Thirteen Academy Award nominations. That’s how many nominations the film The Shape Of Water has received. Three of those nominations are best original screenplay, best director and best picture of the year. These three nominations have the name Guillermo Del Toro attached to them. As good as the film is, what stands out even more to me is the fact that in the age of #OscarsSoWhite, in the age of the Trump regime, and in the overall state of open and institutionalized racism towards anyone who isn’t white, there has been one constant that has persevered; the success of Mexican filmmakers, particularly at the Academy Awards.
In 2013, one year before the hashtag began, Alfonso Cuaron became the first Mexican filmmaker to win the best director Oscar for the film Gravity. In 2014, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won the best director Oscar for the film Birdman. Now considering that there had been zero Mexican winners prior to 2013, and now suddenly there are two in a row who’ve won, you can imagine how much it meant to the Mexican diaspora. In 2015, Inarritu made history for winning his second straight best director Oscar for the film The Revenant. This marked the first time that any director had won back-to-back best director Oscars since Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1949 & 1950. At this point I would joke with my friends and family members by saying: “Well it turns out they only give awards to Mexicans now, I guess that means I have a pretty good chance of getting one.”
At this years Oscars, Guillermo Del Toro has a chance to do something truly special. If he wins, it will not only be a crowning achievement after being a professional director for twenty-five years, but on a much more personal note he will join what the Hollywood Reporter once dubbed “The Three Amigos Of Cinema,” in the Oscar winning category. That article also references how the relationships between these three filmmakers were not unlike the relationships that Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese had in the 1970s. They’re constantly supporting, critiquing and working with each other starting from the days when they were strictly doing Spanish films in Mexico, to the the present time when all of them have had success with English language films in the U.S. In 2006, they became a force for the film establishment to be reckoned with. That year, all three of them had films nominated for Oscars. Cuaron had Children Of Men, Inarritu had Babel and Del Toro had Pan's Labyrinth.
Del Toro has directed some of the most unique films in the history of cinema over the last twenty-five years. From his debut feature Cronos, to studio films like Blade 2 or the 'Hellboy' franchise, to his signature film Pan's Labyrinth, Del Toro has uniquely made scary monsters, mysterious creatures or simple outsiders as the heart and soul of his films. Flash forward to The Shape Of Water, where Del Toro continues his signature theme by telling the story of a mute woman who falls in love with an amphibian creature from South America. Throughout his career, he has proved that his depiction of monsters can bring so much beauty and warmth to a film that finds a way for mass audiences to fall in love with.
Del Toro's persona and appearance, like his films, are so unique. Despite being born and raised in Guadalajara, Jalisco in Mexico, and the fact that his name is Guillermo Del Toro, there are still some out there that are stunned to find out that he is part of the Mexican diaspora. The most obvious reason why people would believe this is due to his very pale skin complexion. What many people who are not part of the diaspora seem to be aware of, is the fact that people in Mexico, the people who we identify and label as being Mexican, come in many different shades. In Mexico, most people identify as “Mestizo,” this is a term used to describe an indigenous person mixed with someone of European ancestry, in the case of Mexico it’s more than likely mixed with Spanish ancestry. This still rings true to today, however, in addition to these three demographics, there are countless other different demographics that can be used to describe a Mexican person. Examples such as Mexicans who come from Asian countries, Mexicans who come from Arab countries, even Mexicans who come from African countries. One of the things that has make Del Toro stand out amongst Mexican filmmakers and international filmmakers as a whole is the fact that he’s fluent in English (Cuaron and Innaritu are as well), and he doesn’t fit the stereotype of what people, particularly Americans, accept as being Mexican. Now generally, and this is the case in any ethnic/racial demographic, having a lighter skin complexion would give you a certain type of privilege that comes with it, however Del Toro has gone on record with stories that prove that is not always the case. By simply using the eye test, if you saw him walking down the street and you knew nothing about him, yor initial thought more tham likely won’t be, “He’s Mexican.” However, it’s his signature Mexican accent that can push him up against a lot of scrutiny and obvious prejudice.
In a recent interview on KCRW’s The Treatment, Del Toro told host Elvis Mitchell an anecdote about how he was driving to a meeting out in Beverly Hills in a beaten down rental car, and he gets pulled over by the Beverly Hills Police. The cop comes up to him and asks were he’s going. Del Toro explained how he was on his way to a meeting with some studio executives. The cop was confused as to how someone with an important industry-related meeting to attend to would be driving in such a cheap rental car that is historically not seen in Beverly Hills' city limits. He then asked Del Toro what his accent was. Del Toro said it was Mexican. The officer was again stunned that a Mexican man with this kind of beaten down rental car would be going to an industry-related meeting in Beverly Hills. Del Toro then said that he was pulled over for a half hour before he was free to go on his way. In that interview he also recalled stories of when he would causally be shopping in a high-end store and ask the employees how much a certain item would cost, only to be rejected by the employees who very bluntly tell him “You can’t afford it.” I bring all of these things up because he is evidence of how prejudice, particularly against Mexicans, or really from anybody who comes from a Latin American country, and racism really knows no bounds. In his case, the moment he starts talking to people, their perception of him changes for the wors.
In today’s age, we are constantly hearing that representation matters. The simple notion that if you can see it, then you can do it. In the film industry, we tend to only think of representation as the actors who we see on screen because those are the first people that we automatically relate to. However, the people that are behind the camera are just as important in regards to setting examples for others to follow in their footsteps and to see themselves represented.
For twenty-five years, Guillermo Del Toro has made a career of telling stories of monsters and mythical creatures from other realms. However, at the heart of his films, a lot of times they are just misunderstood characters who are simply rejected by society because they don’t fit a certain mold, something that Del Toro and so many people like him can relate to. So come Oscar Sunday, if he gets his name called for that coveted best director award, he will be rewarded for an original film that he made on his own terms, and he will be another reminder (third to be exact) that the people who he represents, also look like the rest of the world.