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Latino
by David Hudson

First, a little fun with numbers. The census conducted in the US in 2000 turned up 35,305,818 folks who classified themselves as "Hispanic or Latino." That's about 12.5 percent of the total population. And yet, of all the films unleashed to the world by the major studios throughout last ten years, big two-hour portraits of life in America, a mere 2.2 percent have been directed by Latinos.

And up on the screen? One survey taken in the mid-90s revealed that of all the characters portrayed in these movies, only 2.5 percent have been Latino. You can pretty well guess, too, what sort of characters we're talking about. There have been exceptions, a few fine moments for Latinos in Hollywood, but for the most part, it's been maids and drug dealers, basically. Little surprise, then, that if you're looking for any sort of halfway realistic snapshot of Latino life on the screen, you have to turn to the independents.

Interestingly enough, most surveys of independent Latino cinema begin with a white director, Robert Young. He was already 32 when he made his first feature-length film in 1957, a documentary called Secrets of the Reef. He bounced around the studios and major television networks for a while, turning to more politically engaging subjects, trying and not always succeeding to get them seen.

Then came Alambrista!, his first fictional feature. The handheld camera work, the gentle telling of the brutal story of illegal farm laborers, the touches of humor as Roberto, one of them, tries to blend in with the gringos, all led to a Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1978. That - and the funding secured from PBS and the National Endowment for the Humanities by producer Moctesuma Esparza - made possible The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, featuring an early important performance by an actor who would become a stalwart of Latino filmmaking: Edward James Olmos.

In the late 80s, Olmos would star in the film that would do the most to begin to unravel Latino stereotypes in the movies. He pulled a De Niro and put on 41 pounds to play Jaime Escalante, a high school math teacher in East LA. Escalante became a local media darling when he convinced his unruly class to study up for an advanced placement test - in calculus, no less. When they all passed, the Educational Testing Service refused to believe the results. The class was accused of cheating (by Andy Garcia in the movie, by the way), but Escalante convinced the kids to take it again.

Great material for a movie, thought Ramon Menendez. But it would take four years and a lot of running up against tightly shut doors before Stand and Deliver would get made. The movie did well at the box office and Olmos was nominated for an Oscar. He'd go on as well to help found the Los Angeles International Latino Festival in 1997. The San Francisco Bay Area Latino Film Festival got rolling at about the same time, but the Cine Latino! festival in San Francisco, put on by Cine Accion, the Latino media organization that has thrived the longer than any other in the US, preceeded both by four years.

Menendez went Hollywood for a while, and not all that successfully, either, but has most recently popped up again with the low-key Tortilla Soup, a remake that does for south-of-the-border cuisine what the original, Eat Drink Man Woman, did for Taiwanese delicacies.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Back to 1984, back to El Norte. Gregory Nava's epic tale of a brother and sister, Enrique and Rosa, heading from Guatemala to what they hope will be paradise in the North, did well in the art houses and inspired a whole generation of Latino filmmakers. "From Mayan jungle mills to American sweatshops," writes Greg Merritt in Celluloid Mavericks, "it takes us where other movies have never been."

In Cinema of Outsiders, Emanuel Levy is of two minds about Nava. Levy admires the accomplishment of El Norte, but finds the director an "unabashed melodramist" with a "penchant for overwrought narratives and schmaltzy soap operas. Nava's films, like his later Mi Familia, have enough subplots and sentiments to qualify them as TV miniseries." Not necessarily qualities that did Nava any harm, though, when it came to filming the life of Latino superstar, Selena.

Before getting to the Next Big Thing, a few honorable mentions. Leon Ichaso emigrated to the US from Cuba when he was just 14. He told BOMB magazine about his 1979 feature debut: "El Super was about a Cuban man who couldn't accept the fact that he was here in the cold and the snow, or that his daughter was becoming Americanized and that he had no world to go back to. At the time, I was working as a copywriter and making TV commercials. I made El Super with money from Goya commercials. That was the beginning of the do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-a-movie-made approach."

In 1985, Ichaso made the bittersweet Crossover Dreams (1985) capturing an essential Latino dilemma and giving Ruben Blades his breakthrough role. Blades plays a salsa performer who abandons his friends, his audience, his very identity in an ill-fated attempt to make it big. Two years later, Columbia Pictures would release a similar story; La Bamba, though, was based on a real-life crossover musician, Ritchie Valens.

