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Commentary: Hollywood sees world in black and white

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  • Ruben Navarrette: Documentary looks at Latinos in the entertainment world
  • Documentary covers Latino role in presidential campaigns since the '60s
  • Documentary also examines Latinos opinions in current campaign
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Read his column here

Ruben Navarrette says

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Documentary filmmaker Philip Rodriguez is sick of black-and-white television.

The networks' prime-time lineup is cast in an alternate universe where there are virtually no Latinos, Asians, Muslims, or Native Americans. And, on the Sunday talk shows, moderators miss the irony of discussing the Latino vote when there are no Latino pundits at the table.

"The entertainment world, the film and television world, is still a pretty racially exclusive zone," Rodriguez told me. "I think we've made much fewer inroads in that space than many other industries."

One inroad is Rodriguez's new documentary, which uses rare footage and interviews with political observers -- including CNN contributor Leslie Sanchez -- to explore the past, present and future of Latino political activism.

(Disclosure: I was one of those interviewed.)

"Latinos '08" airs this month on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

The film is a treasure chest. Inside, you'll find the first television ad aimed at Latino voters in which Jacqueline Kennedy touted her husband in Spanish; the Chicano movement of the 1970s; and the Reagan Revolution, when President Reagan declared, "Hispanics are Republicans. They just don't know it" and then walked off with 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 1984 reelection -- a high percentage for a Republican.

You'll also hear about the Clinton years, when the chief executive quaintly cast racial issues in black-and-white; the arrival of George W. Bush, who put Latino outreach out front with television ads in which the candidate declared, in Spanish, "El sueño Americano es para ti" (the American Dream is for you) and wound up with 44 percent of the Latino vote in his 2004 re-election; and a new civil rights movement in which U.S.-born Latinos take to the streets to defend illegal immigrants against nativists, demagogues and opportunists.

The filmmaker then attacks the matchup of Barack Obama vs John McCain in all its mind-bending complexity.

Did Obama's rise steal the spotlight from Latinos -- in that, in such a polarized black-and-white climate, it is difficult to see any other color? Or does it indirectly offer America another chance to better understand Latinos?

Both, Rodriguez said.

"On the one hand, it has usurped the kind of Latino triumphalism that we experienced in the '90s and replaced it with an African-American triumphalism for the moment," he said. "And on the other hand, Obama is a very interesting figure as far as transforming our very limited ideas. Ultimately, because he is black and he is white, he might be more like us than not in that he can accommodate difference."

Like Obama, Rodriguez noted, many Latinos have family members who are black, white or Asian.

"I hope [Obama] will model for us a path outside of this deadly black-and-white conversation," he said.

Some Latinos have more modest expectations if Obama is elected. Like that he won't forget them.

Polls show Obama leading among Latinos by a 2-1 margin. That is all the more impressive -- and mystifying -- given that Obama got his clock cleaned with Latino voters when he was up against Hillary Clinton and McCain got 70 percent of the Latino vote in Arizona during his Senate campaigns.

A survey last month by the Pew Hispanic Center found that just 23 percent of Latinos supported McCain, while 66 percent backed Obama. A third said that immigration would influence their vote. Fifty percent said Obama was the better candidate on that issue, while 12 percent said that about McCain.

Let's recap: McCain jeopardized his political career by fighting for the comprehensive immigration reform supported by Latinos. Meanwhile, according to Rev. Luis Cortes -- another participant in the documentary and president and CEO of Philadelphia-based Esperanza USA, the country's largest Hispanic faith-based community development corporation -- Obama has recently tried to lower expectations by warning groups that, if elected, he probably won't get around to immigration reform in the critical first 100 days of his administration.

I understand brand loyalty, in this case to the Democratic Party. I just didn't realize it caused blindness.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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