Taylor Hackford’s epic is usually labeled as a knockoff of Edward James Olmos’ classic film about the Mexican Mafia, American Me. But in spite of its many faults, Blood in Blood Out is a great movie in its own right. All Roger Ebert proved when he dismissed it as incoherent and nihilistic was that he couldn’t handle the real truth about American capitalism.
Blood in Blood Out opens in 1972. Miklo Velka, a blue-eyed Mexican American of half-Anglo descent, returns home to East LA after a brief stint in juvenile detention for assaulting his white father, a racist who hates Mexicans. Miklo is determined to prove that he’s at much of a “Vato Loco” as his two cousins, Paco Aguilar, a hot-headed ex-boxer played by Benjamin Bratt, and Jesse Borrego, a talented painter who has just won a scholarship to art-school. His opportunity comes when the Tres Puntos, a gang from a rival neighborhood, start tagging alleyways on Vato Loco turf. Velka smashes the rear window of their car. All three men make a clean getaway, and Velka gets his gang tattoos.
Of course it doesn’t stop there. In retaliation, the Tres Puntos kidnap Borrego, the most level-headed and non-violent of the three young men, and beat him so badly he almost dies. The Vatos Locos, in turn, stage a well-organized attack against the Tres Puntos. Velka, who kills “Spider,” the Tres Puntos leader, is sent to San Quentin. Aguilar, who drives the getaway car, is given the choice of either going to prison along with his cousin, or joining the United States Marines. He chooses the latter. Borrego, after a long recovery, becomes addicted to prescription painkillers, then heroin.
Blood In Blood Out’s San Quentin, and the movie was filmed on location at the real San Quentin, is dominated by three rival prison gangs, the Aryan Vanguard, the Black Guerrilla Army, and La Onda. Velka, being white, yet fluent in Spanish, is recruited both by the Aryan Vanguard, a loosely fictionalized Aryan Brotherhood, and La Onda, a loosely fictionalized Mexican Mafia. Being “young meat,” only 18-years old, and “pretty,” he needs to choose fast. Blood in Blood out deals as frankly with the issue of prison rape as American Me. Velka needs to join a crew, or become someone’s “punk.”
Montana Segura, the leader of La Onda, is a radical Chicano who reads Frantz Fanon in his cell, and wants an alliance of black and brown against white. Nevertheless, he agrees to let Velka, who has the right Chicano gang tattoos, in La Onda under one condition. Velka has to kill “Big Al,” the Aryan Vanguard member who runs gambling in San Quentin. “Blood in,” Segura informs him. The only way to get into La Onda is to carry out an assassination on a rival gang member. “Blood out,” he adds. Once you’re in, you’re in for life. Velka not only kills “Big Al.” He’s level-headed enough to find a notebook that “Big Al” keeps on people who owe him money. Since it contains proof of collusion between the Aryan Vanguard and at least one San Quentin prison guard, it also means increased leverage for La Onda, and an increased level of status for Miklo Velka. In only a few months, he’s gone from “punk” to trusted confident of Montana Segura.
Miklos Velka has, in fact, been so successful at San Quentin that when he’s finally paroled after 9 years, it’s a let down. He gets part of a room in a halfway house run by another ex-con, and a menial job in an auto-repair shop, where his boss skims money off employee paychecks to pay his own gambling debts. It’s only a matter of time before he winds up back inside. In the meantime, even though Jesse Borrego has become a successful artist, has not been able to shake his addiction to painkillers, and it takes a tragic turn when Paco Aguilar’s brother, who looks up to Borrego as a hero, finds heroin in Borrego’s apartment and overdoses. Aguilar, who has served honorably in the Marine Corps, and who is now a narcotics detective on the LAPD, pushes Borrego out of the family.
If there’s a weakness in Blood in Blood Out it’s the script’s lack of clarity about the LAPD and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. On one hand, Hackford seems to acknowledge that the corrections officers at San Quentin play blacks, whites and Hispanics off against one another as part of an overall effort to destroy the black, white, and Hispanic working classes. On the other hand, Paco Aguilar, played by the same Benjamin Bratt who would go on to the pro-NYPD propaganda show Law and Order is clearly a sympathetic character. The LAPD is never shown gratuitously harassing blacks or Hispanics. What’s more, Paco Aguilar’s time in the Marine Corp and on the LPAD freed him from the same destructive path Jesse Borrego and Miklo Velka would go down. Taylor Hackford, unlike Edward James Olmos never quite ties the moral destruction of his anti-hero to the prison industrial complex, although at times, it must be admitted, he comes close.
