Frank Gonzales of "Manito"
A Star is Born in A Brilliant and Gritty Film
Review and Interview by Melanie Maria Goodreaux
Frank Gonzales, otherwise known as"Frankie G.," heats up a seat at the House of Tribes Theatre, a small black box on the Lower East Side of New York City. With a quiet confidence and intense gaze that could melt Alaska, he sits inside the red theatre seat in a black jumpsuit and sneakers, donning a chiseled jaw, gracious humility, and the smoldering eyes of a rising star. He looks like"Junior," his touching role as the foxy and dutiful big brother in Eric Eason's Manito, but assures me that he's not."I never experienced Junior's story, but I had a friend that did, and I drew from that," says Gonzales, his voice thickened with a Brooklyn accent."Acting is going into someone else's mind- jumping into their spirit, their body," says Frankie G., who recalls drawing upon his grandmother's death to fuel his performance as Junior in Manito."I couldn't stop crying," says a remembering Gonzales,"I felt Junior."
Junior, the character posed as Eason's"big brother" in Manito,(which means"little brother" in Latin slang), is a hard working, married man, who did a prison sentence because of his involvement with his father's drug ring. He served as the spy for the cops on the corner in front of the bodega where his father sold sandwiches, candy, beer and drugs to pull off living in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. Junior took the rap, did the time, and never sold out his father. Once out of prison, Junior works hard as a contractor, who hustles gigs without a license to make ends meet and to throw a big high school graduation party for his"manito," the scrawny and yet brainy brother of promise who has plans to go to college. A frighteningly believable twist of fate happens on the subway as Junior's little brother Manny is traveling home from the party with his girlfriend and a wad of cash that the community has given him to send him successfully into the future to fulfill his dreams and theirs. Then the plot twists and the subway turns---two men harass the couple, they flee, his girlfriend gives him a gun, and then our"manito of promise" ends up killing the gangsters and having to do time. His future is now dimmed by this twist, all the hard work and hopes of the family are slammed into yet another jail cell-and Junior can't do anything to raise the money to get his little brother out of prison besides asking his father.
Eason creates a thick distance and tension between Junior and his estranged father. In the early moments of the film we see papi preparing a huge hoagie big enough to feed the entire guest list at his youngest son's graduation party. He prepares the sandwich graciously enough to feed a king- but once Junior sees the huge hoagie at the dance hall before the party starts, he grabs it, throws it in a van and speeds through Washington Heights only to throw the sandwich out the window. It lands as a demolished heap of bread, meat, lettuce and tomatoes in front of his father's bodega. Later, while giving a tearful toast to his younger brother at the party, he eyes his father at the door and rushes through the crowd to beat him down and send him on his way. Obviously dad's affection and attention comes uninvited and a little too late for a Junior that is bitter and angry about doing time for a man that has no genuine love for his family, a man that never visited Junior in prison. When Junior is forced to go to his father to ask for the cash to bail out his little brother, cash that Junior's pride kept him from asking for in the first place, cash that Junior is well aware that his father has--his father still refuses. The impassioned Junior, hurt by hopelessness and his father's cold display of heartlessness ends up strangling him to death after he is beaten with a bat. We catch each blow of the bat, we hear every desperate suck for life as he is strangled beneath a hand held camera that makes the viewer feel like it has just caught a domestic violence episode ending in death on a home video. The film ends with a repetitive shot of Junior running frantically from the scene of the crime. All hope is snatched away and there is no one to blame but the rugged, ragged, random monster of chance. This is what closes in on these characters, this is what makes Junior run. Manito's characters are twisted into a fate of recycled hopelessness and trouble."A lot was going on in Junior's head," says Frankie G. of his character," he was running away from everything, running away from his problems-he didn't want to go back to prison."
Even though Frankie G. was just doing his job as an actor by"jumping into the spirit" of Junior in Manito, doesn't mean that he and Junior haven't faced some similar salt. He says that playing Junior made him think of his own family's struggle as working class folks from Brooklyn."I thought of my family and their suffering, what they went through. My father worked hard so that we could move out of the troubles of the time.
