A few minutes before a screening of “Filly Brown” last week, Oscar-nominated actor Edward James Olmos tried to explain why the new family drama about a female Los Angeles street poet “is the most hopeful film I’ve ever worked on in my life.”
Olmos, 66, had gathered in a backroom at Universal CityWalk’s AMC theaters with his costar and longtime friend Lou Diamond Phillips, 51, and Gina Rodriguez, 28, whose performance as an aspiring rap star helped land “Filly Brown” a spot at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
In the movie, Rodriguez plays Maria “Majo” Tonorio, a street-schooled striver who adopts the nom de hip-hop Filly Brown and is trying to land a recording contract. She also shoulders the burden of trying to help her incarcerated mother (played by the late norteña superstar Jenni Rivera) get out of jail and of assisting her father (Phillips), a reformed-gangbanger construction worker, in raising her impressionable younger sister (Chrissie Fit). Olmos, the film’s executive producer, has a small but critical role as a lawyer helping Majo to win her mother’s release.
Like a number of canonical films about Latinos — “La Bamba” (1987), starring Phillips as the Chicano pop idol Ritchie Valens, or “Stand and Deliver” (1988), with Olmos portraying a heroic East L.A. teacher and Phillips as one of his protégés — “Filly Brown” revolves around a young person’s struggle to overcome various roadblocks to success. Often, that tussle involves a tension between individual ambitions and familial obligations.
The movie’s subtext of continuities and conflicts between generations resonated with many of its predominantly Latino cast and crew, for whom “Filly Brown” itself forged a link between an older generation of Latino artists and an up-and-coming one. “Filly Brown” was written by Youssef Delara and co-directed by Delara and one of Olmos’ sons, Michael D. Olmos.
“The young kids in this movie give me hope,” said the elder Olmos. Nodding at Rodriguez, he added: “This one especially. I’ve been waiting for these kids, and I’m praying that there’s lots of ‘em out there.”
If Edward James Olmos fills the elder statesman role — both in “Filly Brown” and of Latino film in general — and Rodriguez personifies its potential, Rivera represented a midcareer promise that was tragically cut short.
The Long Beach-born Mexican American singer, known as La Gran Señora, had sold millions of albums and starred in the hit reality TV series “I Love Jenni” before she was killed in December in a plane crash in Mexico at age 43. One of her last recordings is a pop duet with Olmos, “Hurts So Bad,” heard in the movie.
Olmos said he had known Rivera for a couple of years, because his daughter and her son attended the same school, when he called to ask if she would accept her first feature film role.
“I said, ‘Jenni, I need your help,’” Olmos recalled. “She said, ‘Eddie, you’re asking me for a favor — you got it. Send over the script.’”
Rivera was just as accommodating on set, her castmates said. “She was so chill and down-to-earth,” said Rodriguez, a Chicago native and graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Jenni was everything her fans wanted her to be and more.”
Not surprisingly for a film about a would-be rap star, music plays a crucial role in “Filly Brown,” and the producers wanted to make the soundtrack as authentic and au courant as possible. To that end, they enlisted Silent Giant Entertainment, a Sherman Oaks music production company, to help assemble a formidable lineup of tracks and contributing artists.
Lisa “Khool Aid” Rios and Edward “E-Dub” Rios, the wife-husband duo who run the company, brought Rivera to the filmmakers’ attention. They also helped secure acting roles for several longtime Silent Giant collaborators, including rapper-producers Ronnie Ray Bryant (otherwise known as Baby Bash) and Ramon Pedro Herrera III (a.k.a. Chingo Bling), who gooses the film with his semi-comic turn as a DJ-promoter. Eventually, Silent Giant decided to invest in the film and become one of its co-producers.
Lisa Rios, a longtime radio personality with hip-hop station KPWR (105.9-FM), said that “Filly Brown” fit Silent Giant’s mission of popularizing hip-hop and serving the company’s target demographic of English-speaking second- and third-generation Latinos. She and her husband said the filmmakers were open to suggestions, including how to depict “the viral essence of Facebook, social media, and how artists really are born now.”
Music especially is used in the movie to illuminate Majo’s growth. As her character matures, her singing transforms from braggadocious outbursts to shiny pop baubles to a sophisticated sung poetry that seeks to articulate her community’s aspirations — in English rather than Spanish.
“I learned to find my voice the same way Filly Brown found her voice,” said Rodriguez, who never had rapped before making the film.
After languishing post-Sundance in distribution limbo for months, “Filly Brown” is being released by Pantelion Films, a 3-year-old L.A. company that specializes in expanding distribution of movies with Latino actors, directors and writers. Rather than being aimed at predominantly non-Latino art-house crowd, “Filly Brown” is being steered toward a general-market audience.
“So it’s going right at the core, right at the American-speaking Latino core, which is where we’ve always thought that the energy should be placed,” Delara said.