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Film Review: Brownface and Racism in ‘The Big Wedding’

the big wedding

The R-rated comedy-fest starring Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon, and other critically-acclaimed actors, is a failed attempt at attracting laughs despite its star-studded cast, but more importantly, the film makes the odd choice of employing a white actor to be the butt of everyone’s racially charged jokes about Latinos. Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Dorian Gray) plays Alejandro, the Spanish-speaking, Colombian-born adopted son of Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton’s characters – Don and Ellie.

Alejandro is engaged to be married to Missy (Amanda Seyfried), whose Southern-born parents are less-than-thrilled about their Aryan-looking daughter marrying a brown guy and the future “half-beige” grandchildren – as described by Katherine Heigl’s character – they’ll spawn together. (Though, I’m pretty sure if you put Barnes and Seyfried’s pictures in one of those apps that tell you what your future baby will look like, the results would be at least 95% beige.)

Worried that his visiting biological mother will go back to Colombia when she finds out Alejandro’s adopted parents are divorced, Alejandro thinks the best way to handle the situation is to lie to his mother – instead of, you know, having a simple conversation with her. (Keep in mind that this guy is supposedly very bright and went to Harvard.) Everyone, including the older people, go along with this, for some reason.

Then there’s the town priest, played by Robin Williams, who pointedly asks Alejandro if he can even speak English. Alejandro responds by answering, “No, I can’t speak English” in perfect English, and then showing off his Mandarin when the priest makes a dig about Chinese people. The sentiment behind the jokes fall flat, not least of all because of how unoriginal they are, but because – for all intents and purposes – they’re being directed towards a lily-white, British-born actor in brownface.

It’s a conflicting message, to say the least. The filmmakers want you to know racism is bad, while at the same time, they utilize brownface in their film in a completely un-ironic way. “True” racism is represented by Missy’s parents, because their racism is overt and direct.

The portrayal of a Latino man by an English actor sporting a tan and some black hair dye is one of the more egregious examples of racism in The Big Wedding, but there is no shortage of racial stereotyping of Latina women, either.

Alejandro’s biological mother and half-sister, Madonna and Nuria, are at least played by actual Latina actresses – Patricia Rae and Ana Ayora, respectively. As foreign “others,” however, their ethnic and cultural differences are repeatedly commented on and scrutinized by the white characters in the film.

In Nuria’s case, the character is reduced to her body parts and what she offers sexually to one of the white characters in the film. Literally, one of her first scenes in the movie is a gratuitous shot of her naked ass, right before she dives into a lake and asks Jared (Topher Grace) to make love to her – seemingly without rhyme or reason, simply because she is an “exotic creature” to be fondled and groped by the lone young white male in the film. The hypersexuality of Latina women, in Hollywood and elsewhere, is no secret, and The Big Wedding makes no hesitations in exploiting this image.

Later, after Nuria gives Jared a quick handjob under a tablecloth in a public setting, Diane Keaton’s character takes her aside and teaches the foreign girl who doesn’t know any better to respect her body more. Ellie tells her that, in America, women are more conservative with their body and sexuality. Nuria takes this white wisdom to heart, and decides not to sleep with Jared – until the end of the movie, that is, thanks to Jared’s whining and guilt-tripping. The young white male gets to sleep with the hypersexualized, foreign girl in the end.

In contrast, the older Latina character – Alejandro and Nuria’s mother – is completely de-sexualized. She’s introduced as a devout Catholic, a near-mystical being whose “otherness” is rooted in her religion, her inability to speak English, and disdain for naked body parts and pre-marital sex.

In the era of films like Cloud Atlas, a throwback to Hollywood’s ugly history with yellowface in characters like Charlie Chan and Mr. Yunioshi, and the upcoming Nina Simone biopic starring Zoe Saldana in heavy make-up and prosthetics, it seems Hollywood is determined to regress under the guise that racism is dead and buried because the country elected a black president.

There are several problems with The Big Wedding, not least of all is an unfunny script. The ugliness of Ben Barnes’ brownface and the negative depiction of Latina women overshadowed anything I could possibly praise about this film. ‘Hey, at least the performances weren’t so bad?’ doesn’t sound as impactful when you factor in the racism, misogyny, and humorless script.


Cast: Ben Barnes, Amanda Seyfried, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Katherine Heigl, Topher Grace
Director: Justin Zackham
Runtime: 90 minutes
Genre: Comedy