Part fact and part fiction, Zoot Suit is the film version of Luis Valdez's critically acclaimed play, based on the actual Sleepy Lagoon murder case and the zoot suit riots of 1940s Los Angeles. Henry Reyna is the leader of a group of Mexican-Americans being sent to San Quentin without substantial evidence for the death of a man at Sleepy Lagoon. As part of the defense committee, Alice Bloomfield and George Shearer fight the blatant miscarriage of justice for the freedom of Henry and his friends.
I also saw the original stage production in LA in 1978/79. I was likely the only Anglo in the audience, which was itself an experience worth buying a ticket to. I would have gone back several times if I had had the money.
Olmos was featured in the local TV commercials for the play and was riveting to watch. That commercial could be re-released as a short. In the theater, you could NOT take your eyes off him.
I have seen the film several times and own a DVD copy. While there are some cringe-worthy moments and some obvious "staginess", the film does credit to the original vision and is worth watching.
One should never watch a work of art in an attempt to learn about history, or science, or anything else. Art is art.
Reviewed by MBunge4 / 10
The point of this escapes me
Well, this is an odd duck of a motion picture. Writer/director Luis Valdez appears to have adapted his play for the screen by not technically adapting it at all. For the most part, Zoot Suit is like training a camera on a stage play, complete with live theater sets and choreography. Occasionally, he takes another step back and has the movie viewer see an audience watching an actual play, but there's never any much aim to that. There are some songs here but not enough to truly make this a musical. The story is simplistic and halting, filled with two-dimensional characters and one-dimensional dialog that's peppered with enough slang and Spanish so that you've really got to pay attention to follow what's going on. It's also preachy and more preoccupied with being socially conscious than entertaining.
The point of this film is to give people a look at what it was like to be Latino in 1940s Los Angeles. It does that by following Henry Reyna (Daniel Valdez), a young gang leader as he and his friends are prosecuted for a murder they didn't commit. Henry and his friends, though, aren't the sort of gang bangers you see today. They were "zoot suiters", wrapping themselves up in high-waisted pants, long jackets, big brim hats, long chain loops that hand down their sides and switchblades in their back pockets. Trailing after Henry through all his experiences is El Pachuco (Edward James Olmos), who is some poorly thought out mix of imaginary friend, alter ego and narrator of the play.
I could go into Henry's trial, his virginal girlfriend, the union organizer who spearheads his appeal and other stuff, but that's not really what Zoot Suit is about. It's about the racism faced by Latinos in 1940s America as they tried to claim their piece of the American Dream and how they sometimes internalized that prejudice. The tale of Henry Reyna is just a pretext for a lot of shorthand pontificating about that, but this movie is neither smart nor serious enough to say anything interesting on those subjects, especially not with Edward James Olmos strutting through the film like a bad guy from the 1960s Batman TV show.
It's weird construction aside, Zoot Suit isn't terribly performed. However, it's overwhelming sense of unreality is alienating and there's not enough fun here to counteract that. If you watch it, you'll understand what writer/director Valdez is trying to say and wonder why he chose such a strange way of expressing it.