Benjamin Bratt on La Mission, Latino pride, and His Anti-SB 1070 Stand

As I mentioned in my Bird column this week, actor Benjamin Bratt's in town with his brother director Peter Bratt to promote their new film La Mission, a "cinematic love letter" to lowrider culture and the San Francisco Mission District where both men were raised.

Bratt plays Che Rivera, a tough ex-con who embodies all things OG, the old-school style of "original gangsta," including his love for classic cars and oldies R & B. Che's world is rocked by the discovery that his only son, an honors student headed for UCLA, is gay. But the film ends up being more about Che's personal struggle for redemption, than his son's sexuality.

Despite this strife between father and son and the violence that disrupts their existence, La Mission is, overall, a positive examination of Latino culture, as well as a celebration of the San Fran neighborhood that gives it its name and a stylish evocation of the lowrider aesthetic.

Both Bratts are in town tonight -- for a fundraiser at AMC Arizona Center, and a Q&A session at Harkins Arizona Mills. The AMC Arizona Center event is sold out. But if you can get into the 8:45 p.m. showing at Harkins Arizona Mills, the Bratts will be speaking to the crowd following the screening. 

(Note: George Lopez was originally scheduled to be at the AMC Arizona Center fundraiser, but will not be able to make it.)

On the Facebook page for the film, you and your brother announce your opposition to SB 1070, Arizona's new immigration legislation. Did you ever consider honoring the boycott of the state because you're against the law?

We did consider a boycott. But as artists it's our responsibility on some level to give support where we can. And if the encouragement we're receiving on our Facebook page is any indication, 90 percent of the people writing in say you need to come to Arizona to support.

[Our appearance] is really more a demonstration of solidarity that we're all in this together. Because we all are. Whether you're Latino or not, we all truly are in this together. These wrongheaded laws aren't really the way to get to the point that we need to get to. We really need comprehensive immigration reform, but this is not the way to do it. Because what it speaks to is the level of fear. And it puts people in the crosshairs of biased persecution.

There's a tremendous amount of hatred directed at Hispanics in this state. Your film offers a nice antidote to that.

One of the many things that's happening in response to the film is a surge of Latino pride. The film definitely tackles a lot of different issues. But in the fact that it captures the essence of Latino life which is at the center of it all is family and spirituality and this idea of love, a celebration of life, and it captures that.

In a way it's kind of like medicine. And if the film is making people feel good on that level, then we feel like it's our responsibility to bring it to Arizona. It was going to go there anyway because we don't have any say in where it gets distributed. It's up to the distribution company. We were going to hold back, but we feel like it's more important to engage.

And yet, the film touches on some timeless themes, beyond Latino culture.

Yes the film is culturally and geographically specific. Very much so. And yet we have shown the film to such a widely diverse audience. Everyone pulls something out of it that they recognize within themselves. Because, dig it, at the end of the day, the film is about family. It's not a "family film," but it's all about family, at the center of which is love.

I don't care where you come from, all of us desire to have a sense of belonging and a sense of being needed...It doesn't matter if you're white or black or yellow or red or brown. If you see that up on the screen, you get that yeah we are all the same. We all do really have the same needs, wants and desires. The film demonstrates that to people who may not understand Latino culture at all.

Your mom came to this country from Peru. Do you take the immigration issue personally because of that fact?

I do. Not least because my mother was an immigrant and there are other immigrant family members from Peru who are here in this country. I see my community the same way the characters themselves do, those are my family members. Maybe not by blood, but those are my people. 

At the end of the day, I'm one of the dudes, who -- I stand up for social justice. Wherever there's injustice, you've got to say something. I really feel like that's part of the responsibility of being a good citizen. If you see someone who's being persecuted or marginalized, for whatever reason, racial or gender or sexual orientation, whatever bias exists, you have to say something. Sometimes that gets me into trouble.

The style of the film is very old school, and very cool. Can you speak about the style of the film, and how you achieved that style?

The character I play is loosely based on a guy we grew up with whose name is Che. He was born and raised in the Mission District. He founded one of the first lowrider clubs in the city back in the '70s, back in the lowrider heyday. And he actually drives a minibus. Big differentiation, he does not have a gay son.

Anyway, he served as our technical consultant and kind of an associate producer, because he was really the touchstone for all things OG, lowrider. He helped the costume designer with how to dress my character.

