Promotional materials call it “The First Latino Superhero Film” and “the first Latino-powered film from end to end.”
Believe what you will, but there’s no denying that “El Chicano” comes at a time when Hollywood Latino talent can use a hero.
While U.S. Hispanics make up nearly a quarter of the domestic moviegoing audience, but speaking parts for Latinos hover a little above 3% in those movies, the national release of a gritty police procedural turned East L.A. masked vigilante action epic seems more than necessary – and overdue.
“It was a huge motivating factor to feel like this was going to be an all-Latino cast,” said Ben Hernandez Bray, a veteran stuntman and episodic television director who makes his features directing and co-writing debut with “El Chicano,” opening in theaters this weekend. “Except for Carnahan here and his father, who play the only two white guys in the movie.”
Bray’s referring to “The Grey” and “A-Team” movie director Joe Carnahan, his longtime friend and co-writer and -producer on the very personal (yes, it is a personal masked hero film) independent production. Carnahan and his father John have bit parts as annoying feds trying to horn in on the movie’s investigation of bloody gang massacres being conducted by its lead characters, primarily LAPD detective Diego Hernandez (played by “Vida” and the great indie film “We the Animals’” Raul Castillo) and his boss Manuel Gomez (George Lopez).
Devastated to learn early on in the investigation that his ex-con brother, who it was thought committed suicide, was actually murdered, Hernandez eventually discovers that his dead sibling was training to become El Chicano, a masked motorcyclist who doled out extra-legal justice on the mean streets of East L.A. over several generations. You can probably figure out what Detective Hernandez does next.
Bray, who was born in Panorama City and grew up in Van Nuys and East L.A., similarly lost a brother to gang violence. Writing “El Chicano” was a years-long act of coming to terms with that, as well as an effort to make something collaborators and audiences like him could view as their own.
“It has bits and pieces of ideas about how I was raised and what I was exposed to, whether it be LAPD police officers to what I was dealing with being a Mexican-American born and raised in Los Angeles,” Bray noted.
The actors felt the project’s specialness every day they worked on it.
“It’s been a couple of years in the making, so it’s exciting that it’s going to be out there in the world now,” Texan Castillo said. “The fact that this was an all-Latino cast is an element to it, but it’s also so rare that you get a project where everyone comes to the table with their egos set aside and realizing that there’s something more important going on here.”
Aimee Garcia (“Lucifer,” the upcoming “Addams Family” animated feature), who plays Hernandez’s girlfriend Vanessa Velez in the movie, felt it too – and felt why.
“I think it’s going to be very refreshing for the audience in the Latino community, which just craves and devours media,” Garcia noted. “It’s already rare to find a good story, and this happens to be that with an all-star Latino cast, from iconic George Lopez to household name Kate del Castillo to indie darling Raul Castillo to veterans like Sal Lopez and Marco Rodriguez.
“To me, it was really refreshing because it’s about time that we take a tried-and-true formula like superhero – which everyone loves – and add a fresh perspective with the richness of the Latino culture,” Garcia reckoned.
Early in this century, San Fernando High grad Lopez famously broke barriers with his all-Latino sitcom “George Lopez” – which continues to this day to be one of the highest rated comedies rerun on cable and other syndicated platforms.
Despite the comedian’s great success, however, Lopez gets very serious about the various shades of discrimination Latinos face in the industry and society.
“Is there any other group of people who live in the United States who are being demonized other than the Latino?” Lopez asked rhetorically. “I’m sure there are some people from the Middle East. But when you look at that’s what we get, it’s hard to become a hero in a business like this.
“And this is fantasy. I used to be told, ‘You wouldn’t necessarily see that man and that woman together’,” Lopez continued, apparently referencing something he heard from a producer or studio functionary regarding an cross-ethnic romance. “I said, listen, if you believe a guy can shoot webs out of his wrists, why can’t you believe these two people can fall in love?”
Getting “El Chicano made reflected that kind of assumptive Hollywood prejudice.
“Every studio in town said no,” Carnahan bitterly recalled. “The caveat being ‘If you get a Caucasian influence in the film, it would help your chances.’ To me, that’s shorthand for get Tom Cruise, get Brad Pitt, get a movie star that would offset whatever financial risk they would take. I was gravely offended by all of this, because, in unison, everybody loved the script.”
The “El Chicano” team finally found some Canadian investors who raised $6 million for the production – their caveat being that “El Chicano’s” interiors shoot in Calgary. About 70% of the film was made there, the other 30%, exteriors, around East L.A. and Boyle Heights. It turned out that with Canada’s generous production incentives and cheaper labor, the Calgary portion of the shoot cost less than the smaller California part.
Once they had a film to show, however, Bray and Carnahan got the same “we love it” from the studios that wouldn’t back the production – and this time, the uniform excuse that they didn’t know how to sell it.
“We were giving them a genre entry, not some obscure, oblique arthouse look at this particular milieu,” Carnahan steamed. “That, to me, was the most shocking thing, when you look at the numbers, and the fact that there’s no content created or curated for this demographic. I think I heard someone say, ‘Well, that audience is over-indexed anyway, so why do we need to take any extra steps when they’ll show up anyway?’”
Eventually, “El Chicano” was bought and distributed nationwide by Briarcliff Entertainment, whose CEO Tom Ortenberg had backed three of Carnahan’s previous features.
However it got to the screen, “El Chicano” is now poised to shed a different light on the superhero genre just as “Avengers: Endgame” is bringing it to its commercial (and Latino-free) zenith.
“It’s almost like the people’s champion,” Bray said of his creation. “When you say the first Mexican superhero, it’s for the people, you know? It’s to represent the Latino community.
“It’s the fact that me, as a young boy growing up in the barrio, never saw familiar faces,” the filmmaker recalled. “Everybody had their Batman and Spider-Man, there’s Iron Man and there’s Black Panther; for brown faces to see familiar faces on that screen, we never had that. Now we do.”
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