"American Me" is an Hispanic-American's Horatio Alger story: how a smart young man rises in the world. Unfortunately, the world he choses to rise in is the underworld, and the source of his anger, the fuel for his fury, the font of his savagery, is racism.
The movie works out an explicit chain of consequences, representing racism as rape. In the zoot suit riots of 1943 in Los Angeles, a young Mexican woman is raped by a gang of white sailors; the child born of this union is, ipso facto, rejected by his father and develops pathologically as a result. Thus the burden of hate is passed on, from one generation to the next, and a monster is born.
The tragedy of Santana is that exactly the skills that make him king of the jungle are the skills that could have turned him into a surgeon, a brilliant lawyer, an extraordinary artist; in fact, as a criminal overlord, he's a little of each. He manages to take over East L.A. while serving an 18-year sentence in Folsom prison.
Edward James Olmos stars as Santana and directs. As a director, he understands his own strengths as an actor: that baleful glare, that brooding, masculine presence, the ability to look anyone in the eye and tell them the harshest truth. His Santana is a figure of commanding yet tragic menace: behind the glare and the fiery machismo and the willingness to have murder done in the name of business, one sees so much intelligence that the dedication of it to the heroin trade seems truly blasphemous. (It's a much more compelling portrait of such things than Al Pacino's Tony Montana in "Scarface.")
The movie is structured as a memoir, in which, on the last night of his life, Santana remembers his adventures and the decisions he took and faces the inevitable consequences that the morning will bring with as much dignity and self-possession as possible. Told from such a limited point of view, the movie has an almost folkloric dimension, particularly as Santana relates it in crude prison-yard poetry as he sifts through his memories.
The story is an American classic, familiar from the gangster epics of the Thirties, like "Public Enemy" or "Little Caesar." Lacking families to embrace them, he and two friends instead embrace "primavera," the gang. As an alternate family, it nurtured them and taught them lessons in harshness, the chief of which was "show no weakness." That value becomes absolute when the three are sent to prison, where Santana's natural strengths find expression.
In fact, if the gang was his father, the prison is his mother: It reiterates the terrible lessons of harshness, and the importance of brotherhood with his own kind against all others in a world where there is no middle ground. And in prison, of course, the natural mediums of exchange between weaker and stronger are murder and rape. Santana becomes a master of both.
Olmos actually took his film unit to Folsom for a long stay. The prison atmosphere is first class, which is to say, scary as hell. It's a terrifying warren of dingy rooms and loveless corridors and everywhere you see the emblems of an anti-society: the crude prison tattoos that adorn every limb, the bodies inflated to grotesqueness by endless iron pumping, the gangs of dead-eyed men who'll kill you for a pack of cigarettes. The murders are especially terrifying: quick and nasty assaults with ice picks, a frenzy of punctures; no cutting, just jabbing, as, like the air from a balloon, the blood and the life leaks from the victim.
But in a curious way, Santana's time in jail is also impressive: It shows how resilient the human spirit can be regardless of circumstances; his gradual conquest of the joint is perversely inspirational and it in fact gets at the movie's most troubling aspect. Though Olmos means the film as a cautionary tale, San
tana is nevertheless a charismatic figure, titanic, even heroic. The irony of his rise and fall may be lost on audiences uneducated to irony.
His fall, of course, is inevitable; it comes from the humanizing touch of a woman, who rescues him from the rapist and murderer inside him. But it also dooms him; once he shows weakness, he becomes a part of the problem instead of a part of the solution.
The movie is excessively brutal but it's also magical: it shows the allure of machismo, not just in Hispanic culture but in all cultures, and the consequences of racism, inevitably violent. Yet it has a heart: Santana the monster becomes Santana the man. Unlike any other tragic hero, it's not his hubris that dooms him but his humanity.
Starring Edward James Olmos and William Forsythe.
Directed by Edward James Olmos.
Released by Universal.