It's a very specific aesthetic that an OG lowrider has. There's something anachronistic in almost everything that they do. From the style of dress with the 1940s pleated pants to the Stacy Adams shoes. The stingy brims. The kind of music he listens to which is of course oldies, R & B and soul, black music. And of course, not least, the cars. They only drive the bombs. If you're gonna be a lowrider and you consider yourself an OG, you don't drive cars that are newer than 1960.

[My character's] son is from a different generation, so they drive newer cars. The pinnacle of the lowrider aesthetic for young people is the '64 Chevy Impala...and of course they listen to rap and hip-hop, which is a big, big difference.

Do you still have family ties to the Mission District?

Most of my family still lives up in the city proper. My brother and I lived there together, 23rd and Mission, when I was in grad school at American Conservatory Theatre. A lot of the relationships we have from childhood are still there. For us, particularly for my brother as a storyteller, that was a lifelong dream of his to make a movie set in the Mission District, because we knew it would be what it ended up becoming. Which was kind of a daily celebration over the 26 days we shot there. Almost everything we shot there was on location in the neighborhood. And we utilized people behind the camera and quite obviously in front of the camera.

Just the extras, you mean, or were there others from the neighborhood?

All of the young actors except for the man who plays my son and his boyfriend, were all plucked from the street...They were all first timers, and they acquit themselves beautifully. Especially the young man whose name is Alex Hernandez who plays the antagonist of the film, Smoke. I think his work is so subtle and beautiful too, he doesn't overplay his hand. He doesn't play it with obvious menace...His performance is one of the many reasons why I think the neighborhood is embracing the film. We tried to capture the honesty of the place, the authenticity of the place, without watering it down.

Before I saw the film, I had sort of a preconceived notion of the gay issues it deals with. But you dealt with them specifically in the context of Latino culture. Why was it important for the film to tackle this issue of a young Latino man coming out?

That was one of the comments we got when we were taking the film around Los Angeles within the industry and what would be considered more traditional avenues to get the film funded. Some of the commentary we received was, "Why do you want to tell this story, the whole issue of coming out and being gay is already been dealt with?" And of course, the underlying assumption with a statement like that is, within the dominant culture. At least on a superficial level it's already been dealt with. One executive even said to us, "Haven't you seen Brokeback Mountain or Will and Grace?"

What that negates of course is the fact that within the Latino community specifically and in other minority communities in general, including the African-American community, the discussion of homosexuality is still so taboo that people don't even talk about it. And in fact in some instances my brother had been confronted verbally by people from the community saying, "Why do you want to have this gay element in our story? We're already facing enough in the community. Why do you want to open this up?"

Which is an interesting question to ponder. But ultimately what we're finding is that after people see the film, it's not really a coming out story. It's really more of a coming of age story, but not for the son, for the father. And the fact that Che's son is gay, really is the best catalyst to set him on the journey that he as a character needs to take. If we see Che for what he is, [it's as] a man who on some levels is an archetype and representative of the greater culture in that he uses the might makes right ethos to negotiate through life. He's a man of violence, and he's both feared and respected as a result of that. And that's how he doesn't even question that in himself. He's confronted with a set of circumstances that he can't punch his way out of. In this case, the discovery that his son is gay. It sends him in a different direction. And of course the information itself completely challenges his own notion of who he is as a man.

You touch on the issue of gentrification in the film. Is the Mission District you portray endangered by it? Does it threaten the diversity the film represents?

Well, I think it's important to recognize that the Mission District has been in a state of gentrification since the Ohlone people were the first inhabitants, when the first Spanish colonists arrived. But it's true in the 1940s and '50s it was a principally an Irish, Italian-American enclave. Then in the 1950s, it became more heavily Mexican-American. And then on to the subsequent decades, more of an influence of Central American and South American countries. At this point it remains in its heart and soul a Latin neighborhood.

And yet because of the level of gentrification that's going on -- not unlike New York -- where I spent nearly the last dozen years, San Francisco's quickly become a city for the rich. And so the working class families, both Latino and otherwise that have been there for a couple of generations are being pushed out. That's creating a certain degree of resentment and external pressure on relationships and obstacles that the community is already facing. So we wanted to touch on it a little bit, without beating you over the head.

The racial dynamic that exists in the film, especially in the makeup of my buddies, the Mission boys, it's really reflective of what exists. When Peter and I were growing up, our best friends were Filipino, Chinese, Latinos, Native Americans, white, black. And while of course, you know, there was racial disharmony happening all over the country, for some reason in San Francisco, perhaps because it's famously held a level of tolerance, it wasn't so much an issue for us. So that multiculturalism that you see in the film...it really existed, and on some level still exists.

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