(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Alfred Robledo, Mario Ramirez, Sammy Hernandez, Javier Cid, Chuy Hernandez, Stevie Williams, Fran “Simba” Saucedo, Lorenzo Hernandez, Joseph “Spike” Silva, James Wicks, LaVada Williams, Huero Navarro, Lorraine Sauno, Ernie Sauno, Kathy Lopez, Lynn Cain, Yellow. Directed by Billy McMillin
There is something peculiarly American about high school football rivalries. The Big Game, whether it’s played in a big city or a small town, is something that helps define entire communities. It can make or break an entire season; one can count themselves a success if they lose every other game that season except the one with their bitter rivals; conversely, a championship season can lose its luster if the only loss is to those rivals.
In East L.A., that game is El Classico, the game pitting the James Garfield High School Bulldogs and the Theodore Roosevelt High School Rough Riders. Both schools, like East L.A. itself, are predominantly Latino. Many of the students from both schools speak English as a second language; many of the students have undocumented family members or are themselves undocumented. Throughout the film, we hear a litany of complaints from right wing radio commentators about how the flood of immigrants from South of the Border are changing the make-up of America and not for the better. The racism in the remarks is so thinly veiled as to not be veiled at all.
That’s what these kids face in addition to all the things high school kids face; romance, fitting in, feelings of inadequacy, studying hard for a future that is uncertain. As any person who has played high school football will tell you, the demands of practice and commitment to the team also put pressure on kids already overburdened from pressures just trying to make it through the school day.
The movie documents that, focusing on Coach Javier Cid from Garfield who is trying not just to make a competitive football team but to make sure that every kid graduates – he is more proud of their 100% graduation rate than their won-loss record, which a lot of parents will appreciate. One of his players, wide receiver Mario Ramirez, is doing more than graduating; he has a 3.97 GPA and letters of recruitment from Harvard, Yale and his school of choice, Princeton. He wants to be the first from his family to graduate college but lives in a small apartment with 14 other family members.
Over at Roosevelt, coach Lorenzo Hernandez’ day job is as a patrol cop for the LAPD. He sees the results of kids making bad choices every shift, and is determined that his charges develop the self-discipline and self-respect to make it in life. Linebacker Joseph “Spike” Silva has two absent parents; his dad is in jail and his mom is a junkie lost to the streets. He himself has fathered a baby daughter and works before school in a bakery. On the field, he is a coiled spring of rage. Quarterback Stevie Williams is an outsider; he is an African-American student who takes city buses to school every day from South Central, hoping that football will take him further away from that part of Los Angeles.
The stories of the kids and their coaches are compelling enough that the big game itself is almost anti-climactic which is a good thing because the game isn’t terribly exciting or ever much in doubt. McMillin is forced to concentrate on how the football team affects the players and in doing so we are treated to many of the clichés that coaches love to espouse at the high school level.
What I would have liked to have seen more of is how the game effects the community; it is clearly a big deal in East Los, as natives call it – the game has been played for well over 80 years and many of the players are second and third generation at their schools. In this documentary, the kids and their coaches exist in a vacuum and an opportunity is lost to really share much of the culture and pride of East L.A. with a wider audience.
Still, there is a lot to be gained here. We’ve seen high school football stories before and this one definitely has a bit of an accent, which is a good thing – we are made to realize that these kids are no different than the ones playing the game all over the country, other than the pervasive specter of immigration woes, and racism directed their way, more than perhaps at any other time in the history of East L.A. In an era where “Build that wall” is regularly chanted by those who follow our President blinded, it is well we are reminded what that wall is intended to keep out.
REASONS TO SEE: A realistic look at the Latino experience circa 2018.
REASONS TO AVOID: Looks a little bit more at the individuals involved rather than at the overall effect on the community.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially, the game was known as the “Chili Bowl” but the name was changed to the East Los Angeles Classic because the two schools felt it was more dignified and reflective of the neighborhood overall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pahokee
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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