Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


Ben Affleck casts himself as Tony Mendez in “Argo”

July 5, 2011

On June 27th, Variety reported that Ben Affleck will be directing a movie starring Ben Affleck. The film is Argo, a screenplay based on a 2007 article from Wired Magazine: “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran.”

When this casting was announced, Hollywood dailies poked a bit of fun at Affleck for casting himself as the star of his own film. They also noted that Bryan Cranston and John Goodman will be co-starring. What the trades didn’t mention was that the lead character of Argo, real-life American CIA agent Tony Mendez, is Latino. Affleck is not.

Tony Mendez in Laos in 1968. source:The Master of Disguise

In 1979, CIA agent Tony Mendez cooked up an ingenious plan to rescue six American embassy workers from Iran. He would take on the fake identity of Kevin Costa Harkins, a film producer from Ireland location scouting for a movie to be filmed in Iran, Argo. To build his cover, Mendez brought in Hollywood talent including Academy Award winning make up artist John Chambers (to be played by John Goodman in the film) to create a fake Hollywood production company and fake Canadian identities for the stranded Americans.

The stakes were high: failure would drag Canada into the international conflict between the United States and Iran, and Mendez and the diplomats would undoubtedly be tortured and executed. This is the story about how Hollywood film-making literally saved lives. But it’s also the story of how Mendez, a young man with a multiethnic background from small-town Nevada, whose creative CIA leadership facilitated one of the most daring “exfiltration” rescues in known history.

A 2006 UCLA study from the Chicano Studies Research Center found that only 1.2% of lead roles go to Latino actors (contrasted against 82% of lead roles going to white actors.) Under the guidance of director Ben Affleck, the role of Tony Mendez would have been a great opportunity for a Latino actor to star in a stereotype-defying, heroic lead role.

The Missing Man in “Howl” and other stories

Sadly, this isn’t the first time Hollywood has cast a white actor to tell history made by a minority in real life.

Howl (2010) told the story of San Francisco’s Six Gallery and the 1957 obscenity trial against Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl. In 1957, Shigeyoshi Murao, the Japanese American manager of the City Lights Bookstore, was dragged off to jail for selling Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems.

“Imagine being arrested for selling poetry!” Murao, a lifelong friend of Ginsberg, would later reflect. Murao was bailed out by the ACLU and removed as a defendant in the obscenity trial after the prosecution could not prove he knew what was in the book he was selling.

According to the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, although much of the publicity surrounding the Howl trial was focused on storeowner Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Murao committed the actual controversial act of selling the so-called “obscene book”. As a result, Murao, whose family had been interned during World War II, was the one who served the jail time. “To me, he was the real hero of this tale of sound and fury, signifying everything,” Ferlinghetti wrote in later years.

Murao at the Howl trial, seated behind the defendant’s table in a black suit, with his hand over his mouth.

Given Murao’s important role in the history and story of Howl, he is conspicuously absent in the 2010 film. Patricia Wakida of the Japanese American National Museum unsuccessfully tried to contact the producers to ensure Shig Murao would be included in the film. As depicted on its official website,Howl (2010) had an all-white lead cast and the only defendant depicted in the film is Ferlinghetti.

We also previously blogged about the 2010 film Extraordinary Measures where executive producer Harrison Ford cast himself as “Dr. Robert Stonehill,” developer of the cure to Pompe disease. In real life, the Pompe cure was developed by Taiwanese doctor Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen. The 2008 film 21, inspired by the real-life Asian American MIT Blackjack Team, also took artistic license with history, portraying the majority of the team, including the film’s main characters, with white actors.

People of color made history in the CIA, participated in the Beat Generation, cured deadly diseases and played Vegas, but the average person familiar with these stories wouldn’t know it from watching the movies. The cumulative impact of this kind of casting: In Hollywood, white actors depict minorities credited with reaching monumental, historic achievements. Actors of color cannot even expect to be cast in roles inspired by people from their own communities, and minorities remain invisible in their own stories.