While we're on the subject of Hollywood's brief flirtations with a potential Latino audience during these years, we should also tip our hats to Cheech Marin. He'd made a name for himself, of course, as the Latino half of the culture clash comedy duo Cheech and Chong. After a series of wildly successful comedy albums, Cheech and Chong made a string of so-so movies, Up in Smoke (1978) being a typical example. But in 1987, Marin admirably attempted to break the mold with a stab at a more socially realistic sort of comedy in Born in East L.A..

Leon Ichaso, in the meantime, was directing episodes of Miami Vice and hearing the call back to independent movie-making. It took a while. In 1996, there was Bitter Sugar, a look at contemporary Cuba through decidedly unrosy glasses, and in 2001, Piñero, a biopic of Miguel Piñero, one of the original Nuyorican Poets - and a playwright: Robert Young, the guy we started out talking about, had directed Short Eyes back in 1977. Pinero had adapted his own play and Merritt calls the resulting film "maybe the most harrowing film about incarceration ever made."

Now then, that Next Big Thing. Which was so big because it was so small. One of the most oft-repeated and fought over legends to come from the rise of American independent film from the mid-80s on is that an unknown filmmaker in Austin, Texas, Robert Rodriguez, made El Mariachi for $7000. Evidently, it's both true and yet not quite the full story, either.

Aiming for the Mexican video market, Rodriguez did shoot the thing himself with a single, occasional assistant. He did make $3000 by letting doctors conduct their drug experiments on him. He did borrow another $4000 from a friend. He did use a wheelchair as a dolly. He did cut it at home on a couple of VCRs. And that's where you draw the line at $7000. Once his tape was passed around and some studio folks got excited about it, that's when the six-figure sums came pouring in to get a decent edit done, to blow it up to 35mm, etc.

Then came the enthusiastic reception at Sundance, Rodriguez's rep as one of the hippest of the indie filmmakers, the spiffed-up El Mariachi, Desperado, the playing around with the Tarantino crowd in From Dusk Til Dawn and Four Rooms, and finally, the big budgets for films like Spy Kids and its inevitable sequel.

Miguel Arteta made a mark for himself in 1997 with Star Maps, "an uneasy balance of Latino and art house fare" (Levy). But his biggest, most recent splash has been made with Chuck & Buck and one of that film's many notable distinctions is that it was shot on digital video.

There's an interesting story behind Luminarias (2000). In the mid-80s, Jose Luis Valenzuela, a seasoned actor and director, took over what would become the director of the Latino Theatre Company in Los Angeles. After a string of pretty successful productions, Valenzuela directed a play written by LTC co-founder Evelina Fernandez: Luminarias. It was the company's hit for 1998. So they made a move that'd be unusual for most theater companies (especially those not in LA!). They founded a movie production company, Sleeping Giant Productions, and persuaded stars Scott Bakula and - there he is again - Cheech Marin to take on roles in the film. The result, exclaimed the Austin Chronicle, was a movie that's "like going to a really great party. With wonderful music, interesting characters, and lots of laughter, this picture feels much bigger than it really is. Noisy and colorful and warm and funny, it's the story of four Latina friends who are struggling with love, sex, divorce, success, and a lifetime of anger and resentment from growing up brown in a white world."

Obviously, getting a name attached to your project increases the chances many times over that your film will get made. Carlos Avila got his lucky break, and by all accounts, it was a well-deserved one, when Jimmy Smits signed on to do Price of Glory (2000).

With Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek, a relatively new sort of Latino star power has conquered the mainstream: sex appeal. If the result is to be more green lights in the future for projects like Frida, then more power to them. As it happens, both were in a neck-and-neck race to play the role for a while, but Hayek had had her eyes set on the part for ten years by the time her film came out. Even with Francis Ford Coppola as executive producer of the Lopez project, even with Luis Valdez slated to direct, the team was no match for Hayek's determination to see her own project through.

But even sex appeal plus determination won't necessarily get Latino women in the director's chair. Women of all ethnic backgrounds have a tough time getting there, of course, and it's no different for Latino women. Documentaries are one way in, though, and, after making docs for over 20 years, Helena Solberg was finally able to garner more widespread recognition in 1995 with Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business. More recently, with Real Women Have Curves, Patricia Cardoso scored a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for her ensemble cast and a thumbs-up review from the New York Times, which called the film a "culture clash comic melodrama."

The picture's looking a bit better for Latino women directors and for Latino films in general. It may be a while before they can claim 12.5 percent of the overall market, but that market is being pried open to Latino movies nonetheless - thanks in no small part to the persistence of a few determined filmmakers in the 80s and 90s.

Suggestions for further clicking:

The San Diego Latino Film Festival has a fine collection of articles and interviews, Current Trends in Latino Cinema.

Thoughts? Comments? Reactions? Suggestions? Discuss!

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