When I told Frankie G. that some of the Latinos at the Julio Burgos Center in East Harlem argued that the film played up negative stereotypes of his people, he strongly shrugged it off saying,"This film was not just for Hispanics and Blacks. They're upset cause they feel the realness of it. It was a reality check. It's just a story, but it felt real-- like a documentary. These people were trying to make a life for themselves, that's life, period. How can someone think the film was just about drug deals?" Who am I to play the devil's advocate with Frankie G.? He's an actor who is sitting in obvious support of fellow Puerto Rican director Lou Torres, who also served as actor and producer of Manito. The two are part of the theater happenings at the House of Tribes this weekend. Torres is directing one of Juan Shamsul Alam's plays and Frankie G. is coming to hear the work and watch the spirits do their jumping.
Gonzales' magical delving into his character, the brilliance of Eason's strong and gritty script, and its true to the times camera work, make Manito a classical addition to film history. Eason brought Washington Heights to film, and Washington Heights Manito style is as gritty as the city itself. Manito's hand held camera shots make it come across as a documentary while actually delivering a great story built thick with suspense, a story that Frankie G. calls"soo good." Rugged, raw, and real, Manito makes you feel a moment away from ordering yucca at the Cuchifrito, and a spot away from the little things in life blowing up into big drama. It documents what is both charming and mundane about neighborhood living in New York City. This juxtaposition is exactly where the style of filming matches the story. Manito masks its edgy story within a"reality television" style. Eason brings brilliance to a style that received lots of attention years ago with the disappointing Blair Witch Project. The audience witnesses intimate and unseen moments of"real life" in Washington Heights. The impromptu conversations of neighborhood Latino teenagers rapping about the comings and goings of their high school scene, being taken inside of a Washington Heights apartment with sexy prostitutes adorned with hot tops and big tits, skirts with slits, pale blue eye shadow and lip gloss, and the toasts of all the folks at the graduation party who feel like family, dancing and swaying, wishing Manny well through champagne, tears, and sweet Spanish Music in the background are just a few examples of scenes that are cut to look uncut. The viewer is in awe of the familiar, without being suspect of Eason's brilliant storytelling. As a society, we have become numb to taking a movie camera into the privacy of our lives. We look in on first dates, on high priced dare devil reality game shows, and are dazed by watching hours of shows like"The Real World." What may make audiences feel uncomfortable about Manito's drama is that it could easily be anyone's drama.
Gonzales' humble brilliance as an actor matches the edgy, raw, rugged, and realistic vision of Eason's masterpiece, a masterpiece that has already won awards at Sundance, Urbanworld, Gotham, and the Miami Film Festival, just to name a few. Yes, Frankie is all that and a bag of chips, as they say. He's got the edge, he's got the bomb of a first big gig, he's coming with talent and good looks, AND he's just finished working with Dustin Hoffman in Confidence? The intimate space of the House of Tribes Theater sets the stage for a moment that starts to get even smaller- I realize that Frankie G., the handsome and humble talent sitting across from me- is about to"blow up" or already has. And although our new star might not have ever faced the same hopeless brick wall as Junior, he certainly has had people around him trying to bring him down and keep him down."When I first started acting, I didn't tell anyone. At one time I was going to give up because of all the negative feedback. I had a lot of my own people telling me that I couldn't do it, telling me that they knew that I wasn't going to make it. They had such negative vibes. I had to prove myself. I had to believe in myself. Now I can tell them,'I told YOU so.'"
Frankie finishes up our talk by assuring me his visits to Hollywood are just that-- he plans on staying in New York He offers a bit of hope to any young talent that may come behind him,"Believe in yourself. Don't listen to people with negative vibes. The ones with positive vibes will lead you to your path." It's time for the play at the House of Tribes Theater to begin. The lights go down on Frankie G. and our conversation. The actors jump into the spirits of Juan Shamsul Alam's characters on stage. This time, Frank Gonzales, a new star with new hope, will just sit back and watch.