Strategies for Latino screenwriters
¡Ya basta con the Hollywood paradigm!

by Charles Ramirez Berg

from Jump Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 96-104
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1993, 2006

"The simple act of reaching the mainstream is not in itself liberating. It is one of the tactics we should adopt within a theory of human liberation. What we must do is struggle for a different system and present alternatives to the existing system. Our artistic productions should subvert dominant ideology rather than reproduce it."
— Rosa Linda Fregoso[1]
[open notes in new window]


In the 1970s, Chicano filmmaking manifestos rejected the Hollywood filmmaking paradigm as aggressively imperialist, racist and oppressive. Influenced by Latin American filmmakers and theorists such as Fernando Solanas, Octavio Getino and Jorge Sanjinés, Chicano cinema cast itself as a revolutionary cinema of opposition.[2] This strategy led Chicano filmmakers to explore non-narrative, non-mainstream forms, particularly the documentary (following the lead of Cuban documentarians), and provided an accessible way for Latino filmmakers with limited resources to begin making films. In focusing on the Chicano experience, first generation filmmakers helped define and affirm Chicanos, chicanismo and el movimiento.

Since those manifestos were written, though, Latinos have entered a new phase in their filmmaking development. Several radical Chicano filmmakers of the 1970s have entered the Hollywood mainstream. Moctesuma Esparza has produced THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR (1988), Luis Valdez has written and directed ZOOT SUIT (1981) and LA BAMBA (1987), and Jesús Salvador Treviño directed an episode of the television series "Gabriel's Fire" (1990) and was nominated for an Emmy for GANGS (1988), a CBS "Schoolbreak Special." A second generation, led by Gregory Nava (EL NORTE, 1984; A TIME OF DESTINY, 1988) and Isaac Artenstein (BREAK OF DAWN, 1988) have followed with impressive features of their own. In Chon A. Noriega's analysis, what transpired was that the Chicano film manifestos provided "a raison d'être and critical perspective that guided students into the university and filmmakers into the American film industry."[3] That trend continues. In increasing numbers, Latinos are enrolling in film and television production programs at universities and workshops across the country.

Can filmmakers of color work within the dominant Hollywood paradigm and counter a system of representation that has denigrated them for decades? Over the course of film history a fair number of mainstream films have effectively critiqued the system, and there is no reason why we can't continue in that tradition. The real question is how. How can Chicano screenwriters begin making a difference in mainstream filmmaking practice? "How," as Charles Burnett so eloquently puts it, "does one who is dissatisfied with the way things are going set about transforming society?"[4] For filmmakers of color, that is the fundamental creative and political question.

A screenwriter myself, I find that I spend a lot of time devising practical answers to that question — ways to avoid stereotyping and promote tolerance and diversity in a form that general audiences will find both pleasing and entertaining. Screenwriting texts are no help, obsessed as they are with three-act dramatic structure, character development and dialogue. For all their detailed discussions about "pinches" and plot points, crises and confrontations, not one of these manuals raises questions about the ideological implications of the dominant narrative paradigm they are so intent on reproducing.[5] For the most part, college scriptwriting courses follow suit, training students to write "professional," i.e. Hollywood, scripts.

With a few exceptions, they are notoriously lacking when it comes to addressing — or even acknowledging — the problems of mainstream cinema's depiction of women and minorities. Other than echoing scriptwriting handbooks, academic discourse on screenwriting has had little to say on the matter.[6]

As scriptwriters of color working within the industry, then, our work is effectively doubled. For credibility's sake, we must master the dominant screenwriting paradigm. But in order to alter its pervasive stereotyping, we also need to question it wherever and whenever we can. This essay sketches out some of the screen writing ideas I've had about how to modify the Hollywood narrative paradigm that are — potentially at least — progressive and subversive.

