film reporter

'Ministers' in vanguard of American Latino pics

While attention focused on the Oscars' Latin invasion led by Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Arriaga and Adriana Barraza, along with Spain's Penelope Cruz, a small, independent movie titled "The Ministers" began production in New York.

"Ministers" is a crime thriller written and directed by New Yorker Franc. Reyes, who is reteaming with actor-writer-performer John Leguizamo, with whom he worked on 2002's "Empire." The "Ministers" filmmakers represent another aspect of the current Latin wave: They are making films in English rather than Spanish that star Latinos, telling stories about American Latinos. To Reyes, that difference is critical.

"The difference is 'Amores Perros' and 'Empire,' " Reyes says. "One is Spanish-language, and the other one isn't. One is an American story, and the other one isn't. Cuaron, (Gonzalez) Inarritu — these are all brilliant guys, but when they make Hollywood films, they aren't talking about the American Latino experience."

According to 2005 census figures, 42.6 million Latinos live in the U.S., comprising 12.5% of the population, and their numbers are increasing. Many Latinos are ardent filmgoers, yet at the same time they are underrepresented on the big screen.

"When I do my (stage) shows, they sell out, and it's at least 60% Latino, and they are paying $70 a ticket," Leguizamo says. "They are hungry for their own stories told in a hyper-executed way, not under-executed."

While black filmmakers made a wave of blaxploitation films in the 1970s, which paved the way for more serious fare from such directors as Spike Lee and John Singleton, films made by and for American Latinos have had a far shorter history. Arguably, the biggest Latin-flavored movies have been Robert Rodriguez's "Spy Kids" movies, starring Antonio Banderas, even though they were aimed at general audiences. When Hollywood has openly tried to court the Latino audience, it has fallen on its face. Case in point: 20th Century Fox's "Chasing Papi" in 2003.

"That's a studio thinking that's what Latin people want to see?" Leguizamo asks incredulously. "They don't want to see that movie. Even if you had white people in that movie, it would be a horrible flick. Latin people want to see a Latin 'Ordinary People,' a Latin 'Borat,' a Latin 'Mission: Impossible.' They want to see it all, but done in that quality and that edge and that kind of fun. That's why 'Empire' had appeal," he says. "It was an action flick. The Latin guy was the man. And in 'The Ministers,' the Latin girl will be the man."

Reyes says he thinks the Latino community is responsible for some of the roadblocks, particularly when it worries about negative images in the media. "If you say to a Latino organization that you want to do a movie as a Latino filmmaker, and I go out there and say I want to make a movie about a pedophile that lives next to a drug dealer and the wife of the pedophile is an adulterer, they'll say, 'Well you can't make that movie; that's negative images.' But they'll all go see 'American Beauty.' "

Reyes, who writes all his movies, focuses on New York stories. In the '70s, he witnessed the Bronx burning as landlords set their buildings on fire to escape their responsibilities. That idea led to "Ministers."

"In the tradition of filmmakers that have come from New York, like (Martin) Scorsese, (Sidney) Lumet, (Woody) Allen, Spike Lee — this is just another side of the New York experience," Reyes says. "I'm not putting myself in the same league as those guys, I'm just saying it's from another point of view."