‘Just Cause’ to re-examine a Latina newspaper archivist portrayal

“Delores Rodriguez. Keeper of the archives. News trivia expert.”

It’s scary season again during the month of October, and this is a time when I focus on analyzing reel librarian portrayals in horror movies, thrillers, etc. We’re also finishing up the annual observation of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15-Oct. 15, when we celebrate “the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.” This is a time to research and reflect on more diverse stories and figures of Hispanic history — and present. It’s also a time to reflect on and re-examine one’s own biases. There are unfortunately very few Latinx portrayals of reel librarians or archivists; in my most recent “Reel librarians of color” post from earlier this year, I have identified only 4 (!) Latinx reel librarian portrayals thus far. I chose to revisit the 1995 thriller Just Cause, in which Liz Torres, a well-known American character actor and comedian with Puerto Rican heritage, plays newspaper archivist Delores Rodriguez, a character with Cuban roots.

At first glance, Just Cause (1995), which stars Sean Connery, Laurence Fishburne, Blair Underwood, Kate Capshaw, and Ed Harris, seems to have a patina of respectability and pedigree, thanks to its extremely talented cast. Connery also served as an executive producer on the film, which is based on John Katzenbach’s 1992 novel of the same name. Here’s an original trailer for the movie, which outlines the plot:

“Just Cause (1995) Official Trailer – Sean Connery, Laurence Fishburne Movie HD” video, uploaded by Movieclips Classic Trailers, Standard YouTube License.

As I think you can tell from the trailer, this film is a MESS. In my opinion, this movie actually gets worse the more you watch it and the more you think about it. I found myself nodding in agreement at this recent analysis of the film, “Racial Inequalities of the 90s Brought to Your Screen: Review of Film ‘Just Cause’,” a review which points out how problematic and racist this film is, with scenes and themes of White saviors, White privilege, and racist stereotypes. This movie wants to get credit for “good intentions” when Sean Connery’s character, a law professor, calls out in a legal debate the unjust imbalance of Black men in prison and Black men who are prosecuted, but the script and its “shock” twist ending end up contradicting itself.

No surprises, then, when I share that the portrayal of reel archivist Delores, a Latina, is not particularly positive, either. Let’s examine the 3 scenes in which Delores features.

*POTENTIAL SPOILERS ALERT*

Introduction to the newspaper archives and archivist

At 13 1/2 minutes into the movie, law professor Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) has traveled down to Florida with his wife (Kate Capshaw) and young daughter (a very young Scarlett Johansson in her second movie role!). Paul visits his father-in-law, Phil Prentiss (Kevin McCarthy), who seems to be the head of a Miami newspaper, in order to get access to records and archives. Phil also takes the opportunity to diss the newspaper — “Not a bad paper as papers go, but of course that’s not saying a hell of a lot” — as he walks Paul through the newspaper offices. (White privilege alert! This movie has a lot of “good ol’ boy” types of scenes.)

Phil introduces the archivist Delores to Paul. We see that the archives room is filled with stacks and stacks of folders atop every surface. We also get a glimpse of Delores’s work station cubicle and computer. And Delores seems to be the only archives staff? (Compare to the 2015 film Spotlight, in which there are multiple newspaper researchers.)

A glimpse of the newspaper archives in Just Cause (1995)
A glimpse of the newspaper archives

Phil: Delores, sweetheart.

Delores: Hey, Mr. Phil. [They hug.]

Phil: It’s been a long time. This is Paul Armstrong, my son-in-law. [Delores takes off her glasses.]

(Click each image in the collage above to view in a larger window.)

Phil: Delores Rodriguez. Keeper of the archives. News trivia expert. Buried three husbands. Were it not for Libby [his wife], I could well be photo op #4. 

Delores: And how is Libby’s health these days?

Phil: It’s very good.

Delores: Pity. [Phil chuckles.]

Phil: Business. Paul needs to see what you’ve got on the Joanie Shriver murder trial.

