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Gang Film Hits Home : 'American Me' Tells Stark Story of Violent Lifestyle


Some of the wards at Juvenile Hall in Lincoln Heights cried openly after a recent screening of the Universal Studios movie "American Me," recalled actor Edward James Olmos.

Olmos said a few of the young prisoners confessed to being scared over the uncertain future they face if they continue breaking the law. The fear might have come from the way Olmos, who stars in the film and also makes his directorial debut, portrays the stark realities of prison life.

Olmos said he wanted to personally see the youngsters' reaction to "American Me," which explains some causes of gang activity by following a teen-age gang member's transformation from adolescent criminal to leader of a California prison gang.

The film, which opened last week, spans 30 years, opening with the 1943 "Zoot Suit Riots," when Mexican-American youths were beaten by U.S. servicemen. Olmos plays Santana, who lands in jail and becomes the prison gang lord.

At a screening for community activists and religious leaders in Hollywood, Olmos said he was pleased with the dialogue the film had generated among youths at Juvenile Hall. He expressed similar satisfaction with the discussion that followed the Hollywood screening.

"I only ask of you one thing," Olmos told the crowd in Hollywood. "Keep the dialogue going."

Sister Betty Drew, a leader of the San Fernando-based Valley Organized In Community Effort (VOICE), said she saw a screening of "American Me" with a young gang member who was so motivated by it that he decided to get out.

"I don't like violence in film so I usually walk out of (such a) movie. I refuse to watch people get killed," said Drew. "But every time there was a violent sex scene (in "American Me"), like the rape in Juvenile Hall and the killings, it seems like it was appropriate."

Olmos admitted that "American Me" is full of despair because it illustrates that there can be a point in a prison gang member's life when there may be no way out. Above all, Olmos said, the film shows how a dysfunctional family can ruin a youngster's life.

"A segment of our nation's youth is growing up in a self-perpetuating lifestyle spent in and out of prison, resulting in violent crime, drugs and death," Olmos has said. " 'American Me' is being made with the hope that the lives of our children will be redirected toward positive goals."

Father Gregory Boyle of Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights had expressed skepticism of "American Me" during an interview late last year, after receiving word of its general content. Boyle said reducing gang violence would not be achieved by releasing yet another movie on the subject.

But after viewing the film twice, once with gang members he counsels at his church and again with minors at the Juvenile Hall screening, he described the film as a positive undertaking that is attempting to find a solution to the gang problem.

Boyle, who advocates social programs to resolve the gang crisis, said the gang members who viewed the movie with him believe it won't change their lives but that their younger siblings should see it to steer them from gangs.

Boyle cautioned, however, that "American Me" may perpetuate a negative stereotype of Latinos in the mass media.

After viewing the film, one gang expert, who requested anonymity, said street gang members rarely learn about forced sex in prison before serving their first sentence in a penitentiary.

"The fantasy, the myth of prison is that it's a macho (experience). In reality, it's a demeaning experience in which prison gang members force fellow inmates to become homosexual slaves," the gang expert said.

In this regard, "American Me" is being compared with the 1970s documentary "Scared Straight," in which convicts serving life sentences in a New Jersey prison confront juvenile offenders face to face with the grim realities of surviving in a penal institution.

Virginia Lopez, a member of the East Los Angeles organization Concerned Parents, told The Times, "This movie should be shown to young mothers who are beginning to have problems with their children." Lopez, who is encouraging her daughters to see it, has lost two sons to gang warfare.

The screenings last month coincided with an announcement by VOICE and other community and religious groups that they intend to address the gang crisis in Los Angeles through social and economic programs.

The campaign, entitled "Hope In Youth," involves raising $10 million over the next five years.

Last year, in Los Angeles County alone, there were 771 gang-related killings. Olmos said the national total of gang murders for the same period topped 3,500.

Olmos, the star of "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez" and "Stand and Deliver," was honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame on Feb. 24, his 45th birthday.

The cast of "American Me" includes William Forsythe, Pepe Serna, Evelina Fernandez, Danny de la Paz and Sal Lopez.

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