Easy Lover: Calculating the Upside of Eva Mendes

“Was race an issue in Hitch casting?” begins a recent article by MSNBC’s Jeannette Walls (24 February 2005). At the risk of sounding harsh, I answer: duh. The US entertainment industry has always had a stake in how race figures within its wares. From the blood-and-thunder melodrama of the 19th century stage to yesterday’s tired debate over the moral impact of hip-hop, race, along with other powerful denominators like gender, sexuality, nationality and class, is the raw material from which popular culture is fashioned. It should come as no shock then that Hollywood tallies expected profits and losses based on visions of the cultural capital or social liability that race entails for its stars.

This was very much the case in the recent romantic comedy Hitch (2005), which paired Will Smith with Eva Mendes to circumvent the supposed hubbub that would have resulted from casting a white lead as Smith’s love interest. Plus the Smith-Mendes duo was designed to command a wider audience than afforded by the casting of a black couple. This kind of calculation happens all the time. As Allison Samuels points out in “Why Can’t A Black Girl Play The Girlfriend?” (Newsweek, 14 March 2005), precedents to Sony’s Smith-Mendes pairing include Rosario Dawson’s role as love interest for Smith in Men in Black II (2002) and Jessica Alba’s romance with Lil’ Romeo in Honey (2003).

Samuels argues that multiple factors contribute to this casting pattern, first noting that, “apparently Hollywood doesn’t think America is ready for, say, Mos Def and Kate Hudson heating up the screen – – though out in the real America, more black men are married to white women than to Latinas.” Second, Samuels cites a piece of “conventional wisdom” articulated to her by actress Nia Long which holds that, “‘two black characters equals a black film and not just a movie about two people.'” Samuels ends by pointing to the numbers: “Hispanics are now the largest American minority group: businesswise, it’s a nobrainer.” However I would argue that the interdependence of these three points — apprehension over sex between black men and white women, the belief that a story about black people can’t have universal appeal, and the sheer convenience of Latinidad — might be a money-maker, but it hardly amounts to a “no-brainer” (Newsweek, 14 March 2005). Why? Because the fact that these truisms are common sense today, says little about how they came to be so.

To begin with, the Smith-Mendes romantic equation makes a strong bet for Hollywood in light of the continued influence of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film that shaped the handling of race, especially as it pertains to sex, in US cinema history. Set during Civil War Reconstruction, the film dramatizes a perceived threat to white womanhood and, by extension, white culture as a whole from black men. In addition to spiking membership in the Klan, the film sparked enormous protest for its depiction of black men as sexual predators and is credited with establishing the stereotype of the “black buck” (Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, 3rd Edition 1994). The image of black masculinity as sexually out of control is one that mainstream black actors have had to contend with ever since. Sure, Denzel Washington was cast as lead actor with Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief (1993), but their relationship in the film did not involve the amorous dimension that we expect from Hollywood movies; and yes, Denzel was featured with Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector(1999). In this film, however, his character’s quadriplegic state pre-empted the need to worry about steamy bedroom scenes between two of Hollywood’s premier hotties.

Driven to distance itself from the “black buck” stereotype to avoid censure, Hollywood overcompensated with a widespread de-sexualizing of black men on screen — think Sidney Poitier — that went largely uncontested until the emergence of black action features in the 1970s. Ninety years after the release of Griffith’s film, Will Smith, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and poster child for Philly’s harmless suburban rap, is conceivably the “safest” image of black masculinity available to the film industry. Yet even he is not immune to the legacy of this particular stereotype in that he cannot be cast as a fully sexual person with a white woman. Smith himself drew attention to the persistent taboo against depictions of sexual attraction between black men and white women while promoting Hitch to the British press: “There’s sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don’t want to see it. We spend $50-something million making this movie and the studio would think that was tough on their investment. So the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up — that’ll work around the world, but it’s a problem in the U.S.” (Walls, MSNBC, 24 February 2005).

The situation is just as vexed for Eva Mendes even though she is ostensibly cast as a solution to the studio’s “problem”. Of Cuban descent, Mendes is considered too dark to play the love interest for a white lead. Instead, she has appeared across from other notable black actors. In a statement to Newsweek (14 March 2005) Mendes basically throws up her hands in exasperation: “I don’t even know what to say about it anymore. Certainly I’ve benefited, because I’ve got to work with Ice Cube, Denzel and Will. But it’s lame. I wish the mentality wasn’t so closed.”

Why is Mendes too dark for a white lead but a winning match for a black lead? The answer lies in the function that Latinidad has played in the black-white binary and the definitely racial meaning of womanhood in US culture. Latinidad has long posed a problem for systems of racial categorization, not because of an absence of racism within Latino cultures, but because the various forms of racism that exist for Latinidad fail to map neatly onto racisms that are particular to the US. Now though, Mendes’ Latinidad is the easy answer: not quite white enough to require protection from lingering fears of black men’s virility, not so black as to alienate audiences, and just exotic enough to be titillating. The gender politics behind this titillation are rooted in the “cult of true womanhood”, a 19th century ideology that sought to enshrine white women as the repositories of virtue – – that is, pure, innocent and, essentially, asexual. Not surprisingly, the flipside of idealized white women is that other women were rendered a little less pure, a little less innocent and, ultimately, a lot more sexually available.

This is not to suggest that black-white romances don’t work for the entertainment industry. Julia Stiles was paired with Sean Patrick Thomas in Save the Last Dance (2001) while just this week, Sony released a remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) starring Ashton Kucher and Zoe Saldane (who, interestingly enough, is Dominican) with Bernie Mac as the initially disapproving patriarch. What differs is that these films cast interracial couples because they are specifically about the relationship between black and white. Race functions as the problem that drives the narrative, the problem that needs solving. What media types appear to avoid are situations within which the interracial part of a black-white romance is un-extraordinary. In other words, it is casting a white love interest for Will Smith within a film that’s not about race that poses a problem. This leads to the rather contradictory conclusion that, with the exception of casting outside the black-white binary, interracial romance is a problem for Hollywood precisely when it’s a not problem. And that, I insist, IS an issue.