Filmmaker Ben DeJesus Talks Raul Julia's Legacy and the Crisis in Puerto Rico

Courtesy of Family Collection
Raul Julia

The director's 'Raul Julia: The World's a Stage' is set to premiere at LALIFF Aug. 3 and air in September on PBS' 'American Masters.'

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the death of actor, activist and humanitarian Raul Julia, PBS will air Raul Julia: The World's a Stage, directed by filmmaker Ben DeJesus, on Sept. 13 as part of its American Masters series. The doc will screen first Aug. 3 at LALIFF (L.A. Latino International Film Festival), taking place in Hollywood at the TCL Chinese Theatre from Jul. 31 through Aug. 4.  

"The history of corruption and the history of being marginalized as a commonwealth has been a negative in many ways," says DeJesus, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico and who lived there for a few years as a child, of the current outrage in Julia's birthplace. "There have been positive attributes to it, but it's also kept the island in its place and not progressing as fast as it would if there was a different approach to its standing with the U.S."

One of the original producers of MTV Cribs, DeJesus' focus is on telling Latino stories with universal appeal, like his current play, John Leguizamo's Latin History for Morons, arriving in L.A. on Sept. 5 at the Ahmanson Theatre. In a discussion with The Hollywood Reporter, the filmmaker talks about the legacy of Raul Julia, the current crisis in Puerto Rico and his disgust at what's occurring at the U.S. border. 

In Raul's early career, did typecasting and racism perhaps fuel his drive and his performances?

Absolutely, I think it gave him an inner passion to overcome whatever resistance or preconceived notions people had of what a Latino actor can do. To go in and have this accent and still be able to master Shakespeare in a way very few people had, it's a testament to his passion, his drive and his talent.

It's hardly a warts-and-all look at him. Where are the warts?

He really didn't have the negative conflicts that a lot of troubled artists had. He didn't have a drinking problem, he wasn't a womanizer, he didn't have all these unresolved issues. We couldn't invent conflict where there was none. His battle was to try to represent Latinos in a way that hadn't been done before.

Conflicts were on the outside, which is what seemed to spur his social activism.

Back in the day, he was speaking out in the fight to end hunger. It wasn't a common thing that celebrities did. I think he was ahead of his time for taking a stance that wasn't a Latino issue but a human issue. That is as much a part of his legacy as what he did in terms of breaking down barriers for Latino artists in cinema and theater. Those are his biggest gifts to the world. 

Is he someone you emulated in your own career?

Being a young Latino trying to make it in theater, there weren't many people to look up to. He definitely was one of them. To be able to really celebrate and highlight Raul Julia's legacy is a rewarding experience not only as a filmmaker, but as somebody who looked up to him.

Why don't we see more Latinos behind the camera, people from the U.S.?

Aside from Robert Rodriguez, you're right. For some reason, our story, the American-Latino experience — if you're not from Mexico or Spain, there's not many people like myself behind the scenes. Part of my own personal passion and mission is to make sure that the doors that have been opened for me remain open for the next generation. People I have on my team, whether it's makeup artists, associate producers or editors, we're opening doors to underrepresented people in the industry.

Any thoughts on the West Side Story remake?

Any chance we have to tell our stories is a positive. The fact that so many Latinos are working in front of the camera and behind, and the fact that they're putting Rita [Moreno] in it, I'm excited to see it happen. 

What would Raul make of the current crisis in Puerto Rico?

Raul was very politically active when it came to the island. The governor has done some things that were not in the best interests of the island. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, it didn’t seem like he was the best executive for the people. 

Was the situation exacerbated by the lack of emergency response from Washington?

I don't think we were properly taken care of the way any other American city or island or state would have been. It just felt like it was willful in terms of de-prioritizing Puerto Rico despite it being an American territory.

As we've seen with recent comments, people of color are fair game for the President. 

It seems unfair. It seems this is somehow calculated to undermine people who are literally Americans. 

As well as people who want to be Americans, as we've seen at the border.

When you think of how these are family people, the vast majority of them women and children, it is appalling. It's completely repulsive that we, as Americans who know better, who've been better, are somehow able to accept this. Even if it's just 40 percent of the population, that's far too high.

Is it a good thing that Raul isn't around to see this or do we need him now more than ever? 

Raul would have been a shining light in society even now, not just in the industry but when he was at the end of his life, you see some of the choices he made in terms of playing Romero and Chico Mendes. It's like his actual life and his activism started conversing with his choices for movie roles. I think if he were alive today, he would be front and center helping to lead the way for positive change.