The years 1987 and 1988 were a watershed for Latino films, with Luis Valdez's "La Bamba," Richard (Cheech) Marin's "Born in East L.A.," and Ramon Menendez's "Stand and Deliver." But since then, few Latino projects have reached the big screen, and those that have did poorly at the box office.
Now, a pair of major studio films about Chicano and prison gangs--"American Me," directed by Edward James Olmos, and "Blood In . . . Blood Out," directed by Taylor Hackford, are drawing attention--and controversy--well before their scheduled releases next year.
Even though the films by Olmos, the Oscar-nominated star of "Stand and Deliver," and "La Bamba" producer Taylor Hackford feature Latino actors in starring roles and sizable numbers of Latinos are involved behind the cameras, the movies have become targets of criticism.
Chicano activists are worried that after the heroic portrayals of Ritchie Valens in "La Bamba" and Jaime Escalante in "Stand and Deliver," Hollywood is about to offer double-barreled portrayals of the darkest side of Chicano life.
The films feature violent portrayals of Chicano street and prison gangs, random drive-by shootings, lives ruined by drugs and addiction, and race riots staged in state prisons.
Industry insiders say that it was Hackford's and Olmos' 1987 and 1988 successes that won approval for these competing projects. Neither, however, has had a hit film lately. Olmos' baseball film, "Talent for the Game," went directly to video, and Hackford's "Everybody's All-American" proved a box office disappointment. With the new films, industry sources say, the studios are hoping to appeal to the large Latino youth audience, much as they have done with films for the black community.
Those who have read the scripts say that the films tell essentially the same story and they note that screenwriter Floyd Mutrux has worked in the development of both scripts.
Universal's "American Me" is the tale of Santana, an East Los Angeles barrio gang member who becomes the kingpin of the "Mexican Mafia" in the California prison system. Olmos not only directs the film but stars in the role of Santana and is co-producer and co-screenwriter.
"I want to show that there's a cancer in this subculture of gangs," Olmos said in a Los Angeles Times interview in September. "They'll say, 'You've taken away our manhood with this movie.' I say to them, 'Either you treat the cancer or it'll eat you alive.' "
Olmos told a Latino awards gathering recently that the stark depiction of gang life will act as a deterrent to gang violence. Both Olmos and Hackford declined to be interviewed for this article.
Disney's Hollywood Pictures' "Blood In . . . Blood Out" chronicles "the story of three East L.A. cousins," according to Hackford, but the movie's principal focus is on the cousin who is sent to prison, where he befriends and later betrays the boss of the "Mexican Mafia" (played by E. J. Castillo) in San Quentin.
The filmmakers ran into gang-related repercussions, in which a drive-by shooting on the set left a 27-year-old caterer seriously wounded. In a bizarre twist, Arturo Jimenez, a 19-year-old gang member who returned to his Ramona Gardens barrio for a small part in "American Me," was killed by a sheriff's deputy this summer. Both productions hired veteran ex-gang members as extras and to provide access to gang turf. Community gang service workers were also hired for credibility and security.
The events surrounding these films haven't gone unnoticed in the media or in the barrios, where Latino community activists are at odds with the approach Olmos and Hackford have taken in depicting gang violence.
Actress Alma Martinez, who unsuccessfully auditioned for roles in both films, said she doubts that she would have accepted a part after seeing the complete scripts. "It is not that they aren't depicting Latinos in a real way," Martinez said. "But shouldn't we be creating images for the American public that don't cause more separatism or racism?"
Raul Ruiz, a Chicano studies professor at Cal State Northridge, was also taken aback by the films' violent subject. "When I heard Olmos was doing 'American Me,' I thought he was filming Beatrice Griffith's book about Chicano life in the 1940s. Then I heard it was about the Mexican Mafia. So now we'll have Mr. 'Stand and Deliver' shooting up the kids he taught.
"Eddie . . . has recognition and respect (after playing Escalante). It would be a crying shame if he'd destroy that, considering how our kids look up to him," Ruiz said.
Father Gregory Boyle, who works with gang youths from his Mission Dolores Church in Boyle Heights--an area where scenes were shot for both films--noted that past gang movies have led to a rise in gang affiliation.