Delores: That poor kid from Ochopee? 

Phil [to Paul]: Watch your back in here.

Delores then looks over Paul, bites her lip, and hums as she walks him over to the archives section, which has compressed shelving that she has to crank to open.

(Click each image in the collage above to view in a larger window.)

Delores only puts her glasses on to read files. She then takes off her glasses again when she returns to Paul.

We then cut to Paul seated at a microfiche machine reader, and we see a montage of articles relating to the murder case that led to the conviction of Bobby Earl Ferguson (Blair Underwood).

Delores: So far, we are online back to 1985. Everything else before that is still on microfiche, but I can dig around the back and see what else I can find.

Paul: How long will that take?

Delores [leaning in, wearing her glasses this time]: Oh, that depends, sweetheart. You would be amazed at what I can do with a little help.

Paul smirks, sighs, and turns back to microfiche machine.

(Click each image in the collage above to view in a larger window.)

Three side notes here:

  • The captions state that Delores “sings Guatanamera in Spanish” while she’s opening up the archives. OF COURSE I looked that up, and “Guatanamera” is a very famous Cuban song, and the title translates in English to “(The Woman) from Guantánamo.” This tidbit is primarily why I assume the character of Delores is meant to have Cuban heritage.
  • The call number label on the right-hand shelves reads: “Photos / Names / RAN-STI” (sorry the screenshot above is blurry, but you can make it out), but the stickers on the folders in that shelf clearly have “DEL” on them. The left-side shelf has folders with “ADJ” labels, so the “RAN-STI” call number label on the outside of the shelves is clearly an error. (Yes, I analyze call numbers on screen VERY thoroughly, as evidenced in this prior post, because incorrect call numbers are a personal pet peeve.)
  • Why is Paul on a microfiche machine? Delores just said that they have everything online back to 1985, which should cover the time period he’s looking at. And he’s clearly not searching archives online at a computer, because we can see the standard microfiche/film screen markings on the article closeup. Looks like another error to me.

This introductory scene lasts two minutes total. What did we learn from this scene about Delores?

  • Delores is definitely NOT the “Spinster Librarian” character type. We learn that she has been married multiple times, and she is still clearly interested in men, from her flirtatious remarks at both Phil and Paul. But she is written more as an aggressive, man-mad flirt — although Phil is the one who first calls her “sweetheart” and jokes about her love life while introducing her!
  • Delores clearly cares about her appearance, wearing colorful clothing, full makeup, and her hair in an updo hairstyle. Overall, she makes quite a glamorous impression. But is she also being sartorially styled to evoke a Latina stereotype of the “sex siren and feisty-Latina trope“?
  • Delores is self-conscious about her glasses — or perhaps she has traditional, old-fashioned ideas about female beauty and glasses (e.g., that outdated saying that “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses“).
  • Delores is most likely Cuban or of Cuban heritage, based on the Cuban song she is humming. (And she is being played by a Latina actress of Puerto Rican heritage.)
  • Delores immediately demonstrates her knowledge of the murder trial and location. However, her knowledge of the murder and phrasing of “that poor kid from Ochopee” comes off more like gossip, rather than professional knowledge.

This scene could have been a much more straightforward scene, with a brief introduction and then the newspaper archivist pulling the necessary files to propel the plot. I’m left with a lot of “Why?” questions. Why did they include so much backstory for a minor character? Why was Delores portrayed this way, as an incurable flirt always “on the prowl” for her next husband? Why do the male characters have to smirk at her and treat her like a running gag? Why was she portrayed as more of a gossip than a knowledgeable professional? Why isn’t she thanked for her help? Why is Delores seemingly the only Latinx character in a film set in Miami and the surrounding rural counties?

And as this article points out:

When it comes to Latino representations in Hollywood, they’re often rooted in stereotypes. Most female characters are either cleaning ladies or spicy Latinas.

