While we get to return home to Southern California for this next review, we seem to have gone back to the year 1942. World War II is in full swing, the kids at home are taking a hint from the war and learning how to swing as well (Okay, that was rather terrible. I’m sorry, alright!) and new fashions start popping up. One of those fashions gave a name to this film and to one of the famous riots that broke out in Los Angeles: Zoot Suit!
Since this is a lesser-known film, I’ll explain a bit of what it’s about. It chronicles the trial, appeal, and eventual acquittal of four Mexican gang members who were wrongfully accused of murder in what became famously known as the Sleepy Lagoon Murder, having taken place near a reservoir in near East Los Angeles that was referred to as the Sleepy Lagoon. It tells this story through a literal stage play that is being performed before an audience who are being guided through the story by El Pachuco (played by BSG’s Edward James Olmos) who represents the stereotype of Mexican-Americans that was prevalent in Los Angeles during the 1940’s (if you look at the cover above, you’ll see what I mean). And it’s a musical. A swing musical.
This movie impacted me on a purely intellectual level. Actually, scratch that. It impacted me on an almost purely intellectual level. The movie does portray elements of injustice against minorities which, admittedly, is easy to get worked up about. While I was initially skeptical of how one-sided and evil the prosecution was portrayed during the courtroom scenes, after I did some research about the actual court case it turns out that the prosecution was as biased and bigoted as they were portrayed by the filmmakers. Who’da thunk it?
As far as the rest of the film went, it acted more as a history lesson presented in an innovative and unconventional way rather than a narrative with characters that I could get fully invested in. They didn’t do a bad job with the story or the characters. For me, it was a matter of having seen this kind of story so many times before in a lot of other movies. The first two-thirds of the movie are pretty standard courtroom drama fare, with a few stylistic twists. It wasn’t until the last third of the movie when I really got invested. That’s when Henry (the primary protagonist) is put into isolation and starts going insane. The film blends Henry’s delusions with the events of the Zoot Suit Riots that are happening while he is in prison. Here’s where it got interesting for me. The film shines in both a theatrical and cinematic way, which is incredibly hard to do (if you’ve ever seen a filmed version of a live stage play or musical, you’ll know what I mean). In this final third, El Pachuco shows Henry the scope of the bigotry that exists in the country by showing him how the media spreads lies about his people, and how the American people react to these reports that they keep hearing about Mexican-Americans, which in turn, leads to the break-out of the Zoot Suit Riots. It’s surreal, it’s poignant, it’s different, and it’s FUN. The music, the lighting, the editing, and the performances come together to make a really awesome scene.
Some final thoughts: Edward James Olmos has a lot of fun as El Pachuco. It’s a role that’s very over-the-top and Olmos relishes every minute that he can distort his face and duck-strut around the screen. He does also have some nice moments of subtlety which balances out the performance very well. The stylization of the film was very interesting to watch, especially as the film blended stage performance and film in a way that I’ve never seen accomplished before. It’s also an important film as it paints a portrait of a time and a people in American history that don’t often get a lot of attention. So, it’s an interesting history lesson with a really cool third act. That just about sums up my experience with the film.
Final Rating: 7/10
Since I’ve accidentally activated the time travel circuits on my all-purpose traveling machine, I might as well use them while they still work as they’ve often proven to be incredibly finnicky at best. Next time, we’ll be traveling to a planet in the far future where…
Well, s—! There goes the planet!