Categories: blog, History and Concepts
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About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • Tsugaru Samurai

    I wonder who type of excuses all the racists and racial apologists who defended the casting of Last Airbender are going to use this time. This is more “Whites actors are universal and can play anyone, of any race or ethnicity” nonsense. Maybe they’ll say Ben Affleck looks more like Tony Mendez that Tony Mendez does.

  • LailaKhan

    OMG, this just adds to the number of roles that other ethnicities could have done, like 21, eth.  Also, the new 21 Jump Street does not feature any roles akin to those of Dustin Nguyen and Holli Robinson Peete

  • Cori B

    The best thing to do when most people think you’re a terrible actor is to racebend because it’s not like that will make people dislike your more or anything, Affleck. /sarcasm

  • Anonymous

    I heard about this and was like, ‘Good GRIEF, Hollywood! GET A CLUE!”

  • Blau Garrido

    Santiago Cabrera (from Heroes and Merlin (BBC) could perfectly play Tony Mendez!!!

    • I think Esai Morales would be perfect.

      • Some of his pictures are a very good resemblance. Hollywood will, as usual, feel differently.

      • Some of his pictures are a very good resemblance. Hollywood will, as usual, feel differently.

  • anen

    even the U.S. governments says that, if u actually read the fine print!

    • Anonymous

      You’re right. Most Latinos are mixed race. Ben Affleck is not.

      • reader

        In regards to the comment about Affleck playing Obama. I think if Obama was fine with him playing him then it would be fine. The point is to get the story across, not to emphasis what race someone/or ethic background. If the story was about his ethic background then yes I agree that they should have someone that looks like him. We should be recognized for our actions and not the color of our skin. If you want to get picky about stuff then I hate to tell you that there are several things about the character in the movie that are not true, just like lots of other movies. Read his book The Master of Disguise if you want to know the real story.

        • Anonymous

          For someone who names themselves “reader” you sure have a lot of reading to do. Your entire comment is ignorant.

          People of color are constantly being denied opportunities and whites are given preferential treatment. This has been going on for decades and decades. Americans full of talent are being put aside and never are given the chance to show what they at the same level as whites simply because they are not white. Whites have even been given roles that those of color could’ve taken on which further shows how much racism is at play.

          This site has plenty of data that you should go through so that you can grasp what the issue is that so many are upset about.

          • LatinaANDwhite

            Your are ignorant. TONY IS WHITE!!!

        • hapappa

          Oh great, another “pro-colorblind” person. Colorblind here is just
          another word for white privilege. So if a few people says it’s okay for
          a white person to play a poc, then it’s okay?

          Like how Angelina Jolie put on brownface to play Mariane Pearl, even
          though Pearl gave her her blessings? Or what about Johnny Depp doing
          redface in the Lone Ranger, even though he was adopted by the Comanche
          Nation? So Jolie and Pearl are best buddies and the Comanche Nation were
          in awe of a celebrity who is possibly 1/24 Native American.

          SnapIntoaSlimJim said it well. So out of all the millions of movies
          made that have nothing to do with a character’s ethnic background, why
          is default always white? Heck, even if the character’s ethnicity does
          matter (like Avatar the Last Airbender), the roles were not given to any
          East Asians in the end, and all good guys were played by white people.

          Yes, people of color have been screwed and will always be, never given
          equal opportunities, if we don’t stand up against the whitewashing and
          racism that is still going on today.

        • Brandi

          yes cuz it’s not like Obama gets assassination threats or people joking about lynching him…

      • LatinaANDwhite

        Umm…not necessarily true. And who says Tony is mixed race? Italian, English and Spanish ethnicities are ALL caucasian in race btw. Are you talking about the “possible” .002% of indian that Tony might have? The fact is that Ben is a caucasian American playing a caucasian American…the Italian community doesn’t seem to be up in arms that Ben doesn’t have any Italian blood. Let’s get educated before we get offended.

        • happyappa

          “Are you talking about the “possible” .002% of indian that Tony might have?”
          Funny you say that, because when a white actor has some minute fraction of non-white blood in them, it’s used to justify casting them as a non-white character. Now you’re ignoring Tony’s Mexican side and saying he should be played by a white actor. Funny how it always works out for the white actors.

