period you set as the boundary. Which no one has really even thought to discuss, let alone agree on.

So while “actors should play characters of similar heritage” is probably a positive sentiment, it should also probably come with the unspoken corollary, “as long as we don’t get so obsessive about it that we start measuring skulls like turn of the century eugenicists.”

What makes this particular episode so funny is that not only does it sound like they did do some skull measuring, the outcome was to hire JAMES FRANCO. Who not only have I not ever heard referred to as Latino (according to Wikipedia, his father was Portuguese and Swedish, though I can’t find a source for this) but who also has spent most of the past few years settling sexual harrassment allegations. Whether or not that means he should or shouldn’t be able to work is up for debate, but I think most would agree that he’s not the least controversial choice.

To recap, these producers were so concerned with “getting it right” that they did some lengthy coat of arms and skull-shape analysis, which led them to cast a notably non-Cuban alleged sex pest. All that research paid off when the Academy voted unanimously that Alina of Cuba would remain inoculated from race-based criticism and declared it illegal to dunk on the producers on Twitter.

Just kidding, they immediately got dragged for it. Notable Latino actor John Leguizamo immediately called it “fd up” and called for a boycott, writing on Instagram: “How is this still going on? How is Hollywood excluding us but stealing our narratives as well? No more appropriation Hollywood and streamers! Boycott! This F’d up!”

To recap, once again, it went something like this:

PRODUCERS: We measured everyone’s skull in Hollywood to ensure that no one could ever call us racist!

PROMINENT ACTOR: I regret to inform you that the casting is racist.

PRODUCERS: Ah, well. Alas.

I love the film industry.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.