Tre’vell Anderson, “4 Latino stereotypes in TV and film that need to go,” LA Times, 27 April 2017.

While Delores is not a Latina cleaning lady in Just Cause, she is portrayed as a “spicy Latina” stereotype.

Spoiler: It goes downhill from here.

More microfilm research

At 48 mins into the movie, Paul returns to the newspaper archives for information on another convicted serial killer, Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris), who Bobby Earl claims is the real killer. We get another closeup of microfiche.

(Click each image in the collage above to view in a larger window.)

Delores: They called it “The Pilgrimage of Death.” Sold a lot of papers. The guy started out with his landlady in New Orleans, a prostitute in Mobile, and a sailor in Pensacola. And then he got real busy — a body every 100 miles.

Paul: Pensacola? When was that? 

Delores: Oh, late April, early May? You know, it was incredible. APBs in 3 states, FBI flyers all over the place,  and nobody spots him.

In this 30-second scene, Delores’s information once again propels the plot forward. She is serving as an Information Provider in this scene. But again, the script is written as though Delores is gossiping (“sold a lot of papers,” and “then he got real busy“), rather than being the informed professional that she is. It comes across so contradictory and condescending to me. Delores is also dressed in another colorful top, and she is wearing her glasses again.

Party scene

At one hour and 9 minutes into the movie, the legal team gathers for a celebration party at the newspaper businessman’s home. (Is that a conflict of interest? Very sketchy.) Also, they planned this party before inviting Bobby Earl to it — in an earlier scene, he turned down the invite and said that he had other plans — even though they are ostensibly celebrating Bobby Earl. I guess they’re really just wanting to celebrate the “just cause” and not the Black man at the center of their “just cause”? Are they just wanting to celebrate how the White men saved a Black man from injustice? (Fumes of White supremacy and White saviors here…)

Surprise, surprise, Delores is at the party — and looks to be the only person of color there. We get to see Delores out of the archives, and she is stunning with bright red lipstick and curly hair down with one side pinned back with a bright red flower.

As Phil gets drinks to pass around for a toast, he passes by Delores, who is talking with Bobby Earl’s attorney, Lyle (Chris Sarandon).

The newspaper archivist, Delores, attends a party.
#TeamDelores

Lyle: The firm’s been more successful than I ever dreamed it would be when I started it.

Delores: So, Lyle, are you single at all?

Lyle: No, I’ve been married for 8 years. 

Delores: Oh good. It’s time for you to fool around.

[Phil hands Delores a glass of champagne.] 

Delores: Thank you, Phil.

Phil [shrugs and smirks at Lyle]: Oh, Delores.

After the toast (“To innocence revealed. To death denied. To the triumph of truth over appearance” — again, a vague, self-congratulatory toast ostensibly to the Black man who wasn’t there), we return to Delores’s conversation with the lawyer Lyle.

Delores: What are you doing after the party?

Lyle: What am I doing after the party? I have a very important appointment. I’m afraid, in fact, that I have to leave now.

This is the last time we see Delores onscreen, and her part of this scene lasts less than 30 seconds. It’s just a throwaway aside during the party scene. So why is this scene in here? They’re not bothering to also celebrate Delores’s contributions to cracking the case. Rather, AGAIN, Delores is portrayed as man-crazy, and determined to go after married men. And she is now openly encouraging an affair (“It’s time for you to fool around” followed by “What are you doing after the party?“). And again, the man in her sights is shown to be visibly shaken at her attentions — even showing disgust? — and Phil is still hanging around long enough to “jokingly” warn other White men about Delores.

I’m honestly so angry at this script and how it has written Delores’s character. I have no idea if Delores is a character in the source novel; please leave a comment if you have read the book. Sure, it’s nice to see a newspaper archivist out of the archives and enjoying her personal life. Delores, at least, is confident in being herself. But then we constantly witness how men react negatively or jokingly around her, again like they’re not taking her seriously. They do not take her seriously as a woman. These men are laughing at her, and by proxy, it feels like the movie is inviting the viewers to laugh at her — to laugh at, again, the ONLY LATINX PERSON in a film set in and around Miami and southern Florida. Given how racist this movie is with other BIPOC characters, I don’t think this is a coincidence.

