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‘American Me’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 13, 1992


Edward James Olmos
Edward James Olmos;
William Forsythe;
Pepe Serna;
Danny De La Paz;
Evelina Fernandez
sex, violence and profanity

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"American Me," a stomach-turning prison drama with James Edward Olmos, doesn't mean to glorify gangsterism, but it does in its own bullheaded way. Set behind the bars of Folsom State Prison, this cruddy, K-Y-jelly-coated look inside the big house depicts the downs of doing time, but it also dignifies the strivings of a self-made crime lord. A eulogy to this Chicano strongman, it often seems more of a primer on ruthless ingenuity than it does a caution against a life of crime.

Olmos, both as director and star, finds a tragic grandeur in the rise and ruin of Santana, a teenager who comes of age inside the California prison system. When sentenced to a juvenile facility, Santana is raped and savaged, but regains his self-esteem by forming a Mexican Mafia with his boyhood friends J.D. (William Forsythe) and Mundo (Pepe Serna) as lieutenants. Upon their transfer to Folsom as adults, the hardened trio become pen kings in charge of drug trafficking, prostitution and other rackets.

Santana, a thinker, poet and advocate of Chicano rights, realizes that his organization has become ethnically cannibalistic, that it finds both fresh soldiers and new clientele in the barrios of East Los Angeles. After he is released from Folsom, he returns home to find his kid brother and his neighbors' sons being destroyed by the gang culture he helped to create. But he hasn't the stomach to work for change and, like some unholy martyr, he sacrifices himself to his criminal peers in a ritual suicide.

Though this is a well-intentioned, well-made movie, it's hard to imagine why a person of sound mind would subject himself to this unrelentingly sordid polemic. For those who have ever wondered how drugs are smuggled into prisons, "American Me" spares few of the anatomical details. The same goes for gang rape and assorted other extracurricular activities, including burning friends alive and strangling relatives. Gross as it is, Olmos the director makes the alternative, a self-sacrificing life on the outside, seem impossibly bland. The scenes inside Folsom are pulsing with a terrible energy that subsides with Santana's return to the domesticity of barrio life.

That's not to say that the conclusions of screenwriters Floyd Mutrux and Desmon Nakano lack validity. It's pathetic, for instance, that Santana cannot consummate a romantic relationship with a neighbor (Evelina Fernandez) because he has no experience whatsoever with women. Unfortunately Olmos, as a first-time director, seems equally ill-equipped at conveying intimacy.

"American Me" is rated R for sex, violence and profanity.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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