It’s not just the dinos that are scary in Michael Crichton’s world.
It’s a hot moment to debate the science of fiction, get lost in nostalgia-propelled imagination, and pack for another summer vacation in Costa Rica. When the Jurassic World trailer hit YouTube Tuesday, it became an easy trending topic because of its brilliantly unfolding tells and teases. This movie has everything—Chris Pratt on a motorbike, trained raptors, subversive digs at Sea World, Bryce Dallas Howard in all white (as a nod to the original’s John Hammond), and a fully realized and global park as a delectable backdrop for chaos.
The Jurassic franchise’s righteous return played out as a welcome, unifying distraction from crippling national news. It was such blockbuster fun that I bet you didn’t notice something else: the institutional racism. Sure as day, there it was, right at the trailer’s 1:58-minute mark: An expendable brown man is wearing a tracking device, checking its coordinates as blood drips on his exposed wrist. The man looks up, probably for the last time.
You’ll recall that the series takes place on islands Hammond leased from the Costa Rican government. Like the help at a Sandals resort, the franchise leans on brown and black people to service its mechanics. There’s a sad truth to the portrayal, but it’s also redundantly problematic.
The original 1993 Jurassic Park was such comet-landing filmmaking that you can almost forgive the franchise for Carter, who appeared in 1996’s Steven Spielberg-directed sequel, The Lost World. The character didn’t last long on the dinosaur-infused badlands so if the name doesn’t ring a bell, you are easily forgiven. The character of Carter was adapted from Crichton’s character, Dieguito. Per his Jurassic Wiki profile, here’s Deiguito:
Dieguito, or ‘Diego’ was a Costa Rican man who accompanied Richard Levine toIsla Sorna. He carried the equipment as they climbed up one of the cliffs to get on the island. He was amazed by even the smallest dinosaurs. Levine considered him sloppy and careless, such as making too much noise or smoking when he had been specifically told not to. Diego was dragged into the bushes and was killed by a Carnotaurus.
But I have little doubt that Lost World screenwriter David Koepp read Michael Crichton’s source material and was like, “Yeah, this is probably too racist to adapt as is.” And so with a quick wit and a swift pen, that lazy and incompetent brown man (played on film by Thomas Rosales, Jr.) got renamed “Carter”—problem solved! “Carter” then became a racially ambiguous career driver who listens to his headphones while his boss is being eaten alive.
To be fair, ‘90s thrillers absolutely loved to give oblivious idiots a Walkman and contrast their serenity with nearby chaos (e.g., the dock worker from the Matthew Broderick version of Godzilla, countless pizza guys). Carter then causes mass panic when he wakes up base-camp by screaming in fear—while nearby, calm Tyrannosaurus rexes lick Julianne Moore’s bloody jacket. Portly and sluggish, Carter fails to keep up with his pack of brown and black mercenaries and gets stomped to death by a T. rex.
You expect Hollywood Latinos to be afterthoughts and caricatures: noble maids, mustache-clad mob bosses, henchmen, sexist goons, chubby sidekick cops that never make it (Luis Guzman in Traffic, for example), or migrant workers that say something funny in broken English. You’re not surprised when Colombian former runway model Sofia Vergara is paired opposite Al Bundy or Jon Favreau, as in the recent Chef. Of course, Favreau is the director, so he can date anyone he likes, but the pairing also banks on the idea that a comparatively progressive white man with economic stability is preferable to the unfaithful machismo of brown men.
But lazy and unkempt Carter, that totem for all the free-riding brown people in this country skating by without paying taxes, that toad here to die a deserved and crowd-pleasing death—that guy sticks because it’s such a blatantly hurtful portrayal.
Let’s consider the idea that Jurassic Park might be an allegory about the perilous underbelly of the American vacation. Tourists take boats to economically poor places and enjoy quarantined fun. It’s blissful. It’s crucial to not to think about where the waiter is busing to after he gets off work. In this reading of the series (wherein creators strive for cold realism), it is logical that, plot-wise, locals act as pawns in the interests of greedy, wealthy, white men that want to experiment on affordable and foreign land. The non-existence of Costa Ricans becomes an important, damning condition: This is a story about why Americans shouldn’t put a McDonald’s on the moon and who is left behind in our trail.