I am building on the suggestions made in Francisco X. Campos' "Towards the Development of a Raza Cinema," where he defines the aims of the revolutionary cinema he espouses,[7] and Linda Artel and Susan Wengraf's Positive Images: Screening Women's Films, which provides a list of progressive ways to reverse sexism in educational films.[8] I am also incorporating notions from critics who have written about the ways progressive filmmaking can counter the denigration of women, gays and people of color.[9] One key difference between those approaches and mine, however, is that their prescriptions were largely for independent or Third Cinema, whereas I am addressing filmmakers who work (or wish to work) within the Hollywood system.

The classical Hollywood narrative is built upon the tradition of the nineteenth century well-made play that fairly rigidly insists on the steady progression of exposition, conflict, complication, crisis and denouement. In the Hollywood instance, as David Bordwell has pointed out, a goal-oriented hero desires "something new to his/her situation, or the hem seeks to restore an original state of affairs."[10] Though Bordwell doesn't dwell on this, that hero is usually the dominant's ideal — Anglo, male, heterosexual, upscale, Protestant, capitalist, etc. I want to open up Bordwell's narratology by noting the ideological significance of the narrative norms he describes, and I want to interrogate the classic scriptwriting elements that Mario Barrera succinctly delineated in "Story Structure in Latino Feature Films."[11] In effect, I hope this article will serve as a companion piece to Barren's. If his describes the poetics of Hollywood narrative practice as applied to Chicano feature films, then mine seeks to provide strategies for manipulating the formula to serve progressive ends.

For in the last analysis, the framers of the Chicano manifestos were right — Hollywood's is an insidious cinema, which hegemonically bends compliant filmmakers to its built-in conservative agenda. It is a dangerous and a mightily powerful apparatus, but one that can, I believe, be discreetly re-programmed to undermine that conservatism. To do so, though, Latino filmmakers need to approach it cautiously. To paraphrase Cherrie Moraga, our fusion with it is possible, but only if we make things get hot enough[12] only if we radicalize the Hollywood paradigm by infusing it with our ideas before it converts us to its ideology. Since "only with ideas can we confront ideology,"[13] as Robin Wood says, then our screenwriting ideas had better be clearly formulated, our ideological goals explicit, and our cinematic plans well conceived. What follows, then, is an annotated inventory of strategies together with historical examples for screenwriters wishing to avoid repeating Hollywood's stupefying regressiveness.

Let me qualify what follows in two ways. The first recognizes the industry's contradictory treatment of scripts. On the one hand they are regarded as blueprints for the final film. But they are also routinely violated by studio executives, producers, directors and actors — for whom the script exists as nothing more than a highly malleable story outline. Although it's folly to believe that whatever's on the page will end up on the screen, screenwriters still must make that their working assumption, coupled with the hope that most of what they've labored over survives. Realistically, then, screenwriters should aim to control what they can and hope for the best

Second, these ideas are not non-negotiable scriptwriting demands. They are suggestions for mainstream screenwriters who are concerned about what sorts of messages their scripts are sending. My checklist is not an essentialist argument requiring filmmakers of color to devote themselves exclusively to stories about race and ethnicity. We may not always wish to write about the ethnic experience. Neal Jiménez' scripts for RIVER'S EDGE (1986) and FOR THE BOYS (1991), may not have dealt with Latinos, but his infiltration into the mainstream gave Latinos one more voice in the industry. Furthermore, it paved the way for his next film, THE WATERDANCE (1992, d. Neal Jiménez and Michael Steinberg, screenplay by Jiménez), which centers on issues of Otheness.

We should be able to write any kind of movie we want. Restricting ourselves solely to ethnic stories, we risk ghettoizing our talents, giving Hollywood an excuse to discard us once the "ethnic fad" has run its course. Furthermore, if we force ethnic/racial content into every story telling crevice, whether it belongs there or not, we run the risk of becoming doctrinaire, preaching to the converted and limiting our audience. There is a sense, however, in which every story is about race and ethnicity. Important decisions always need to be made about women, minor characters, minorities and Others regardless of the film's subject matter. This checklist, then, is a sort of professional conscience, filmmaking notions to remind us what, in the long run, we're up to equal treatment for all and the tolerance of difference. The danger as I see it is that in the furious competition to enter the filmmaking mainstream we forget who we are and where we came from. If that happens, we lose touch with the very thing that makes us different from other screenwriters.


