Tag Archives: Delroy Lindo

Blood In Blood Out (1993)

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.

Malcolm X (1992)

Spike Lee’s Malcolm X holds up surprisingly well after 22 years. Much of the credit should go to Denzel Washington, who puts on one of the great performances in the history of cinema. But, if this very long — over three hours — film has scarcely a boring moment, it has a lot to do with Spike Lee’s direction and Arnold Perl’s screenplay, both of which compliment each other perfectly.

Let’s take one representative moment. Most of us are familiar with the photo of Malcolm X standing near a window with an M1 carbine. Perhaps we’ve seen a poster on the wall of a college dormitory with the famous caption reading “by any means necessary.” Spike Lee puts the image in a sophisticated fictional context — the actual circumstances of the photo aren’t clear — that undermines the idea that it’s a “call to arms.” We are late in the film. Malcolm X, who has just returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca, is giving a press conference with a group of clueless — Is there any other type? — white reporters. Since he’s worshipped with Muslims of all races, he’s no longer a rigid black nationalist. He’s also broken with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, but he’s unwilling to change his position on armed self-defense. “When the white man gives up his guns,” he says to one particularly belligerent reporter, “we’ll give up ours.” But just as we’re about to cheer, a black man at the back of the crowd yells “get your hand out of my pocket,” exactly what one of Malcolm’s assassins yelled at the Audubon Ballroom, and, thus, clearly foreshadowing his murder. Later, at home, we see the famous image. Denzel Washington, as Malcolm X, is standing in front of the window with an M1 Carbine. The image is transformed. Malcolm is not defending his family against the Klan, or against the police, but against his fellow black Muslims. It’s not an image romanticizing violence, but calling our attention to its cost.

Lee’s film is not only an evocation of Malcolm X from the grave. It’s an elegy for the leader he might have been. Malcolm, only 39 years old when he was murdered, was not only at the height of his oratorical powers, but in the middle of a spiritual and intellectual transformation only the greatest leaders go through. If Lincoln died when he was on his way to seeing black Americans as his equals, then Malcolm X died before he become the leader of the black nation within the American nation, a “black messiah,” to use J. Edgar Hoover’s surprisingly accurate term.

Denzel Washington, who was 38 in 1992, accomplishes the astonishing feat of capturing Malcolm X at each stage of his development. Somehow Washington’s 19-year-old Malcolm X looks 19. That’s no mean accomplishment. Even the great Daniel Day Lewis, who, in Jim Sheridan’s film In the Name of the Father played the unjustly accused Irish political prisoner Gerry Conlon over a similar span of time, barely even tries to get the ages right. Lewis’s 19 year old Gerry Conlon looks 35. Yet when Malcolm X opens, the 38-year-old Washington manages to look like a young man barely out of his teens.

We are in Boston during the Second World War. It’s actually Ridgewood in Queens, but, whether it’s historically accurate or not, Spike Lee has set the stage with so much energy and commitment it doesn’t really matter. We think we’re in Boston during the Second World War. Malcolm, and his friend “Shorty,” played by Lee himself, are decked out in their “zoot suits.” Malcolm is about to get what’s known as a “conk,” a black man treating his hair with lye in order to straighten it, to make him look more like a white man. It’s not self-mutilation on the level of Michael Jackson, but it’s remarkably painful nonetheless. Later we see Malcolm blow off a black woman to get involved with a white woman named Sofia. He hooks up with a West Indian gangster named Archie, starts running numbers, and, soon, is living the life of a petty criminal.

Black men committing crimes, Lee implies, comes from their wanting to be white, from self-hatred, but he doesn’t quite leave it at that moralistic level. Washington’s Malcolm X is more than just a self-hating black man. He’s a gifted young man with a high IQ. He had the ability to be anything he wanted, but he was cut adrift by a society that did not allow blacks to rise to their potential. So much for a “meritocracy.” Indeed, we had seen him earlier mention to a clueless, malevolent white teacher he wanted to be a lawyer, only to be told he should be a carpenter instead, “like Jesus.” Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm, and Lee’s photography, shows him not only as a young man who hates himself, but as a young man looking for his identity. He’s charming one moment, angry and violent the next. The way Lee shoots him and Shorty as they walk along in their “zoot suits,” with a hand held camera from below, conveys what Malcolm is thinking. “This is fun for the moment, but it’s not me. I’m trying on this identity like I’m trying on this walk and this zoot suit. But when I find out who I really am, I’ll get rid of them.”

