Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, The: Robert Young Tale of Racial Injustice Starring Edward James Olmos

Robert Young followed up Alambrista!, which won the Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, with The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, a film based on a true story of racial injustice, and first shown on PBS as part of American Playhouse series.

In 1901, Gregorio (Edward James Olmos) killed a sheriff in Gonzales, Texas while being interrogated.

Gregorio was pursued for 11 days by a 600 man posse of the Texas Rangers. His trial revealed that an interpreter had inadvertently distorted the sheriff’s inquiry, which was perceived by Gregorio as a threat. He was sentenced to 50 years behind bars, but served 12 before being freed on the Governor’s pardon.

For Young, the poignancy derives from the fact that, despite rich heritage, the alien Anglo culture forced him to become an immigrant and speak a language that needs translation. Young, however, wanted to resonate a broader meaning than the particular incident. With a carefully balanced treatment, Young’s goal was to chronicle the prevalent racism, but also, as he said, “a system of law makes us better people than we might be.”

The intentionally simple style was designed to create an intimate portrait of Gregorio as an innocent civilian–a young husband and father–who is hunted, captured, and subjected to unfair trial. While the film’s sincerity is beyond doubt, the tone is pedagogic, the characters solemn, and the drama muted. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez tells a potentially stirring story in a plain style that lacks verisimilitude, despite its authentic setting (the trial was filmed in the court where Gregorio was indicted).

What’s missing is a spark, immediacy that might have made the characters–played passively– recognizably human rather than figures in a well-meaning pageant.