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'American Me' finds Olmos on a mission

If you remember Edward James Olmos as the high school math teacher in "Stand and Deliver," the 1988 movie that won him an Oscar nomination, you remember a gentle, stooped man with his hair plastered tightly across scalp--a man who looked so inoffensive and conciliatory that his strength was one of the surprises in the story. If that is the Olmos you remember, you would not recognize him on the street. The real man is much more alert, coiled, powerful.

Talking with him, you get the sense that he has scores to settle, and that they are not personal angers but social ones: He wants to change things.

Look at this new movie he has directed, named "American Me." In it, he plays a Hispanic criminal named Santana, who controls a drug business from inside a prison. Because we have seen a lot of movies about drugs and criminals, we assume at the beginning that the movie will take one of the two usual approaches. Either it will show the hero as a glamorous criminal mastermind who flies high before his ultimate destruction, or it will be a dirge about the racism that drove him to a tragic end.

Olmos is not interested in either approach. Maybe he knows too much about his subject to simplify it in those ways. His Santana leads a life that is both more ordinary and more special than the usual movie cliches. He is smart but no genius, he works hard at his business, he understands how the criminal world works, and he has been almost completely shaped by prison. From an early term as a juvenile offender to a final arrest that's a bad joke, Santana has spent most of his life behind bars.

Olmos shot the film on location in Folsom Prison and on the streets of East Los Angeles. They are not places he sentimentalizes. He touches on apocalypse when he talks about problems within the Hispanic communities of big American cities. He sees problems and no answers. The statistics come in a rush:

"Last year in the County of Los Angeles, there were 769 gang-related murders. Forty percent of all the children in the Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall are in there for murder. This is not something that is going to go away. You're actually watching the beginnings of this whole situation."

The way things have changed, he said, almost inspires nostalgia for the good old days when organized gangs generated most of the street violence.

"It used to be, in the 1980s, that they were fighting over turf, over the right to sell drugs. But now it's gotten into a new phenomenon, one that war veterans know very well--the adrenalin that rushes through the body, creating a high when you fire a weapon at somebody. It's like a narcotic."

On the streets, he said, kids are shooting people just for fun. "And the kids are coming from rich, poor, and middle-income families. Two or three of them together in a car. They're not even a gang. But they're going out and getting high shooting at people. And this isn't only happening in the inner cities. You would never think that drive-by shootings would happen in a rural place in Kansas, but they do. This is a problem that is going to attack the entire country."

Is this situation one more argument for gun control?

"I think it's just a matter of time before we have to take a serious look at just how many Uzzis we want to let out there. I'm for the right to bear arms. But I also understand that we have taken this right to an extreme, and now we have to understand by that getting rid of machineguns and automatic weapons, we are not stifling the right to bear arms. The gun advocates say they don't know where control will stop, once you start it. Would you rather lose your children or would you rather take a chance that we might go a little overboard?"

For all of the talk about violence in city streets, he said, nobody realizes how bad it is going to get in the 1990s.

"We were always expecting terrorism to hit from outside of the country. What we weren't expecting was for the terrorism to come by way of our children, from the inside out. And that's what is happening. And if you think this new violence only involves ghetto or lower-income kids, you're wrong, because it comes in all colors, races and creeds, it's just the beginning. The 1990s are going to be really interesting to watch. "

Olmos talks quickly, earnestly. We are sitting in a hotel room in Chicago, a luxury room in a skyscraper, but in Chicago as everywhere he goes, he has visited a juvenile prison hall. He feels a mission to kids in prison, he says, and "American Me" is like a letter to them, describing their future.

People watching the movie, he said, are surprised that it places such emphasis on how gangs from inside prisons can actually control the streets. Olmos says he knows that is the case: "People have come out and told me everything. It's hard for people to believe that there is an organized body of people inside prisons who can actually have an impact on society on the outside. But it's true. They have a tremendous reach into the normal community by way of the kids who have gone through the penal institution and have gone back out.

"People ask me, 'Why did you have to do this film about our culture?' I have to tell them, I didn't do it about our culture; I did it about our society as a whole. But I speak from where I'm coming from. I happen to be Hispanic-American but this is not just our problem; this comes in all races, colors and creeds. There's the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerilla Family, and the Nuestra Familia and the Texas Syndicate. When the children come through prison as young adults and come back out on the street, they will have been indoctrinated. They come out like little soldiers."

For Olmos, acting was a means of escape from other possible avenues his life might have taken. Maybe he would have been a little soldier. Today he is famous and successful, the "Miami Vice" star who went on to serious recognition with an Oscar nomination. It all looks mapped out. But he never really intended to become a professional actor; he got into the business for much more pragmatic reasons.

"I have dyslexia, and I couldn't read out loud. I used to be a rock-and-roll singer; I put myself through high school and college singing in rock-and-roll bands. I wasn't naturally talented and I wanted to become a better performer on stage. A friend of mine gave me a script one day and I couldn't read out loud and I felt self-conscious so I went to an acting class to try to work past that.

"I continued to do my acting inside of school. I went to East LA College and Cal State and I learned more about myself, and by doing that I kept on getting better as a singer. And pretty soon I learned that I could actually do musicals and incorporate my music inside of theatre. I'd spent 14 years in theatre and 18 years in music, when I finally did 'Zoot Suit.' That's the first time I ever got paid for doing theatre. I got $250 a week [on stage in LA]. And then we did the movie of 'Zoot Suit,' and the TV and films followed."

"Zoot Suit" was the cult musical that broke out of a neighborhood theater in Los Angeles, became a long running hit there and in New York, and was made into a film in 1981. It deals with a period in the 1940s when Latinos, made visible by their Zoot Suit dress style, were set upon by urban mobs and (in the story told by the film) railroaded into prisons. "American Me" begins with the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles in 1944, and the hero's life begins with them, too.

Olmos said he wanted to open with those scenes because they involve a chapter of American history most people don't know about. Although the Black New Wave is now established as a Hollywood and box office reality, Hispanic-American filmmakers have so far not made as big an impact, and he wants to change that.

"It gets to be a situation where they never see in color; all they see is the dollar. Take 'La Bamba.' It broke $100 million worldwide. But you know how they dismissed that? Not as a Chicano film, even though that's what it was. They said it was about Richie Valens and it was a rock-and-roll movie. So we couldn't claim it was a hit film about our community."

What if it had failed?

He laughed., "Oh, it would have been a big Hispanic movie if it failed."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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