          “..the Italian community doesn’t seem to be up in arms that Ben doesn’t have any Italian blood.”
          Because Italians are white and Ben Affleck is white… and Tony Mendez is not…

        • Anonymous

          So then why isn’t he being played by a fully Native American actor? When do we get to see the flip-side of this argument? Never. Therefore it’s purely a white actors’ privilege to play someone of mixed race so long as they’re “white enough” or “mostly white” or even “nearly entirely white” and never the other way around.

        • Brandi

          Spanish isn’t a race. you just named three versions of white.

    • LatinaANDwhite

      Finally an educated person!

  • Lilly

    FYI…. Tony Mendez is half Latio.  His father was Latio and his mother was Italian (Tognoni), English, and a few other. 

    • Username

      Barack Obama is half black, so I guess it’s fine for Ben Affleckkk to play him. Dumbass.

      • Anonymous

        LOL. Good one.

  • Venom

    I can’t even begin to describe how sick this makes me. What’s really sad is that I don’t see much effort to protest this abomination. Are Latin-American groups aware of this? I haven’t seen any indication that they are. Their campaigns against racism have worked in the past (I remember the Toy Story 2 video game taking out a character that was criticized as a racist stereotype), they need to speak up here.

    And to Rb, you guys really need to take Spike Lee to task for the Oldboy whitewash. 

  • Kaye

    wow – this is a bit much. This really seems to downplay the role of the Canadian Embassy staff in getting the Americans out of Tehran. I find that upsetting. They risked a lot for the US Embassy staff – they didn’t have to. They hid them in their homes, faked IDs and smuggled them out under a pretext.

  • Venom

    Things have gotten worse. Critics are praising and NONE are mentioning the racism. Sadly this has a good chance of being nominated for major awards. We really need to start the protest to stop that from happening.

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  • LatinaANDwhite

    ” only 1.2% of lead roles go to Latino actors (contrasted against 82% of lead roles going to white actors.) ” ummm…you better start learning the difference between ethnicity and race…this sentence makes it sound like you can’t be white and latino…that leaves billions of people like me out in the dust who happen to be both…stop talking about “Latino” as if it’s a race…and educate yourself before you write another article on the subject.

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  • minnielarure@gmail.com

    They fail to mention that the reason that Tony Mendez in the real life situation succeeded where other agents didn’t is due to the fact that he was “brown” like most Iranians and that’s why he could blend. Ben is as white as they come. What I want to ask everyone in this group is are you willing to stand together, take out an ad in the Hollywood Reporter and as a united front say enough of this racism? I think it’s the only way to make them hear us, if Asian-Americans, Latinos, African-Americans, and Native Americans united and said ENOUGH. Don’t go see these films, it’s the only way Hollywood will listen if nobody buys them.

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  • HH

    Also – did anyone else notice that one of the 6 hostages was Asian? But of course she got played by a white woman (the one with glasses). Small role but totally unnecessary – was it too overwhelming the thought of two whole barely-speaking Asian actors? Or did they just think it would be confusing for audiences, since, you know, Americans are all White?

  • Ed nCh

    It’s a compliment to Tony Mendez. Ben Affleck is a good-looking guy. The two of them look pretty close in skin tone.

    • happyappa

      Ok there are already at least 3 things wrong with this comment

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  • Yes, I linked to that article.

    The headline is kind of misleading, though…Mendez did not say he is not Hispanic, only that he does not think of himself as Hispanic and views himself more as someone “from the desert.” He also does not say that he is white.

    And that’s okay, a lot of people who are Latino dont think of themselves as Latino. The film could have considered casting a half Mexican actor who doesnt see himself as Hispanic to play Mendez. The thing is, Hollywood often has a tendency to see characters and historical figures of color as “just people” without seeing actors of color as “just people,” too. As a result, actors of color only have opportunities to play side characters when they are racially specified, and when there are big roles like the role of half Mexican American CIA Agent Tony Mendez, the character is just a person…but not so much that an actor of color can play him.

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