"I must be careful to avoid stereotypes in DO THE RIGHT THING…Only real characters, no types." — Spike Lee[14]

a) Protagonists

Make the protagonist an Other. The trick here is to avoid the temptation to make the protagonist-Other perfect and the Anglos cardboard villains. Doing to them what they've done to us for decades only validates a system that is the root problem. Since one sure way to break with stereotyping is to present heterogeneous groups, a better tack is to create a more complex world than the reductive good guys vs. bad. For example, in the Texas in THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ (1982, d. Robert M. Young) some Anglos are good, some bad and many somewhere in between. The same is true for SALT OF THE EARTH (1954, d. Herbert Biberman), ALAMBRISTA (1979, d. Robert M. Young), ZOOT SUIT, LA BAMBA and STAND AND DELIVER (1988, d. Ramon Menendez) and THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR (d. Robert Redford).

Create a flawed Anglo protagonist who is a product of the system. Instead of celebrating the American Dream, this gambit reveals the corrupting nature of a confused and conflicted dominant ideology. A prime example is Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE (1941), whose protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, achieves fortune, power, prestige and influence, but loses his soul in the process. ("You know," he confesses in a moment of honest self-appraisal, "if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man.") Because audiences are used to identifying with the protagonist, such films make demanding movie watching. But handled properly, this could provide important ideological insights.

Two racist protagonists, Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) in GIANT (1958, d. George Stevens) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in THE SEARCHERS (1957, d. John Ford), are classic examples. Both characters are imbued with the "bigger-than-life" swagger audiences expect from Hollywood screen heroes. But given the motivational primacy racism has for each of them, it is impossible to overlook their prejudice. Viewers who are challenged by films like these that do not provide guilt-free protagonist identification may question the system. Then again, they might reject the protagonist and the film, so this ploy needs to be used judiciously. One way to make the subversive point and maintain audience engagement is to rely on star power, as both GIANT and THE SEARCHERS did, something usually outside a screenwriter's control. Write the character compellingly enough, though, and a star might want to play the part.

Create a plural protagonist. I am thing the word "plural" to distinguish it from mass protagonists such as those in Eisenstein's films, which I don't think are viable in Hollywood. In the kind of film I'm thinking about, the function of the protagonist is divided among several characters. Ideally these pluralistic co-protagonists would cut across class, race and ethnic lines. An exemplary case is Jean Renoir's RULES OF THE GAME (1939), a multiple character film without a single protagonist. The plural protagonist combined with Renoir's nonjudgmental world view creates a stirring anti-stereotyping film poetics.

In the U.S. vein, THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR moved in this direction, even though Joe Mondragon was its central character. Nevertheless, the film captures a heterogeneous and complexly intertwined Mexican-American community. More successful was SALT OF THE EARTH's community of striking workers — though strictly speaking, the film has dual protagonists. There exists an opening here because the sort of film I'm thinking of has not been made by a Latino yet. Anglo-directed examples include Robert Altman's NASHVILLE (1975) and John Sayles' THE RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN (1980), MATEWAN (1988) and the masterful CITY OF HOPE (1991). Other well-known examples are Barry Levinson's DINER (1982) and Lawrence Kasdan's THE BIG CHILL (1983) and his curiously Latino-less vision of contemporary Los Angeles, GRAND CANYON (1991).

b) Antagonists

Make the system the antagonist. Because of their repeated defense of the system and their incessant drive toward the status-quo ante Happy Ending, most Hollywood films are inherently conservative. To counter this, have the protagonist struggle not against a threat to the system, but against the corrupt system itself. Notable precedents are THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943, d. William Wellman) and HIGH NOON (1952, d. Fred Zinnemann), two westerns that expose the myth that fairness and justice are innate American characteristics that automatically bubble to the surface of communities in crisis. Instead, these films depict U.S. democracy as an ideal that must be vigilantly struggled for if it is to exist at all. More recent examples include two films that highlight racial problems in metaphorical terms, BLADE RUNNER (1982, d. Ridley Scott) and SPLASH (1984, d. Ron Howard). In each film, the protagonist falls in love with an Other, rejects the system that ostracizes his beloved, and flees a defective social and ideological order with her.