But not only is that “who” never explored, in 2014 that’s an opportunity to tell a much more interesting human story. Either way, this does not excuse the Jurassic Park trilogy’s relationship with minorities, one reflected by the films’ non-white body count.
In the first film, a black laborer is killed within five minutes (there’s a Topps comic where this character is a teenager named Jose). Samuel L. Jackson is a chain-smoking computer programmer that has his arm ripped off by raptors when, illogically, he turns into an errand-runner for the white characters and darts across the island at night without a weapon. It would have made much more sense to send the experienced dinosaur hunter across the park to turn on the lights, but that’s none of my business.
A film that takes place in Latin America features one Latino character, a seedy and mustachioed mine proprietor named Juanito Rostagno there to look foreboding in an opening scene. Every surviving character—the three scientists, the two kids, the old man—is white.
In the second film, five white guys meet death at the jaws of dinos. But two factors undercut this step toward equality: Many more brown and black men die in The Lost World, and these minority deaths are handed out to a faceless platoon of hunters and mercenaries that are either killed in a field by raptors or mauled to death on a boat back to America toward the film’s climax. Aside from Carter, the most memorable minority character here is a nameless African-American man and the face he makes in the waning seconds before a raptor pounces him to death. It’s bombastic and funny.
Also troubling: There’s a lost subplot in The Lost World about two big-game hunters—Roland Tembo (played by the late Pete Postlethwaite) and Ajay Sidhu (an East Indian character played by white character actor Harvey Jason), the two of whom are best friends. A deleted Blu-ray scene shows the pair meeting in a bar, discussing this expedition. Guess which one survives?
2001’s Jurassic Park III is the least memorable of the films. Its plot: A rich, white divorced couple hires a celebrity scientist (also white) to return to the Costa Rican dino island so that they can rescue their son, who disappeared while hang-gliding with his step-father. The nuclear family is preserved in the end. Though it has a small cast and (at only six deaths) is the least bloody installment of the trilogy, both minority characters serve as early exit chum. Tour guide Enrique Cardoso (owner of “Dino-Saur” parasailing) dies maybe four minutes into the film, and hired gun pilot Nash barely makes it off the plane. It’s a minor miracle that they bothered to give these guys names.
Jurassic Park is likely not an intentionally racist series. In 1993, the business of adapting a book from the ‘80s for an American audience meant showcasing white, American faces to white, American consumers. The “black guy always dies first” conversation piece became a stand-up comedy routine in the ‘80s, and by 1997, Ice Cube was surviving anaconda-laden river floats down the Amazon. A year later, Michael Clarke Duncan came home from space in Armageddon. There’s a modicum of active retribution in Hollywood when it comes to African-American actors in action, adventure, and horror film these days.
Latino actors are still changing their names in order to appear more assimilated, while Saturday Night Live mocks President Obama’s executive action on immigration for being over the line. These are large-scale, ongoing, and sensitive matters that Jurassic World had a chance to at least acknowledge. I mean, fuck, the thing is set in Latin America. Jurassic World leaves a bitter taste because, in 2014, the film appears to establish yet another movie set in Costa Rica without featuring a prominent Latino character.
At least this time, Latino talent appears to have gotten some work:
- John L. Armijo as an Ingen Soldier
- Eddie J. Fernandez as a Paddock Worker
- Yvonne Welch as Gabriella (Welch’s previous film credits include “Latina woman”)
- Fernandez Osvaldo as Ingen Military
- Moses Munoz as Charlie
- Anthony Feliciano as Park Visitor
- Rikky Rodriguez as Wealthy Park Visitor
- Rachel Acuna as Park Visitor
- Darla Pelton-Perez as Park Visitor & Park Evacuee (uncredited)
Let’s hope “Charlie” proves essential to helping Pratt and Co. find a way off Isla Nublar.
Photo via Jurassic Park 3D/Trailer