Tired of seeing his wages stolen from him by his corrupt boss, and sick of his degrading living situation, Miklo Velko agrees to participate in the robbery of an armored car. Someone tips off Paco and the LAPD. Velko is shot in the leg, which he eventually loses, and sent back to San Quentin. It’s now the 1980s. Montana Segura, still the head of La Onda. But the old time Chicano militant does not understand the importance of the cocaine trade. Velka does. Control the flow of cocaine, and you control San Quentin. Carlos, another La Onda member, tries to strike up an alliance with the Aryan Vanguard, but he’s killed by members of the Black Guerrilla Army. La Onda retaliates against a B.G.A. controlled night club back in Los Angeles. A general war between black and Hispanic gang members erupts, not only in San Quentin, but across the whole California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. For the Aryan Vanguard, it’s an opportunity. If they can keep the war going, they can come out on top, a classic example of “divide and conquer.” For Montana, it’s what he’s always feared, the end of his dreams of a radical, black and brown alliance, the final victory of white supremacy. Bonifide, the leader of the Black Guerrilla Army agrees. Together, they arrange a truce.
Earlier in the film, Miklo had protested to Montana that being a true Chicano wasn’t about skin color, but about your ideals. Segura had taken him at his word. In fact, Montana Segura so trusts his white Mexican protégé that he appoints him as the commander of La Onda at San Quentin after he’s allowed a brief transfer to another penitentiary, not only to help negotiate with the local leaders of the B.G.A. to maintain the truce, but to see his 11-year-old daughter. Montana Segura is a violent, brutal man, but he’s also an intelligent, sympathetic one, and the scene where he’s murdered by a B.G.A. member on the morning that he’s finally about to get a visit from his daughter is the most gut wrenching few minutes in the film. We feel the La Onda’s anger over the apparent betrayal, and want to take revenge against the B.G.A. along with Miklo and “Magic Mike,” another high-ranking La Onda lieutenant.
What happens next puts Miklo Velka on the level of Walter White as a symbol of radical evil, and I mention Walter White because the mass prison killing in the final season of Breaking Bad seems to have been inspired by the climax of Blood In Blood out. Bonifide convinces Miklo and Magic Mike that the B.G.A. had nothing to do with Montana Segura’s murder, that the Aryan Vanguard had forged the kill order. It all makes sense. Why would Bonfide have Segura killed when they had just arranged a truce? Why would he use a B.G.A. member and not an outsider? The alliance holds. The black and Hispanic prisoners in San Quentin massacre the leadership of the Aryan Vanguard. Segura’s dream seems to have come true. Not only have Miklo, Magic Mike, and Bonfide avenged his death. The black and Hispanic prisoners have taken over the cocaine trade across California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
But wait. As it turns out, skin color does matter. Miklo Velka was never a true Chicano. It wasn’t the Aryan Vanguard who ordered Montana Segura’s murder. It was Miklo Velka. The war between the Black Guerrilla Army and La Onda was never a war at all. It was a coup by an opportunistic white Mexican against an old left-wing Chicano militant.
Miklo Velka has not reverted back to his biological father’s racism against Mexicans. It’s much worse. He doesn’t care about race, but he certainly doesn’t care about the Chicano ideal. After he double crosses Bonifide and the leaders of the Black Guerrilla Army, it’s clear what he really does care about, power. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation breaks up the San Quentin Leadership of La Onda and scatters them across prisons in California and Texas. For Velka, it’s an opportunity. It means the expansion of La Onda’s prison empire. Montoya Santana, the hero of American Me, died for his honor, and the honor of the Mexican people. If Damian Chapa doesn’t quite have the same ability to embody evil as Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, the resolution of Blood In Blood Out seems strangely relevant in the age of Rachel Dolezal, social media, and identity politics. Miklo Velka, a white man, has used the memory of the Chicano movement, and the dream of a new Aztlán, not to liberate Mexican Americans, but to make himself dictator of his own little kingdom of hell.