A handful of recent Latino films have utilized this strategy impressively. The villain in STAND AND DELIVER (1987, d. Ramon Menendez) is a system that abandoned the barrio kids, created an Anglo-centric testing system to evaluate them, and is characteristically incredulous when they succeed. The same is true in CROSSOVER DREAMS (1985, d. Leon Ichaso), which makes the success myth itself the villain. Both THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ and ZOOT SUIT depict the dominant society as narrowminded and U.S. justice as a legal game played by Anglo rules.

One pitfall here is individualizing the problem. The critiques mounted by THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979, d. James Bridges) and WALL STREET (1987, d. Oliver Stone), for example, are undercut inasmuch as the villainy is too-conveniently isolated in immoral individuals (in THE CHINA SYNDROME an unscrupulous contractor, in WALL STREET a greedy financier) rather than in the cutthroat system that breeds them.

Eliminate the antagonist altogether. An inclusive cinema that places all people on equal footing and resists facile good/bad binarisms is a cinema where stereotypes will not flourish. Such a cinema possesses a vision large and compassionate enough to see all of human nature — the goodness and the selfishness — without seeing villainy. Renoir's was such a cinema. "There's one thing, do you see, that's terrifying in this world," says the character of Octave (played by Renoir himself) in Renoir's THE RULES OF THE GAME, "and this is that every man [sic] has his reasons!" Renoir's cinematic outlook was knowing and accepting, penetrating but tolerant. Often disappointed by humankind, he never rejected it. A notable prime-time example is "Northern Exposure," which has managed to create, in the words of executive producer and writer Diane Frolov, "a nonjudgmental universe. There are no bad guys in Cicely [Alaska, the mythical town where the action takes place]. No one is consciously mean or hurtful."[15]

One possible weakness of this humanistic approach, though, is that problems like sexism and racism never appear, or that when they do they can be traced to "human nature" and not to ideology. This gets the system off the hook and blocks attempts to improve things — how can one ever correct human nature? But human attitudes can change, and we can provide examples of those transformations. A recent example of a character who undergoes such a conversion is the racist biker in THE WATERDANCE, played by William Forsythe, who overcomes his prejudice to befriend all his fellow paraplegics, regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality. Additionally, as discussed above, we can attack the belief system that helps form and support racist attitudes in people.

c) Heroines and "Love Interests"

Replace the male protagonist with a female protagonist/heroine who is an Other. The closest we've ever come to this is Rosaura Revueltas' Esperanza in SALT OF THE EARTH, an influential but non-mainstream film. The lack of Latina heroines in mainstream films and the brevity of this paragraph indicates how much work still needs to be done.

Make the "love interest" an Other. The hero/ protagonist may be male and Anglo, but if he is in love with a Chicana, that reveals a degree of open-mindedness and tolerance on his part (and hers). To a certain extent, audiences read Hollywood heroes as being good and doing good things; their choosing romantic partners of color is thus framed as model behavior.

We have already mentioned the romances between the Anglo heroes and Other women in SPLASH and BLADE RUNNER. Regarding Latinas specifically, there are the romances between the Anglo heroes and Mexican women in ONE-EYED JACKS (1960, d. Marion Brando), THE BORDER (1982, d. Tony Richardson), GIANT, THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1978, d. Steve Rash) and even Davy Crockett's and Jim Bowie's romantic involvements with Mexican women in the much-maligned THE ALAMO (1960, d. John Wayne). Other Chicana "love interests" include Gail Russell's social worker in Joseph Losey's THE LAWLESS (1950), who acts as a cultural tour guide for reporter Macdonald Carey, and Lab Rios' loyal girlfriend, played by Rita Moreno, in THE RING (1952, directed by Kurt Neumann), one of the rare films with Chicano and Chicana romantic leads.

