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Hollywood’s Portrayal Of Foreign Countries Is Getting Dangerous

On May 17, Kendall Jenner released an ad campaign to promote 818, her new tequila brand. She rides a horse through an agave field, joined by Mexican farmers, with her hair in braids and a sombrero on her head – seemingly embodying the main character of a Mexican telenovela and resulting in extensive backlash. But on top of the obvious appropriation, by adding a colored filter over the video Jenner completely changed the look of the landscape, and the people. Unfortunately, she’s far from the first to do so – Hollywood’s portrayal of foreign countries sets a dangerous precedent. The use of blue filters, like Jenner’s, and yellow filters in movies is a common, harmful practice in American filmmaking, and it’s time for it to stop. 

Imani Barbarin, who holds a master’s degree in global communications,  was one of the first viewers to comment on the filter’s use in Jenner’s ad. In a TikTok, Barbarin draws attention to the fact that the use of these filters is problematic, and a common discussion between people of color in communications. American productions usually portray places in non-white nations using a non-natural tone with the help of a yellow or blue filter, Barbarin says. However, the latter isn’t as popular as the first — the color treatments are usually used for countries that predominantly white societies deem as dangerous or primitive.

Fernanda Parrado, 23, a Brazilian filmmaker, explains that these filters portray, even if in a subtle way, American and European superiority.  “Hollywood uses those filters to showcase Latinx communities in a very stereotypical, wrongful and simplistic way,” Parrado tells Her Campus. Many productions justify the use of these tones — especially the yellow filter — to portray warm weather. But if that was the case, shouldn’t it be used on scenes filmed along the American coasts, as well? “They won’t use these filters to represent Miami, for example, because they’re not looking to sell this image of a hostile place, but of a pleasant vacation spot.”

“If Hollywood productions are using filters to showcase people from non-white countries as exotic, it encourages the idea of ​​American and European superiority.”

Productions frequently use these filters whenever there’s a scene showcasing a country from Latin America, with the filter changing to a lighter, more “natural” tone to represent European or North-American countries or people. “The use of those filters promotes a manipulation of the image and color, so that the viewer can establish an idea of ​​the environment and the characters,” Parrado says. “The yellow filter is used [to] represent the feeling of ‘exotic.’” But that’s not the compliment you may believe it to be. The word is often used to describe someone whose features differ from the Caucasian beauty stereotype. In fact, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the United States and countries across Europe had actual, human zoos, where Latin Americans, Africans, Asians and Indigenous people were stripped of their clothes and shown off like exotic animals.

These “zoos” were dehumanizing, and showcased minorities in cages, half-naked. The spectators would attend those exhibits to witness people of color fight each other or animals. Attendees were also able to pet and interact with the people who were locked in cages designed to portray each person’s “exotic habitat.” In 2021, the idea of a human zoo seems absurd, however, film and television productions are still showcasing people as “exotic,” “different,” and “hostile” — even if in a non-vocal or very in-your-face type of way. The filters are subtle, but they’re still there.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word exotic as “mysteriously different or unusual,” and if Hollywood productions are using filters to showcase people from non-white countries as exotic, it encourages the idea of ​​American/European superiority, according to Parrado. The use of a colored filter creates the idea that the people and the countries are different. For the spectators, it can be difficult to have a sense of empathy towards people who are portrayed to be so opposite to them. 

“The aestheticization that the filter accomplishes is a way for the filmmakers to erase existing, historical landscape and project onto it a reality of their own making.”

Sabrina, 23, a Mexican-American college graduate, thinks these filters are indicative of a larger issue. “Latin American countries serve as props to be manipulated in Hollywood productions,” she tells Her Campus. “The filter isn’t the only thing that’s problematic, but rather, the fact that these countries are only being used as backdrops because of their stereotypical associations with poverty, crime and drug-dealing. The aestheticization that the filter accomplishes is a way for the filmmakers to erase existing, historical landscape and project onto it a reality of their own making. This is very much in line with the logic of colonialism that has fueled Hollywood for nearly a century.”

The filters are used in many American productions. To name just a few, the 2005 action film Mr. & Mrs. Smith, directed by Doug Liman, uses a yellow filter to portray scenes in Colombia — the rest of the movie, however, has a natural tone for scenes located in the United States. The same happens with the crime drama television series Breaking Bad which aired in 2008, and was created and produced by Vince Gilligan. The TV show has an over-exaggerated usage of the yellow filter to portray Mexican landscapes, and even became a meme on social media.

Júlia, 20, a Brazillian college student, agrees with this sentiment. While the filter may appear harmless to many, its use can contribute to the narrative of American and European superiority. “I feel extremely uncomfortable when movies portray Latin American countries as different and inferior,” she tells Her Campus. 

Barbarin, a woman of color, adds that the filters used on these productions can often make lighter skin tones look tanner and more “adventurous” while distorting the features of darker skin tones — Jenner’s ad is a prime example. This situation would be different if Hollywood had more film and television productions with Latin American and Asian directors, producers, and creators — something that, unfortunately, is still not the case. Even though Asian and Latinx representation is still limited, it’s valid to callout directors and creators that are still using outdated ways of portraying non-white communities. They need to know ASAP it’s not okay to showcase minorities as exotic and hostile. It’s 2021!


Fernanda Parrado, filmmaker. 

Carolina is a national contributing writer and was formerly a summer and fall 2021 editorial intern at Her Campus. She's a Brazilian journalist and writer, and she's very passionate about TikTok, coffee shops, and Taylor Swift.