¡Comprendes, Senor Ferrell?

“Got ourselves a bilingual bloodfest” — Latino San Diego in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Drawing inspiration from Gangs of New York (2001) with a possible nod to Excalibur (1981), the rumble in Will Ferrell’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) is undoubtedly a high point of a film replete with screwball extremes. Rival “gang” members face off brandishing everything from kitchen forks to threateningly clutched grenades. In spite of the fact that several warriors ride horses into the fray and that a man is speared by a silver trident, the comedy behind this sequence is driven less by graphic violence than by a litany of gang introductions that plot the topography of nightly news coverage in 1970s San Diego.

As lead anchor of the city’s #1 news team, Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) guides his band of announcers into battle against the competition: Wes Mantooth’s (Vince Vaughn) #2 rated news team; a third station, apparently present only to justify Luke Wilson’s cameo; and public broadcast news, led by a rival anchorman (Tim Robbins) sporting an impeccable afro and turtleneck/sport coat ensemble. The climax of this climax is the appearance of Ben Stiller as lead anchor of one last mainstay of news coverage in San Diego: the team from the Spanish-language station. With a cry of “¿Come estan, beeetches?!?” Stiller and his crew slam into combat.

In addition to the furor over gender equality between Ron and his love interest, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), the running joke in Anchorman is the strain between its representation of San Diego as Latino and the fallout of Ron’s engagement with all things Latino. To convey the character of San Diego, Anchorman exaggerates the feel and flavor of the place. This includes the paradoxically lilting yet halted intonation of native San Diegans (which I got to know after living there for four years); the sweet belief that theirs is the most charming city on the planet’ and, of course, Latinidad. Examples abound.

The pivotal scene that brings on Ron Burgundy’s fall from San Diego grace hinges on a burrito carelessly tossed from his car window. When it slams into a biker (Jack Black), Ron’s best friend and confidante, his bilingual dog Baxter, pays the price. Baxter is punted off the Coronado Bridge in retribution. Earlier Ron’s relationship with Veronica warms up over a pleasantly inane debate about the meaning of “San Diego”, a name that he insists was chosen by the city’s German founders. Ron finally wins her over when their Latino nightclub waiter insists that he favor them with a bit of jazz flute — or as Cynthia Fuchs points out in her PopMatters review of the film: “yazz flute.” Last but not least, the face of Spanish-speaking San Diego is Ben Stiller in brownface.

Ben Stiller’s brownface performance doesn’t actually fool anyone into believing he is Latino. This isn’t method acting. Like performance of the country bumpkin in minstrelsy (blackface takes its name from the burnt cork used to darken both white and black performers for these roles), what Stiller offers is the parody of a racial type. In this case, it is the macho. Recently, Willem Dafoe played the drug lord-type in Robert Rodriguez’ Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), a type that owes a great deal to Al Pacino’s brownface performance in Scarface (1983). Even the frighteningly conservative Charlton Heston was darkened for his role as Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas in Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil (1958), and Spaniard Antonio Banderas has become famous playing characters like the Mexican mariachi/vigilante in Desperado (1995) and Once Upon a Time In Mexico.

I personally applaud the visibility of Latinidad in Hollywood, but acknowledging the popularity of such roles falls short of a few important issues. For example, is it necessary that Latinos represent Latinos? Or is it sufficient that Latinos be represented regardless of who plays them? How does one judge the quality of the representations on offer?

These are tough questions. To insist that only Latinos can play Latinos would be essentialist. It would mean arguing for some core quality that makes Latinos distinguishable from everyone else. This is both impossible and undesirable given our diversity. As poet and cultural critic Ed Morales has argued in Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America (St. Martin’s Press, 2002), “for Latinos the question of identity is less about black or white, and more about the mixtures — racial, linguistic, cultural, and even national — that take place on U.S. soil.”

Yet discrimination against Latinos in the Hollywood film industry is well documented. If opportunities for Latino actors are limited due to typecasting and they are also passed over for Latino roles, then their prospects become slim, indeed. When it comes to quality of representation, it is too easy to demand realism — an accurate rendering of “real” Latinos. This puts us back in the “What is a real Latino?” conundrum. Moreover, reality is both boring and an unrealistic expectation for an industry dedicated to fantasy.

The sight of Ben Stiller in brownface, along with Anchorman‘s myriad references to the Latinidad of San Diego may not answer these tough questions. It does, however, call attention to one of the key uses of Latinidad in Hollywood. The function of Latinos in the film (in brownface and otherwise) is to not be understood. What makes this tactic funny also makes it a point for reflection. Ron Burgundy is immersed in Latinidad, but understands none of it. When Ron fails to understand Baxter “speaking” Spanish and confesses his obliviousness to the meaning of “San Diego”, a city he represents on the nightly news, we see Latinidad. And it doesn’t make any sense.

This is what makes the comedy. It’s a surprisingly accurate revelation, for Ron Burgundy’s utter lack of comprehension subtly mirrors San Diego’s lack of understanding of Latinidad; it’s own and that south of the border. As a friend of mine once noticed, you’re never as far away from the border as when you’re in San Diego; a city that makes a point of being idyllic, though this idyllic leaves little room for the harsh realities of the border. Not bad, for a stupid comedy.