American Me: Starring and Directed by Edward James Olmos

In his Oscar-nominated role, Stand and Deliver, Edward James Olmos, a committed Mexican-American actor, gave a tour-de-force performance as a tough teacher who inspired his East Los Angeles students to take an Advanced Placement Calculus Test.

Olmos’s new movie, American Me, also set in East L.A, is a cautionary tale about the destructiveness of gangsterism as a way of life. The story traces the downfall of Santana (Olmos) from his childhood, through his experience in Juvenile Hall, his leadership inside Folsom State Prison, all the way to his tragic end.

It is clearly a labor of conviction: Olmos not only stars in the movie, but also directed and co-produced it. Olmos has dreamed of making this film for 18 years–ever since he had read Floyd Mutrux’s script, originally conceived for Al Pacino.

Olmos has made a socially conscious message movie, an updated version of the kind of movie Warners used to make in the l930s; James Cagney’s vehicle, Angels with Dirty Faces, comes to mind. Olmos sees American Me less as a movie than as a call to arms of a troubled community. But, like other “social problem” movies, his work demonstrates that good causes do not necessarily result in good movies. Olmos has focused so much attention on his earnest crusade that he neglected to make a dramatic movie. The results are mixed: an anti-gang movie that is only intermittently powerful and involving.

The story begins before Santana was born, with the anti-Latino Zoot Suit riots of 1943, during which Santana’s father (Sal Lopez) is severely beaten and his mother Esperanza (Vira Montez) is raped. It then jumps to 1959, when the 16-year-old Santana, in conflict with his father, is determined to form his own “cliqua” with two of his neighborhood pals: J.D. (William Forsythe) and Mundo (Pepe Serna). Most of the film concentrates on the camaraderie among the three friends in Folsom State Prison. The movie also provides a chilling look at the connections between different Latino prison gangs and drug traffic in the barrio.

Olmos was inspired by the celebrated l979 documentary, Scared Straight, which depicted a program in which inmates serving a life sentence in New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison confronted juvenile offenders with the gruesome details of life behind bars. Indeed, the best sequences of American Me are those set in prison. The ingenious mechanics of prison life are shown in lurid detail as, for example, how drugs are smuggled into prison and then flushed down the toilet for later retrieval by the convicts.

Olmos and his crew were granted access to Folsom Prison, using its inmates as extras. This authentic locale, along with the use of street slang, give the film an almost documentary feeling.

Unfortunately, the second part of the movie suffers from an overly familiar plot. Once Santana is released, the film loses its focus and moves into a more melodramatic direction. Santana becomes romantically involved with Julie (Evelina Fernandez), a single parent, who spots the better man beneath his macho bravado. Julie, his only hope at living a “normal” life, teaches him how to drive, how to dance–and how to make love to woman.

American Me span three decades, and it may be too ambitious, encompassing too many issues and too many characters for its own good. Worse, in its depiction of the conflict between the Hispanic and Italian mafias, the film resorts to clichd situations that echo too closely The Godfather.

The film is too episodic and disjointed; the narrative switches from one violent act to another, without providing the context to give these acts meaning. The movie shows how the gang provides Santana a sense of belonging and identity in a hostile world. But it does not explore the psychological motivations of the other members–or the political roots of the gang itself.

The title of the film also remains unexplained–it is probably meant as ironic commentary, but the movie fails to reveal the relationship of the Hispanic community to the dominant white culture. Santana says at one point, “Belonging is good, but respect is better,” but the whole issue of gaining respect–in and outside the barrio–is only touched upon.

The narration, which serves as the film’s framing device, is at times disruptive to the involvement in the story. It is also solemnly awkward and full of clichs on the order of, “It was easy to blame my father for everything I did,” or “there is nothing the system can do to stop me.”

For a morality tale to be really effective, an alternative lifestyle should be presented. That’s what made Boyz N the Hood so emotionally persuasive; different lifestyles were shown within the neighborhood. But American Me is imbued with an aura of doom and fatalism–it presents gangsterism as the only viable life for kids growing up in the barrio. This is strange, for Olmos himself has said that, instead of opting for gang life in East LA, he chose to play baseball and work at night with a rock group.

To Olmos’s credit, he has made a stirring film about the vicious, self-perpetuating cycle of gang life that does not glamorize its subject matter. Olmos wants to frighten kids away from joining gangs, so he shows sodomy at a gunpoint and violent retribution in all their brutality.

It is a sad commentary about our contemporary society to note that American Me is much more relevant today than when it was written, back in 1974.