Malcolm finds himself in prison. After being sentenced to an 8-10 year sentence for burglary, and after being tortured into barking out a prison number instead of his “real” name,” he catches the attention of “Brother Baines,” a prison recruiter for Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Brother Baines, who will later betray him, helps him get over his hatred of himself for being black. But we also get the sense that part of the appeal of the Nation of Islam for Malcolm is that it’s also an opportunity to, finally, make use of his formidable intellect. After he’s paroled Malcolm quickly rises in the hierarchy of the Nation of Islam becoming not only Elijah Muhammad’s right hand man, but his clear superior.

One of the things that the film leaves unmentioned is how Malcolm X recruited Muhammad Ali, a coup on the level of someone in the Occupy movement recruiting Jennifer Lawrence into a drum circle at Zuccotti Park. Soon, Brother Baines is leading the anti-Malcolm faction in the Nation of Islam. So why didn’t Spike Lee include Malcolm’s recruitment of Muhammad Ali? It’s a significant part of the autobiography. Perhaps he was afraid of complications that would arise from the fact that Ali, who later regretted his mistake and converted to orthodox Sunni Islam, did not support Malcolm after his break with Elijah Muhammad. Perhaps he was afraid a historical character as important as Ali would have thrown his story out of proportion. In any event, we do get some hints over the way Brother Baines scolds Malcolm in prison for being happy about Jackie Robinson making it into the major leagues. While it’s true that Malcolm’s conversion was still in process, we also feel Malcolm’s affinity for another gifted black American and for individual achievement that a less brilliant activist like Baines might have resented.

As the inevitable tragedy plays out, as we approach the assassination, the tone of the film turns darker. We all know what’s going to happen. Malcolm X will be assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom, but the level of dread Spike Lee is able to imbue the final hour of Malcolm X with is quite remarkable. Spike Lee is known as something of an eccentric character, a manic little man who waives a towel on the floor of Knicks home games, but he’s also thought deeply about American violence, and how it consumes the most gifted Americans. Lincoln, both Kennedys, Martin Luther King, the body count of potentially transformative leaders is staggeringly large. Lee never addresses possible government involvement in Malcolm’s assassination, but he’s interested in something far more important than another conspiracy theory. Malcolm X, a potential great man, was cut down by black mediocrities as surely as his father, a political activist and follower of Marcus Garvey, was murdered by the Klan.

There’s nothing liberating about violence, Lee is telling us. Washington’s Malcolm X is not a ruthless leader of an armed rebellion. Instead, he’s most powerful when he’s speaking in front of a crowd, not holding a gun. The highpoint of his success comes not instigating violence but with preventing it. After a black man is beaten by the police and taken, in secret, into a police station to be left to die, Malcolm leads a march on the precinct. There are no guns involved, just discipline and organization, for more important, even in the event of an armed rebellion, than a stockpile of weapons. As he leads a column of well dressed men against the police, the rest of the neighborhood follows along. The threat of a mass uprising forces the police to back down and take the beaten man to a hospital. Not a shot is fired. Not a punch is thrown. Not a harsh word is spoken. It’s what might have been, Lee is telling us, the promise of a new African nation inside the United States that was cut down by the hail of bullet inside the Audubon Ballroom.

Even as a white American, the enemy in the eyes of the Nation of Islam, I can’t help but realize that a well-organized black America might have been better for all Americans than a downtrodden mass at the mercy of the corporatocracy. Indeed, that might be the film’s biggest accomplishment. As opposed to the clueless white reporters, who persistently label Malcolm an “anti-white-extremist,” we can see that his political agenda, in the end, would not have been limited to his personal history. While it’s certainly understandable that any black man whose father had been murdered by the Klan and who had his opportunities limited by a racist white establishment would be hostile towards, even hate white people, it’s also clear that Malcom X had the intellect and the self-discipline necessary to work through his personal baggage to a larger, more inclusive vision. Lee somehow manages to use the trip to Mecca to convey a sense, not only of coming to orthodox Islam, but also transcending a narrow American view of the world. Perhaps Malcolm X, like James Baldwin in Paris, would have eventually realized that the United States is only one part of a very large world, economically and militarily powerful, but culturally limited. We’ll never know.