Make the "love interest" a progressive foil to the hero's regressiveness. Again, the classic example is Esperanza in SALT OF THE EARTH, whose proto-feminism at first embarrasses and finally enlightens her supposedly liberal husband. In the process, SALT demonstrates how ethnic societies can replicate dominant forms of oppression. A formidable mainstream example of an Anglo woman correcting her husband's wrong-headed ideology is Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) in GIANT. A fortuitous side-effect is that GIANT also exposes the link between women's and Others' oppression within American patriarchy.

d) Minor characters

Resist the temptation to stereotype any minor character, regardless of race, class, gender or ethnicity. Because Hollywood narratives are consumed with the fate of their male heroes, minor characters become a sort of living landscape, a human backdrop for the protagonists' struggles. Due to this long-standing system of narrative economy, Hollywood sketches minor characters with broad strokes. This too quickly and easily lends itself to stereotyping, a dividing practice filmmakers of color must avoid on moral grounds.

But it ought to be avoided on purely creative grounds, too, because it is lazy, clichéd filmmaking. I'd argue that non-stereotypical characters don't take any more screen time to establish than types. They do, however, take more creativity (i.e., work) to write. Wherever possible, flesh out minor characters by acknowledging their individuality and respecting their intelligence. All of the characters in "Northern Exposure," for example, have unique pasts and are the reactive products of their particular class, ethnic, cultural, gender and racial histories. Their backgrounds do not stereotypically limit them, but rather open up their human potential.

Give minor and minority characters a social and economic context, as Richard Dyer has argued.[16] For example, the difference between youth films made from inside a minority culture (like ZOOT SUIT, STAND AND DELIVER, BOYS N THE HOOD [1991, d. John Singleton], and AMERICAN ME [1992, d. Edward James Olmos]) and those made from without (COLORS [1988, d. Dennis Hopper) is that the "insider" films situate the youths within their socioeconomic reality. Locked out of any possibility for realizing mainstream success, these characters' anti-social behavior is an immoral yet understandable response to a system that has historically neglected them and ignored their needs.

Give minor and minority characters a cultural affiliation. The more information an audience has about a character, the less that character can be easily typed. Beyond personal traits, give characters cultural connections that supply them with a past and a relation to a culture. This can be conveyed with relatively small details. One of the best examples is Dr. Huxtable's jazz and soul record collection on "The Cosby Show." It added an interesting facet to his character, provided the rationale for the appearance of guest stars such as B.B. King and other black musicians on the show, and reminded viewers about one of Black America's most lasting contributions to American popular culture.

Deconstruct stereotypes with humor. Have minority characters self-consciously imitate, satirize or ridicule stereotypes and/or stereotypers. "You need to rechannel your hostility," Joel García (Eric Stoltz) tells a prejudiced paraplegic in THE WATERDANCE, comically deflating his attempt to "stand up" to the "spics and niggers" on the ward. The basic strategy here is to use humor to call attention to the difference between stereotypes and living people, undermining the whole apparatus of stereotyping in the process. A classic example is El Pachuco (Edward James Olmos) in ZOOT SUIT, who continually monitors the difference between mainstream society's stereotypical ideas about zoot suiters and the boys' Chicano realities.


"A major concern of story-telling should be restoring values, reversing the erosion of all those things that made a better life. One has to be prepared to dig down in the trenches and wage a long battle. The problem is that we have all been given a bad name by a few adventurers." — Charles Burnett[17]

a) Genre

Play with genre formulas. Most Hollywood films are genre stories, so genre revision is a basic tactic, and the one Latino cinema has utilized to great effect. THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ is an inverted Western; LA BAMBA is a Chicano BUDDY HOLLY STORY; CROSSOVER DREAMS, BREAK OF DAWN and THE MAMBO KINGS (1992, d. Arne Glimcher) are Latino backstage musicals; ZOOT SUIT is a genre hybrid, part musical, part courtroom drama; STAND AND DELIVER mixes the high school-teen flick and the go-for-it success story — TE QUEMO CON AMOR; AMERICAN ME is an updated Chicano reworking of THE BIG HOUSE and SCARFACE. The advantage of working within genres, of course, is that audiences are familiar with the narratives, yet expect variation; filmmakers are expected to play with genre formulas.

