'American Me' explores seamy barrio underworld


American Me

MCA Universal Home Video This is a brutal, graphic film that unflinchingly explores organized crime and gangs in the Los Angeles barrio. It is an impressive directorial debut from Edward James Olmos, previously best known as an Oscar nominee for his work in "Stand and Deliver." Mr. Olmos, who emerged recently as one of the few, true community leaders in the wake of the L.A. riots, is an actor and a Mexican American with something to say.

The message delivered here is by no means upbeat: Change must start with the people themselves. With grammar-school kids sniffing glue and wielding guns, he makes it clear that it is a tall order, indeed. (This is said to be based on a true story, though no further details are offered in the press material.)

Mr. Olmos plays Santana, a Mexican mafia "war lord." The film begins circa 1943, with the Zoot Suit Riots, when Santana's mother is raped by sailors. Cut to Santana as a teen-ager in the barrio who gets in trouble when he and some pals try to take a shortcut home through another gang's territory. Santana is sent to juvenile hall, where he is raped by another inmate. When he promptly kills his attacker with a knife, he gets a trip to Folsom Prison and is launched into an adult career of organized crime. In prison, he establishes himself as a powerful leader, bringing his people honor and respect through the use of violence and intimidation.

Every ethnicity has its gangs, and they are represented here, from the long established Italian Mafia to the Black Guerrilla Family and the Aryan Brotherhood. They fight their turf wars in prison as well as on the street, but the real prison is membership in the gangs, from which there is no parole and no escape.

When Santana is released, after 18 years, he is a man who hasn't a clue how to function in the straight world. He meets Julie (Evelina Fernandez, in a touching, understated portrait of a young woman who is both drawn to the machismo culture of the barrio and has hopes to escape it), a single mother who is sensitive to Santana's awkwardness and attracted to his sensitivities. Despite his affection for her, he is unable to overcome the harsh realities of his life and proceeds sadly to his inevitable fate.

Mr. Olmos' performance is as strong as the film. He is a junkyard dog who finds the glimmer of a gentler soul within. Unfortunately, it comes too late.

There is nothing easy or pretty about this movie. Some might be put off by the violence, and I must question the inclusion of one particularly grisly scene. With less graphic treatment, this film could have been available to a younger audience, for whom it might seriously benefit. As it is, the R rating should be taken seriously by parents. Still, it's honest in its brutality and ultimately effective when drawing us into the claustrophobic world of prison and barrio in which all the residents are inmates.

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