In essence, Delores “Keeper of the archives, news trivia expert, buried three husbands” Rodriguez serves as the film’s running gag. It’s such a condescendingly written character, and it feels more negative every time I think about it. And I do not pin the blame on Liz Torres. She seems to be making the best of a bad situation and having fun in the role — she is an Emmy-nominated comedian — but I feel uneasy being encouraged and manipulated to laugh AT her, not WITH her. Liz Torres deserved better than this tone-deaf script. Real-life newspaper archivists deserved better. We all deserved better.

My own self re-examination

This post was hard to write. Like I mentioned above, the more I sat down to write about this movie, the more frustrated and angry I got, and the harder it got to try and articulate WHY I was angry. And I’m going to be honest, part of the reason is because I was angry at myself. Because when I first analyzed this movie — maybe 20 years ago? — this is the way I summarized it:

Law professor Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) investigates the case of a young man (Blair Underwood) on death row in a Florida prison. A newspaper archivist, Delores, helps him find information for his research; she is also known as a flirt.

Tone deaf. So innocuous-sounding (“she is also known as a flirt“), but that description papers over the harm of how this character is written. I also didn’t mention race at all in this description. I also originally stated that this character fulfills the Information Provider and the Naughty Librarian character types. After having revisited this film, I stand by the Information Provider role. But now I realize that, as written, this character was also meant to fulfill a Comic Relief role. We are being manipulated to laugh at her. It’s just not ok.

I know I didn’t like this movie when I first watched it — and this movie was not a commercial success! — but I didn’t realize back then the extent of how problematic, racist, and stereotypical this movie was. I didn’t call it out then, because I hadn’t taken the time to reflect. But this month IS a time and opportunity to reflect, and I’m calling it out now.

Additional perspectives

So you’ve read how negatively I reacted to Just Cause. How did other critics react?

Here are excerpts from a contemporary review by movie critic Desson Howe in The Washington Post:

Connery is touched by Dee’s devotion, as well as the revelation that Underwood went to Cornell. (What would he have done if Underwood hadn’t gone to Cornell?) […]

Of course you want Connery to rain justice on those small-minded rednecks (no matter what color they are) and save Underwood from the chair. Unfortunately, this desire for retribution is dangled like a moral carrot before the audience. […]

So it’s brutal, horribly manipulative, and we’ve seen this stuff before in better pictures.”

Desson Howe, “‘Just Cause’ (R).” The Washington Post, 17 Feb. 1995

I’ve linked to the following review a few times already in this post, and it’s well worth a read.

To clarify; Armstrong is a man who dedicates his life fighting for justice for black people he thinks are wrongfully imprisoned. So the only conclusion one can draw from this instance is that his entire premise is a fallacy. Connery’s only potential arc is to become a racist. All black people in jail should be there, according to Just Cause. […]

Most of the conversation was focused on plot twists and lines like Connery’s, “If that’s a confession, then my a** is a banjo!” Not on the fact that it was promoting an agenda with harmful consequences on an entire community. However, this film speaks to the decade and it is something we can learn from. Just Cause got a pass at the time because we didn’t see a very obvious problem that’s apparent today.

Kenneth Hedges, “Racial Inequalities of the 90s Brought to Your Screen: Review of Film ‘Just Cause’,” ArtsHelp, June 2021

My husband’s summation was similar:

The moral of the story seems to be that even an innocent Black man is guilty.

Continuing the conversation

Let’s wrap this one up!

Did you ever catch Just Cause back when it was released in the mid-1990s? Have you watched it since? Is it as problematic as you remember? Did you recall Delores’s character as a reel archivist? Please leave a comment and share.

Sources used

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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