Why Was James Franco Cast as Fidel Castro?
James Franco has been cast as Fidel Castro in a movie about his illegitimate daughter. It’s a sentence so weird it might have been considered too on-the-nose for an episode of “30 Rock.” Yet, here we are, digesting this (very true) information with no real understanding of how this could’ve happened in the first place.
News of the casting broke last week, along with an updated synopsis for “Alina of Cuba,” an upcoming biopic that tells the story of Alina Fernández, who learned she was the illegitimate daughter of Fidel Castro at age 10 after being raised by her mother, a Cuban socialite named Natalia Revuelta Clews, and her step-father Orlando Fernández.
Over time, Alina Fernández became an outspoken critic of Castro’s government and an anti-communist activist who fled Cuba with forged paperwork in 1993 after being labeled a dissident who was not allowed to leave the country, reports Deadline. Aside from Franco, Fernández has assured potential critics that “the project is almost entirely Latino, both in front and behind the camera.”
As for Franco’s casting, Fernández has praised the decision, noting the obvious physical resemblance while praising Franco’s acting chops and on-screen charisma. Even still, the casting has attracted a fair amount of controversy from many, including actor and writer John Leguizamo, a frequent critic of the ways that Latinos are often portrayed in American media.
According to NBC News, Leguizamo took to Instagram to vent his frustrations with the news, asking, “How is this still going on?” His post continues, “How is Hollywood excluding us but stealing our narratives as well? No more appropriation Hollywood and streamers! Boycott! This F’d up! Plus seriously difficult story to tell without aggrandizement, which would be wrong! I don’t got a [problem] with Franco but he ain’t Latino!”
Many of Leguizamo’s sentiments have been echoed across social media, with some bemoaning the continued practice of whitewashing, casting white actors to play characters of color, in Hollywood. While Franco himself has not yet responded to these complaints, one of the film’s producers, John Martinez O’Felan, called Leguizamo’s comments “culturally uneducated,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.
O’Felan, perhaps defensively, rushed to justify Franco’s casting choice with vague allusions to the idea that “a land mass or living area does not determine a person’s blood history or genetics.” He continued, in another questionable comment, referencing an apparent “identity crisis in Hollywood right now within the Hispanic community in America who are arguing that we should only identify as Latin.”
The producer is most likely referring to Castro’s parents, who were of Spanish descent. O’Felan seems to be making the case that, because of Castro’s European lineage, casting Franco (whose father is of Portuguese descent) in the film was entirely justified. Whether that argument holds up to any scrutiny is a matter of personal opinion, but his sentiments do echo a growing number of conservative Latinos in the United States who have begun self-identifying as white.
There’s also the matter of the numerous sexual misconduct allegations against Franco, who settled the case in 2021 after two students at Franco’s acting school accused him of abusing his power to get certain female students to do nudity as part of the class work. The Cut reports that five women have come forward with stories of sexual misconduct, as well as at least one documented instance of Franco “accidentally” soliciting an underaged girl for sex.
Fernández, who fled to Spain in 1993 before settling down in Miami, was assisted by Elena Díaz-Verson Amos, who is a Cuban immigrant herself, as well as the wife of Aflac founder John Amos. Upon publishing her memoir, “Castro’s Daughter,” Fernández was ordered to pay $45,000 dollars in restitution to Juanita Castro, Fidel’s sister, after defaming her and other members of the Castro family.
According to a 2007 Miami Herald article, Juanita said, “People who were eating off Fidel’s plate yesterday come here and want money and power, so they say whatever they want, even if it’s not true.” The passages discussed in the case were removed from the book when it was published in English a few years later.
Latinos across social media have petitioned for Franco’s removal from the film, on the basis of not only his heritage but the aforementioned sexual misconduct allegations. Some have championed Chilean actor Pedro Pascal as a possible replacement, though some noted that Pascal’s left-wing politics would be at odds with the film’s seemingly conservative ideology.
“Alina of Cuba” is set to begin production on August 15 with director Miguel Bardem alongside two writers, Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jose Rivera, who wrote the similarly-themed film “The Motorcycle Diaries” in 2004, reports the Evening Standard.