The backdrops are gray and monochrome. But the stories, told one by one before a single camera, are deeply personal. Together, they form a living portrait of success and survival, complexions and complex identity that could only be one story. That's the American story.
The "Latino List," an HBO documentary that explores what it means to be Latino in the 21st century, premieres on Thursday. And at a time of ear-piercing fervor over immigration -- when "anchor baby" paranoia continues to rile up the Tea Party masses and a hard-line conservative like Gov. Rick Perry can get clobbered over in-state tuition -- the resonance of this documentary may run even deeper than HBO's stellar first effort, "The Black List," which used the same stark backdrop and intense intimacy to create snapshot mosaics of the African-American experience, from former Secretary of State Colin Powell to tennis star Serena Williams to Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash.
"The very same week that we started shooting the movie, SB 1070 passed into law in Arizona," said executive producer Ingrid Duran, a co-founder of the DC-based philanthropic consulting firm D&P Creative Strategies and former head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. "There was a lot of anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment that was working its way around the country. So for us, it became even more important to tell the positive stories, to talk about how much we've contributed to the fabric of America's story."
The threads of that fabric are as varied as they are deeply woven. In interviews with NPR veteran Maria Hinojosa, we meet José Hernández, the son of migrant workers who grew up hoeing sugar beets before becoming a NASA astronaut, and somewhere along the way developing the mammography imaging used to detect breast cancer. Hernández did not speak English until he was 12. There's Armando Christian Pérez, the blue-eyed Cuban-American rapper who describes being on tour in the deep South, "too Latin for hip-hop, too hip-hop for Latin, too English, too Spanish." There's Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, a Mexican American and retired Lieutenant Colonel who became the highest-ranking Latina in the combat support field of the US Army. There's Christy Turlington Burns, the supermodel and daughter of a Salvadoran flight attendant, who looks straight into the camera and starts to talk about the way other Latinos have perceived her. " 'You know that you're considered a closeted Latina,' " she begins, feigning self-righteous judgement. "And I said, really? I haven't been keeping any secrets."
The American photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is the creative genius behind "The Latino List." Greenfield-Sanders, who spent his L.A. film school years chauffering Bette Davis around Hollywood, is known for his arresting photo portraits. He's photographed everyone from Orson Welles to Monica Lewinsky, and his work hangs in major museums from the National Portrait Gallery to the MOMA.
With "The Black List," which grew to three volumes, Greenfield-Sanders did more than paint a rich tapestry of black American life and thought. In choosing the title, he explicitly took issue with the negative meanings we assign to blackness in everyday language; the power of the voices he assembled directly undercut the notions of ostracizing and rejection normally associated with black lists. Similarly, the team behind "The Latino List" hopes the film can help reshape the notion of Latino from the American 'other' to an American mirror.
"I don't know if it will move the needle on the political debate because the debate is really taking place in Congress, where things have become so polarized and it's a really ugly conversation," Duran said. "But I think outside the Beltway, when you're talking about people's perceptions of the who Latinos are, that is where we can influence hearts and minds and change people's perceptions about who Latinos are."
Watch the trailer and excerpts from The Latino List here.
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