One caution: genre stories generally promote the system via the Happy Ending, a tendency we need to dampen.

In this we have some impressive precedents. CROSSOVER DREAMS, for example, redefined success and the happy ending by rejecting the standard Hollywood denouement. Its protagonist's failure in the exploitive music business is his salvation. Opting to return to his neighborhood, his friends, his music and his roots at film's end, he reaffirms the culture he had discarded, and reconnects with the very thing that made him and his band distinctive. He isn't a failure, the system is. Similarly, in STAND AND DELIVER, the ending is rousing not because Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) and his students toppled an unfair system, but rather because they persevered and overcame a discriminatory system that remains in place.

Play with stock characters. Edward James Olmos' Lt. Castillo, the supervising detective in Miami Vice, is perhaps the best example of how revising a generic stock character provides an opportunity for countering stereotyping. I include this example for screenwriters because Olmos was granted so much control of his character that he in effect functioned as writer. To appreciate his innovations, remember that the police chief's narrative function in the police procedural is to pull in the reins on his renegade cop. Screaming and yelling, he tries to cajole his non-conformist detective hero into working within the law by threatening his Dirty Harry with suspension. Olmos' Lt. Castillo — terse, cool, collected, and rational — stands that genre convention on its head. He leads by example, getting the most out of his detectives by providing a model of hard work and diligence. As an example of how far Olmos was prepared to go to preserve the integrity of the character, he ignored producers' pleas for Castillo to appear in the series' action scenes. "They wanted me to be in the shoot-'em-up bang-bangs," Olmos relates. "But I'd say, 'Castillo wouldn't be hero. [He'd] be back in the office.' It shocked them."[18] By inverting a standard genre character, Olmos replaced a tired narrative type with an ethnic character of daunting inner strength.

b) Point of View

Show the dominant culture through Other eyes. In ZOOT SUIT, BREAK OF DAWN and THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ we see the U.S. justice system from the Chicano perspective. But there is more that can be done. For example, ALAMBRISTA, EL NORTE and BORN IN EAST L.A. capture a working class/underclass reality few Americans ever see, either in lived experience or in the movies. STAND AND DELIVER gives audiences a different slant on academic "norms," and AMERICAN ME provides one of the most graphic depictions of prison life ever filmed.

Capture the mundane. As feminist criticism and film practice has demonstrated, the everyday is a rich vein of material. There is cultural poetry in the quotidian, as Chantal Akerman has shown in the lives of her women characters, Yasujiro Ozu revealed in his essaying of the Japanese family, Paul Strand, Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel depicted in the daily lives of the Mexican fishermen in REDES / 1934), and Chicana filmmakers Sylvia Morales (CHICANA / 1979) and Lourdes Portillo (DESPUES DEL TERREMOTO / 1979) demonstrated in portraying their Latina subjects.

What Chantel Akerman says about women's gestures is just as true about Latinos — they are traditionally the lowest in the hierarchy of film images, and if we choose to show them with care and precision, it's because we love them and recognize that they have been denied and ignored.[19] Operating within the mundane, we affirm cultural moments that outsiders are ignorant of or dismiss out of hand. By treasuring rather than discarding these cultural "scraps," we reveal ourselves in rich and potentially non-stereotypical ways.

