American Me - Life Within the Mexican Mafia
Sep 18, 2003 (Updated Sep 18, 2003)
Review by Petra
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Good realism in its depiction of gang structure, mindset, rules, etc.
Cons:No resolutions, no advancement for any character.
The Bottom Line: American Me is like a fictional documentary - it shows what goes on in real life but offers little hope for anyone that there may be any choices.
American Me is a film about the Mexican Mafia (La Emme) and their gang activities in and outside of Folsom Prison.
Recommend this product?
At first glance, it may seem little different from other gang films of those days like Boyz 'n the Hood or the earlier Colors. What makes this film different is that it depicts details of the workings of the Mexican Mafia whose extreme code of silence usually keeps their depiction to a less realistic level.
In the case of American Me that level of realism resulted not only in an extremely violent and gritty film but also, according to news sources, in the threatening of the producer and lead actor Edward James Olmos as well as the murders of three people involved in the making of the film.
Edward James Olmos plays Santana who spends the majority of his life in Folsom Prison. In his youth, trying to escape from another gang resulted in him and two friends breaking into a bar to hide. Being caught, they're sent to Juvenile Detention.
During the first night there, Santana gets raped and kills the youth who did it, which gets him sent to Folsom upon turning 18. From here on, the film depicts the organization of the Mexican Mafia within the walls of Folsom - the protection it affords to the members as well as the dealings they're involved in not only inside the prison, but also on the outside. The gangs, the Mafia, each individual - the thing they look for most is respect, and they will enforce it one way or the other.
Once released, Santana briefly tries to get accustomed to life in general. Having been incarcerated at such a young age, he never had a chance to learn how to drive a car, he never danced, never been to the beach, never made love to a woman. He gets interested in Julie, a single mother. However, his violent side does not allow for a real relationship to work. While he tries to keep the rise of gang wars around him to a minimum, his attempts to be less violent make him lose the grip he once had on the organization. Soon, he's back in prison and the film comes to its violent conclusion.
American Me is interesting for its realism, it's unflinching depiction of the inner workings of the organization and its refusal to make characters sympathetic. It is well shot and has good dialog, although the accents and often-times hushed jail yard conversations are sometimes a little too mumbled and hard to understand.
Another good point is that there are subtitles provided in full sentences, even if only one or two words were spoken in Spanish. It makes it much easier to follow the dialog.
However, ignoring the usual Hollywood formula doesn't always make for a satisfying movie, and it doesn't here. There just is no happy ending for anyone. There is no advancement for anybody except for Julie, who would be on the same path whether she'd ever met Santana or not. Everybody else in the film is doomed.
Instead of telling a story of at least one character touched by the situation making a better life for themselves, American Me simply documents the routine of the Mexican Mafia and those affected by it. The only real pain it shows is that of the gang members themselves when they're forced to kill one of their friends or own family members. There's little reason to consider any of these men sympathetic at that point, being that they themselves are the ones doing the killing and, most of the times, are the ones who brought their friend or family into the group to begin with.
There is an explanation for why Santana's father has always been distant and cruel to his son. This explanation lies in the very first scene which depicts the violent beating of Santana's father and rape of his mother at the hands of sailors during the Zoot Suit Riots. However, again there's little coming from that in terms of betterment of any of the characters.
American Me is not for anybody disturbed by violent images of rape and murder. Since it shows no way out or redemption of any sort, it also doesn't make for a good study film for younger viewers.
Since the film covers Santana's life from childhood to his death, an endless number of actors and actresses are listed as cast members on this film. A few other than Edward James Olmos himself that are notable are:
Evelina Fernandez (Julie, Santana's love interest)
Prior to American Me, Fernandez' most notable film credit is Postcards from the Edge. After American Me, the only films she starred in are A Million to Juan (1994) and Gabriela (2001). In between those two she and her husband produced the less-than-stellar Luminarias for which Fernandez also wrote the play and movie script and starred as the lead.
Unfortunately, Fernandez tends to be meek, quiet and almost tranquilizing in her performances. It made her the most bearable character in Luminarias, between the cackling shrill costars she was stuck with, but in any other role she's just not particularly interesting and makes very little impact. Her intonation doesn't change no matter what she says or who she says it to. Luckily, her part in American Me is fairly small and mostly requires a low-key performance.
The film also stars Danny de la Paz, who had a part in the recent Lowrider Weekend and also played a part in Gabriela. He also had a part in Gaby , a film well worth watching.
Julie's mother is played by the very woman who was later murdered by the Mexican Mafia in real life, Ana Lizarraga. Allegedly, Lizarraga was killed because of her part as an advisor on the film, along with two other crew members.
It is said that the negative depiction of the Mexican Mafia angered the organization to the point where they threatened Edward James Olmos and murdered the three people who had been involved in the making of the movie.
Although Olmos is said to have denied being threatened by the Mexican Mafia, the IMDB movie trivia info states that he was in fact given a gun permit by the L.A.P.D because of the threats received when the organization realized that the portrayal of them in the film was not a favorable one.
However, it has to be added that according to court documents it was stated that: " ... testified that he attended a meeting during which [it was] indicated his desire to kill Ana Lizarraga because she was a police informant and was interfering with his drug trafficking in Ramona Gardens."
It can therefore not be said with 100% certainty that she was in fact killed for her involvement in the film. There is no information available about the other two crewmembers.
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