Commentary: Dear Hollywood: If you're gonna whitewash the Fidel Castro biopic, just go all the way

James Franco (right) has been cast as Fidel Castro in a new film. (Max Nash / Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)
In Hollywood, truth is stranger than fiction.
On Thursday, Deadline announced that Pineapple Express and This Is the End's James Franco has been cast as Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in Alina of Cuba, a biopic inspired by the life of his estranged daughter Alina Fernandez.
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On Friday, after casting a white US actor for the role of a prominent Latin American politician drew widespread internet condemnation (including some very harsh criticism from actor John Leguizamo), one of the film's producers came out with a statement.
"Using Fidel Castro's ancient Galician heraldry as our central compass, we then combed the entire ranks of actors with Latino roots in Hollywood to find someone who had a similar facial structure," producer John Martinez O'Felan said in a statement.
"In conducting a close search for our hopefuls through the eye of the Spanish and Portuguese genealogies possessed by the Galicians, we found that James had by far the greatest facial resemblance of any of the leading actors in our industry, meaning that the emphasis was on the Build would lay his character accent and we would have a stunning game on screen to engage audiences and bring the story to life with real visual integrity.”
No, I'm not citing the onion. This is a real statement from the producer of the film.
Alina Fernández, daughter of Fidel Castro, is the subject of a planned biopic. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)
Those involved in the project have gone to great lengths to point out that the film will feature Latino actors in other roles, including Cuban Ana Villafañe from Salvador in the title role of Fernández and Argentinian Mía Maestro as Natalia "Naty" Revuelta, the mother by Fernandez. On Saturday, Fernández herself expressed support for the decision to cast Franco. As she told Deadline, "James Franco bears an obvious physical resemblance to Fidel Castro aside from his skill and charisma."
Never mind that Franco's casting does nothing for Latino representation in US film, which is generally cruel. Never mind that this contributes to an ongoing obliteration of Latinos in US popular culture. Never mind that the studios spent the months after the 2020 riots talking about "pipelines" and "inclusion" just to cater to Franco (who, it's also worth noting, was spurred on by several female colleagues and students for bad accused of misconduct). Never mind that Latino audiences in the US are constantly exposed to horrible on-screen Spanish. Don't bother with the convoluted DNA talk about "Galician heraldry".
Is James Franco, a guy who generally has the demeanor of someone immersed in Pineapple Express, really the best guy to portray a caffeinated Cuban dictator? A leader who, despite what you thought of his policies, was a magnetic speaker who held the record for the longest speech to the United Nations General Assembly between 1945 and 1976?
Did any producer actually look at tapes of Castro's 4.5-hour marathon speech, the transcript of which is 40 letter-size single-spaced pages when printed, and say, what if we got this guy who barely hosts an Oscar show could? And then, when people asked why that plum role — of perhaps the most prominent Latin American leader of the 20th century — couldn't possibly go to a Latino actor, do you respond with a statement that reads like the 23andMe End User License Agreement?
It's like a storyline from The Producers.
In this popular musical, two Broadway money men try to get rich by deliberately producing a Broadway flop. What made me think...
Why only gloss over the role of Fidel Castro? Why not create the purest, most un-Cuban version of "Alina of Cuba" - a "house of spirits" for the new millennium, a "Perez family" for the internet age? If you want whitewash, go all the way. Make it so embarrassing and unbearable that people will remember it with the same embarrassed wonder they usually reserve for that hot tub sex scene in "Showgirls."
Inspired by an apparently incredible idea to make money, I called Rosa Lowinger, the Cuban-born, L.A.-based author of Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub. Together we are drawing a completely new picture that will be talked about for decades to come. Our working title: "Springtime for Castro."
Here is our dream team:
Fidel Castro: Played by James Franco, obvi. He has the shaggy beard. And as we've already established, his ancestors hail from the same 4 million square mile continent as Castro's. Franco needs to work on "growing" his accent, but he gets bonus points from us for mangling the 'r' in ¡compañero! – also known as “comrade” in Cuban. That will be part of the charm of the film.
Ernesto "Che" Guevara: Of course, Seth Rogen is our attacker for the Argentine revolutionary. He might even do a Motorcycle Diaries prequel. I mean the GIFs already exist.
Fulgencio Batista: The role of the Cuban dictator that Castro overthrew goes to Nathan Lane, who channels his best Gomez from the musical The Addams Family. Also, he was pretty great in The Producers.
Camilo Cienfuegos: Cienfuegos was the hottest of Fidel's compañeros, known for his love of the dance floor and the ladies. He was presumed dead after a plane crash at sea in the early days of the revolution, before the regime ossified into autocratic rule. A martyr killed too soon? Or is Cienfuegos secretly living in Las Vegas? Either way, it's the ideal role for Adam Driver.
Naty Revuelta: The socialite who sold her jewels to support the Barbudos (the bearded ones) in their earliest days and even sewed uniforms for them, Revuelta was known as "one of the most beautiful women in Cuba". She had an affair with Castro in the 1950s (when he was still married to his wife Mirta Díaz-Balart) and the union produced a daughter, Alina. The Revuelta character couldn't be a better match for Catherine Zeta-Jones. It would be a perfect marriage of two previous roles the Welsh actor has played: the wily heroine of "Zorro" and the ruthless drug lord in Lifetime's "Cocaine Godmother".
Alina Fernández: Long estranged from her father (Castro belatedly recognized her as his daughter), Fernández fled Cuba in her 30s disguised as a Spanish tourist and later became an outspoken anti-Communist activist. Zooey Deschanel fits perfectly. Both she and Alina share the DNA of brown hair.
Ruby Hart Phillips: She is the New York Times reporter who first covered the Cuban Revolution. We choose Nicole Kidman because it's obviously an ensemble picture with a lot of star power. But as part of the narrative, she sleeps with a revolutionary, because in Hollywoodland, that's the sort of thing female journalists do.
CIA Agent: Any film set in the midst of a revolution in Latin America needs a CIA agent. We nominate Vin Diesel because he did well with cars on Havana's Malecón in The Fate of the Angry. More importantly, this will draw action fans to this important historical drama.
If you're a Hollywood producer and are interested in purchasing something that promises to be a poignant piece of cinematic history, please contact The Times' Rights & Approvals Department. Our lawyers are ready.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
James Franco
US-American actor

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