Today, I’m veering away from Comedy Week to talk about briefly about race at the movies.
Yesterday I went with a friend to see Safety Not Guaranteed, a quirky little film about three reporters trying to get to the bottom of a mysterious man seeking a time traveling partner. I liked everything about it: the performances, storyline, soundtrack. I recommend it! You can see the trailer here.
[Quick aside: It was a miracle that I managed to enjoy the movie at all because two elderly white ladies sitting directly behind us giggled at every single thing that happened in the movie. And I mean everything. A character stacks soup cans? Giggle. A character sneezes? Giggle. A car drives past some trees? Giggle. I had already shushed their loud chatter during the previews, but I was not prepared for the constant giggling once the film was underway. Yes, the movie is a comedy, but not every single minute is meant to be laugh-out-loud. At first I chalked it up to white privilege (not giving a damn about other people's movie experience), but looking back, I suspect that they were high. In which case, go grandmas!]
The lead character of Safety, Darius, is played by Aubrey Plaza, an actor and comedian who I guess is a regular on the TV show Parks and Recreation. Before this movie, I’d only seen her in the film Funny People. She strikes me as the smart, semi-hipsterish, a little awkward, dead-pan humor type. As I watched the film, I felt a connection to her simply out of gratitude that here was a different looking actress on the screen, in a lead role, no less. Don’t get me wrong, she’s totally gorgeous, but just not in the usual mainstream way:
Today, in preparing to write about the film, I googled her name and discovered that she’s Latina. Her father is Puerto Rican, and she has described herself as “the only diverse” kid in her hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. “Aha!” I thought, “I knew there was something extra special about her!”
Notably, in an interview with David Letterman, her ethnicity doesn’t come up as a topic of conversation at all. Meanwhile, what George Lopez describes as her “exotic makeup” is one of the main issues during her visit to his show, Lopez Tonight. Ugh! Lopez uses one of my most hated keywords, “exotic.” It’s bad enough when white people describe us as exotic, but et tu, George?
Plaza admits that many people are surprised to find out that she’s Puerto Rican. “It comes out of me when I drink,” she jokes her in deadpan way. “I get really spicy.” This part of the interview starts at 1:15 in the video:
It’s interesting to think of Plaza as being on a continuum of Latina beauty, one that’s far outside of what people imagine when they hear “Latina” generally or, in this case, Puerto Rican specifically. In the eyes of the mainstream, being Latina is most accurately represented by someone like JLo, with more tan skin:
Though–ahem–let’s not forget that JLo was not always she of the straight, golden hair:
Of course, there are also those gorgeous Puertroriqueñas like Rosie Perez, as seen here in the opening to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing:
And let’s not forget afro-caribeñas like Zoe Saldana, who, at the other end of the Latina beauty spectrum from Plaza, is also so far outside the mainstream’s idea of what constitutes “Latina” that she can be reasonably cast as a southern African American sorority girl in Drumline:
Not that I see myself as a spokesperson for all Latinas, but I’m happy to welcome Aubrey Plaza to the umbrella term that is “Latina.” For in supporting performances like hers in Safety Not Guaranteed, we have a chance to broaden people’s assumptions about what Latinas look like, how they sound, and how they act. There’s no one way to define us. And that’s a good thing. I hope she keeps winning new fans and surprising them when they discover her mixed ethnicity.