Edward James Olmos was thrilled.
He had just received a letter lauding his new film, "American Me," from Father Gregory Boyle, pastor of the Dolores Mission, whose work with gang members in East Los Angeles is legendary. Boyle called it a must-see for "homeboys" and the first film dealing with gang life that did not make him wince at the inaccuracies.
It was just the kind of reaction that Olmos, who strived for nearly two decades to get this movie made, had dreamed of.
"I couldn't care less what Siskel and Ebert say," Olmos said Saturday. "This film is being seen by the people who are going to use it most."
For Olmos, who stars in, co-produced and makes his directorial debut with "American Me," the film, scheduled to open March 13, is as much a crusade as a commercial or creative endeavor. He wants it to be the "Scared Straight" of the 1990s--a brutally shocking film about the cycle of violence in a Mexican-American family that entirely strips away romantic illusions about prison gangs and what is in store for young people who turn to crime.
A celebrated 1979 documentary, "Scared Straight" depicted a program in which inmates serving a life sentence in New Jersey's Rahway State Prison confronted juvenile offenders with the gruesome details of how an inmate survives.
The graphic and relentlessly downbeat "American Me" is already sparking controversy in East Los Angeles, where many people who know the gang scene firsthand have already seen it. Some have told Olmos that it is too one-sided a portrayal of their community.
To create a buzz around the film, Universal has organized a five-week campaign to screen it before thousands of community leaders in California, Arizona, Texas, Denver, Chicago, Washington, Boston and New York. Today, which also happens to be Olmos' 45th birthday and the day he is to receive a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, 500 guests will see the film at the Galaxy Theater in Hollywood.
On Tuesday, in what is perhaps the most unusual event of the tour, 150 wards of Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall, where some scenes in the movie were filmed, will attend a screening for which a court order had to be obtained.
For one screening, the studio recruited about 100 young people of various ethnic groups off the streets of South Pasadena. Some showed up wearing their gang colors.
"When they got there, there was so much verbalizing between the groups that (studio) people were afraid to turn off the lights," Olmos recalled. "But when the lights went up (as the film ended), nobody moved, not one person was talking. It was as though they had just gone to a funeral of a close relative or homeboy."
"American Me" tells the story of Santana (played by Olmos), whose mother was raped by U.S. sailors during the 1943 Pachuco riots in Los Angeles and whose father is unable to overcome his bitterness and his suspicion that his son may actually be the offspring of a sailor. Unloved by his father, Santana drifts into gang life and lands in county jail, from where it is only a short step to Folsom prison and membership in the Mexican Mafia, which gives him a sense of self-esteem for the first time in his life but winds up destroying him and--through its role in drug trafficking--also ensnaring his younger brother, Paulito.
"I know this movie is going to make an impact," said Steve Valdivia, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Youth Gang Services. "It tells the guys, 'You're killing yourself for no good reason.' " Valdivia, a friend of Olmos, said that the film would show moviegoers outside the gang world "why this happens."
Virginia Lopez, a member of the East Los Angeles organization Concerned Parents, has lost two sons to gang warfare and blames herself in part for not fully understanding what was happening to them in prison. "This movie should be shown to young mothers who are beginning to have problems with their children," said Lopez, who is encouraging her daughters to see it.
Although the five gang members he escorted to a screening last week admired the film, Father Boyle himself said he was torn.
"It's a powerful movie, and technically and artistically, it's exceptional," he said. What troubles him, though, is that many of the characters come across as "monsters" and the film conveys a message of hopelessness.
"Part of the epidemic problem out here is despair," Boyle said. "Certain kids, if you rub their face in more hopelessness, I'm not sure they won't come out even more despondent."
Olmos acknowledges that for Santana's family "there is no hope," but he said that previous movies he has starred in--"The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez" and "Stand and Deliver"--serve as a kind of counterpoint to "American Me."
"I tell people, 'Right after you see this movie, you should see 'Stand and Deliver,' " said Olmos, who won an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of an inspiring math teacher, Jaime Escalante, the subject of that film.
Olmos said that he does not expect young audiences to immediately renounce gang life after seeing "American Me." But he believes the film will exert a powerful pull on their subconscious, enabling them to understand they "have a choice," he said.