Olmos talks showbiz diversity at Emerson

Talia Whyte | 7/29/2009, 10:57 a.m.

Acclaimed actor and activist Edward James Olmos visited Emerson College last week, delivering the school’s annual Balfour Distinguished Lecture on Diversity and speaking to students about the state of racial diversity — or lack thereof — in the entertainment industry.

The lecture series, sponsored by Emerson’s Center for Diversity in the Communication Industries, is part of the school’s effort to expose its students to major Hollywood players of color. Previous speakers have included actors Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte and longtime industry executive Suzanne de Passe. Emerson College is the only school in the country dedicated specifically to communications and the performing arts.

Perhaps best known for his portrayal of Lt. Martin Castillo in the hit 1980s television show “Miami Vice.” Olmos currently plays Admiral William Adama in the Sci-Fi Channel’s revamped rendition of the late-’70s cult favorite “Battleship Galactica.” He received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of real life East Los Angeles high school teacher Jaime Escalante in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver.” Olmos’ film credits also include “Blade Runner,” “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” and “Selena,” which also starred Jennifer Lopez.

When he’s not on camera, Olmos uses his time to advance positive portrayals of Latinos in the media. He is the founder and chairman of Latino Public Broadcasting and has helped found Latino film and book festivals around the country. He directed the 2006 HBO original picture “Walkout,” the story of the 1968 Chicano Blowouts, a series of protests against unequal conditions for Mexican American youth in Los Angeles high schools. Olmos was also the co-producer and driving force behind the 2000 documentary “Americanos: Latino Life in the United States.”

During last Tuesday’s lecture, Olmos said racial diversity in the entertainment industry has not improved much since his acclaimed 1981 film “Zoot Suit.” While he praised African American entertainers for paving the way for other people of color to make it in Hollywood, over the span of his 40 years in the entertainment world, he said it is still hard to find decent roles for Latinos, and that “Eurocentric” Hollywood still seems uninterested in showing characters from different backgrounds.

“Latinos are still nonexistent in TV and film,” he said. “African Americans have more visibility, and visibility is a good thing. But Latinos make up about 15 percent of the population now and African Americans only 12 percent, and that [Latinos remain underrepresented] is a problem.”

According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s annual report on diversity in broadcast and cable television for the 2007-2008 season, African American make up 12 percent of characters on sitcoms and dramas, while Latino representation has decreased from last year’s 7 percent to 6 percent this year, and Asians and Native Americans made up only 5 percent of visibility combined. The most watched shows thus far this season, however, feature Latino characters in leading roles, most notably the ABC duo of “Ugly Betty” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Statistics from the Screen Actors Guild tell a similar tale for people of color on celluloid. While 2007 hasn’t proven to be a spectacular year for the film industry in general, the success of Tyler Perry’s films and Denzel Washington’s “American Gangster” among mainstream audiences, as well as the surge in Oscar wins and nominations for actors of color in recent years, indicate the possibility of a changing tide.

“You should demand more diversity,” Olmos said. “When you see a new movie coming out starring a good Latino, black or Asian actor, you should go see it, especially the first weekend, when it counts for industry executives. You should make it so that the industry will pay attention.”

As for advice for other people of color who want to get into the entertainment world, Olmos said that there has never been a better time to get into acting, writing, directing and producing.

“Now is the time to get into it,” he said. “It is a very privileged life. I love it and I highly recommend it.”

Emerson is doing its part. In recent years, Emerson has made efforts to admit more qualified students of color and provide additional courses on multiculturalism. Emerson President Jacqueline W. Liebergott said that the school has three annual scholarships specifically for students of color based on financial need and merit.

According to Eric Sykes, Emerson’s director of institutional research, the number of African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American degree-seeking undergraduates has increased steadily over the last five years, from 9.3 percent of the student body in 2002 to 14.9 percent this year. Hispanics are the school’s largest minority group.

As president of the student group Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests, or EBONI, and a member of the college’s multicultural student affairs committee, sophomore writing major Aja Moore said she has made it a point since entering the school to work on increasing racial diversity on campus. Moore was part of the committee that selected Olmos to come to Emerson.

“It is very important for students of color to see people of color like Mr. Olmos who have succeeded in the entertainment world,” Moore said.