Moctesuma Esparza is a wizened Hollywood filmmaker, producer and social activist. He produced historical classics such as Gettysburg and The Milagro Beanfield War, cast J-Lo in her breakout Selena role and fought for equal educational and civil rights for Mexican Americans as a member of the East L.A. 13. On Friday, April 29, he kicks off the UA Hanson Film Institute's inaugural "Hanson Dialogues" Q&A series at the Fox Theatre. For more details, go to hansonfilm.org.
What originally inspired you to become a filmmaker and producer, and to create films to represent the United State's minority communities?
Oh, that's a long conversation. Well, I was a history major at UCLA and certainly a lot of my filmography reflects that fundamental love that I have of history, having done so many historical films and biographies and, you know, films about Americana. So that love certainly started there, and in high school, I was an actor and a singer, and I did a little bit of musical comedy and summer stock. So I loved entertainment, and they all came together for me. Out of the Civil Rights Movement, where I was inspired to make a difference because of the lack of positive role models and images of Latinos, in particular, in Hollywood, and the belief that perhaps I could make a difference in creating three-dimensional portrayals, as well as explore what it is to be human, which is a deep interest and concern of mine and all of the film work I've been involved in.
What are your thoughts on diversity in film, back when you first started studying film and now?
Well, I was part of a campus-wide research study group [at UCLA] that looked at images in film of people of ethnic groups that were historically underrepresented. This was back in 1968. And, at the that time, it was quite clear almost all images of people who were under—African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans—were generally either nonexistent or very stereotypical. In the case of Latinos, you have the bandit, the drug dealer, the gang member, the maid, the gardener, and still back then there was the lover and the hot señorita. And that was about it—there wasn't much beyond that on what you could look at and see in stereotypes. But even by that point, we were beginning to lose, which you might even consider to be a more favorable stereotype, which is the Latin lover, because actors like Gilbert Roland and Ricardo Montalban ... but all these other actors, their careers were already waning by '68, even though they had had fantastic, glorious career where they had been leading headline movies. By the '60s, the stereotypes were pretty solid and well entrenched, and if you look at today, it isn't very different.
You were an original organizer of the East L.A. 13. Is community activism still an important part of your life?
Yes, I was deeply involved in the social protest movements seeking educational opportunities and civil rights for Mexican Americans and other Latinos. And that continues to be important to me. I founded a charter school here in Los Angeles that is going on its tenth year, and I sit on many boards of directors of community organizations and national Latino organizations where I look to see how I can continue to be relevant and make a difference.
You said you tend to focus on creating more historical films like Gettysburg and Selena.
Historical, biographical, Americana. But I'm also more interested in comedy and Sci-Fi and Westerns, and I've made a few Westerns, so I have a broad interest. I was just talking about where most of my film work was focused.
Are you working on any of these film genres you haven't produced as much in the future?
Yes. I am looking at some comedies and I'm looking at some Sci-Fi that I'm looking to be fun. I love Sci-Fi and would love to do something in that area.
Do you have a favorite Sci-Fi film?
Oh, of course. The original Star Wars. And I love Doom and I loved Bladerunner and 2001, the original the Day the Earth Stood Still. There's a lot of Sci-Fi movies I love.
And how would you define activism's role in film, fictional or nonfictional?
I think that all filmmakers have a desire to reflect something that is important that moves them that makes a difference to them, and that speaks to, you know, just being human. We want to be transported, we want to be entertained, so the extent that you can bring people's attention to something you think is important—wake people up to entertainment—than that's a way of being an activist and still honoring what film art is about, which is telling a story and being entertaining.
Anything you'd like to add about your upcoming Hanson Dialogues Q&A?
Well, apparently, I'm the first one. So I can't talk about what they've done in the past and what the history is and how I'm going to fit into that, so I'm just gonna show and do the best I can and hope that people find it entertaining and useful and engaging, so. I'm looking forward to it and I'm very honored to be the first one in this series and I'm excited to be a part of it.