A Miramax Film Directed by Leon IchasoReview by Aurora Flores January 2002
Hollywood pulled a sucker punch on Latinos once more in this disjointed and undeveloped portrait of a psychopath. Worse than West Side Story, Badge 353 or Fort Apache, Piñero takes us on a walk on the wild side of hell without so much as a whisper of the rampant rumors of pedophilia at the essence of this twisted, demented sociopath celebrated in this film as an artistic icon of Nuyorican creativity.
Miguel Piñero appeared on the New York artistic scene in 1974 with the presentation of "Short Eyes" a play he wrote in a prison workshop while serving time in Sing Sing for armed robbery. Presented first by La Familia, then Lincoln Center and Joseph Papp's Public Theater it became a hit winning the N.Y. Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play before turned into a movie.
The work (interestingly enough) was about a pedophile who abused boys only to find himself in jail among prisoners who can forgive anything but. Piñero (who always told writers to write what they know and surely he knew more on this topic as both victim and predator) was tapped by Hollywood to write and act about crime and criminals for shows like Baretta, Miami Vice and others.
The film opens with the multilayered beats of Hector LaVoe's salsa pulsating in scenes that slice like a blade in and out of Piñero's black and white past with technical wizardry that masks the lack of infrastructure, stunted script and character development that these quick paced, eye blinking MTVish frames disguise.
We move from a jive time hustler in jail spewing smart-alecky street rhymes of life to a troubled childhood of transplanted poverty and incest. We then see a strung out junkie in a dope den of squalor pimping the talent that took him out of jail back to his mother who is holding onto five children calmly telling the father to leave after bearing witness to the rape of her eldest son at his hands. Welcome to the avant-garde.
Actor Benjamin Bratt's total possession of Piñero's spirit, however, is brilliant, electrifying and shocking. Bratt breaks through his previous "papi chulo" roles, bringing Piñero to life as vividly as the heroin that danced with "Mikey" through decadent degradation and debauchery. Like a lightweight boxer, Bratt pounces and punches his posse with words heard only in the deepest and most desperate layer of urban subculture. "I have to keep doing bad to keep the writing good," Piñero justifies his anti-social behavior. But his writing was never "all that" to begin with. The topic of pedophile as underdog has been done many times over. "The Quare Fellow," Brendon Behan's play about a child molestor murdered in prison by his fellow in-mates was produced in New York before "Short Eyes." And while Piñero's poetic rhetoric spoke of strength against oppressor and society's hypocrisy, his soul was corrupted by his total weakness and enslavement to drugs and dereliction.
But there were moments of lucidity as in the Puerto Rico/Nuyorican poets encounter. Piñero comes face to face with Puerto Rican scholars on the Island who repudiate his art and lifestyle. Piñero, the defiantly cool captive of his own dysfunction, "outs" the colonialized slavery of the Island's academia as definition of a sanctimonious identity not their own. In contrast, the scene where Piñero's play is presented by Papp to a packed audience is most telling where in his moment of triumph, Piñero shows his "ass" to the world. The sun was not always shining for this cool dude.
Piñero's sickness and arrogance never recognized his self-described "junkie Christ" as anti-Christ. Even in death, this unholy alliance with mainstream American media once again contemptuously maligns the hard working, self-sacrificing Latino artistic community that rises above its horrific childhood traumas to create works of true literary insight, craft and artistry as legacy of our pride and courage. Understandably, sensationalized commercial films sell tickets, but for a community still invisible on the screen, marginalized in society and misunderstood by its neighbors, this is one more attempt to show only the pus-infected cancker sores of a debauched existence.
On some deeper level, maybe Piñero knew he was being patronized and displayed like a curious monkey with humanlike qualities by the "culturally elite" who saw him more as freak than peer. He may be laughing right now at how, in death, he can still steal $10 from everyone who sees this film.
Piñero's girlfriend, played by Talisa Soto was as unconvincing as Rita Moreno's ethereal and flighty mother. Soto's Versace dresses, supermodel unmarked body, face and makeup belie the junkie/bitch/'ho of her character Sugar. The other players around Piñero appear superficially while Piñero's "friend," Miguel Algarin, (played by Giancarlo Esposito) is a one dimensional, totally absorbed and self-serving tributary of Pinero's dark side. Despite all the people around him, none did anything to help this "great talent." They all enabled the madness; the lack of morality, values, ethics, discipline, respect and sanity.
The absence of real women characters in this contorted macho nightmare, flies in the face of the founding of the Nuyorican Poet's Caf√© that counted on the many poems of Sandra Maria Esteves, one of the cultural warriors of the Nuyorican front line never mentioned in this hallucination. Neither are other worthy soldiers such as Victor Hernandez Cruz, Papoleto, Eddie Figueroa, Tato LaViera, El Coco Que Habla, et al. But it's just as well. Even comic John Leguizamo refused to play the role after he researched Piñero's life. Vaya Juanito! The last half hour of the film became tediously burdensom never exposing Piñero's nursery of prepubescent boys he introduced as his "sons," at functions outside the Caf√© instead laboring on the mundane primal language thrown around the club like eight year olds who've just learned bad words. And many times, this was what nights at the Nuyorican Poets Caf√© were about. That it was a creative gathering den for the forgotten is not refuted but there were those who under the guise of free expression relished an unrestrained and undisciplined orgy of depravity. Clearly many of the new breed of poets look to the Nuyorican Poets' Caf√© as an alternative showcase for literary voices that relate to our reality. And there are many who answered the calling. Piñero was not one of them. And to claim that this was the precursor to hip hop and rap when The Last Poets had already carved a role as political griots of that particular social shift in time is bogus indeed. This is not a film to take a sensitive young artist to. Nor is it a portrait of an exemplary Latino talent that survived New York's dark reality. This is a film that celebrates the reckless life of someone who was abused by his father, let down by his mother and everyone around him; a deviant who crashed and burned under the weight of living taking a few down with him. Some hero.
The Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, the Institute of Puerto Rican Policy and the National Hispanic Media Coalition presented the community screening I attended. The Village Seven Theater was packed with community leaders from the arts, education,social services and politics. The applause for the movie's spokespeople, Miguel Algarin, Giancarlo Esposito, Nelson Vasquez and Tim Williams was lukewarm. Questions on Hollywood's spotlight on negative Latino images and incest were glibly and smugly shrugged off or totally ignored by Algarin, who displayed the same self-delusional aplomb and cockiness as the film's protagonist. The response was polite curiosity from the crowd. But once everyone dispersed outside, the consensus was transparent. Miguel -- the emperor has no clothes.