Because such moments are rare in Hollywood films, mainstream audiences aren't used to them and probably won't sit still for the kind of feature length studies of the everyday that Ozu and Akermann have made. But the prudent use of this technique could efficiently fill in character background or give a scene a deeper cultural dimension. In Wayne Wang's CHAN IS MISSING (1982), for example, leisurely conversations around kitchen tables contribute little to solving the central mystery, but add immeasurably to the film's thick cultural texture.

c) Locale and Setting

Set the action in a culturally distinctive and culturally specific location. One excellent way to promote our culture is to present some place or occasion that is seldom seen in mainstream cinema, or that Hollywood always gets wrong. Hollywood keeps delivering the "mean streets" of the barrio, but how often has a studio film taken us to a church hall dance or a quinceañera, or into a family kitchen to see how buñuelos are made? Here CHULAS FRONTERAS (1976, d. Les Blank) and Chicana films like AGUEDA MARTINEZ (d. Esperanza Vásquez, 1977) serve as exemplary models.

Reverse Hollywood's cultural insensitivity. Latin America need not always be portrayed as dirty and squalid. It can be clean — as most of it truly is — and exhibit its own charm and a human-centered sense of order, as in the opening sequences of ALAMBRISTA (which in turn makes the U.S. appear more ugly by comparison). It can be magically real, a place where the mythic exists on a daily basis, as in the beginning sequences of EL NORTE. Similarly, the border is more than a filthy haven for unsavory misfits. The most grotesque recent example is the El Paso seen in David Lynch's WILD AT HEART (1989), which reduced the border to a multicultural freak show. It can just as easily be depicted as a dynamic region inhabited by a creative and energetic people, a site where different cultures meet and mix, as in Jesús Salvador Treviño's RAICES DE SANGRE (1976), a film that gave its border inhabitants their humanistic due and provided them with political agency.

d) Time

Present a distinctive, Latino, sense of time. Our time sense is not inferior to the linear dominant, with its compulsive insistence on scheduling and punctuality — just different. Good examples of the depiction of Latino time exist in Chicana films such as AGUEDA MARTINEZ where Latinas are allowed their own life rhythms. They move at a pace that seems neither fast nor slow, but is perfectly suited to their lifestyles and endows them with a sense of dignity and self-worth.

Reclaim history and repopulate the past. As Frantz Fanon has said, "Use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope."[20] Basing movies on our history has been the most popular approach, as THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ, BREAK OF DAWN, STAND AND DELIVER, ZOOT SUIT and LA BAMBA demonstrate. But I'm suggesting a historical reclamation project that goes beyond the recounting of individual histories and entails a thorough recreation of the past.

To take just one example, the west probably looked closer to the way it was portrayed in THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ, with Mexicans, Tejanos and Anglos of various classes walking the same streets, than in almost any traditional western where Anglos fill frame after frame. More accurate demographics automatically revises Hollywood's standard history of the world. Accordingly, Martin Scorsese's dark-skinned Israel in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST places Jesus within a wholly different cultural context, and the Black Egypt in Michael Jackson's video, "Remember the Time," is a miniature, Afrocentric revision of DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.

e) Dialogue

Language divulges character and the relationship between character and culture. "Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity," Gloria Anzaldúa has written. "I am my language."[21] Most Hollywood films not only deny this part of a Latino's identity, they adulterate it as well. In American culture and Hollywood films, the command of standard English establishes a person as well-educated, intelligent and credible. The use of "Hollywood Spanish" — broken English spoken with a heavy accent — marks a character as stupid. To counter this, have characters use their native tongue — in our case Spanish or caló — to link them to their cultural experience and to reveal important clues to their identity. The GODFATHER films are excellent illustrations of this, particularly the scenes of young Vito in Part II, which are played entirely in Italian. In the script, write the dialogue in English but indicate that it is to be spoken in Spanish or caló and subtitled.

Language positions viewers. Typically, English-speaking audience members are privileged and non-English speakers marginalized by English dialogue. When characters speak another language, the tables are turned on English speakers, giving them a taste of what it feels like to be marginalized, on the fringes of discourse. This is especially true of the untranslated sequences of ZOOT SUIT, but it occurs even if subtitles are used, as in some passages in AMERICAN ME, because it shifts the film's address toward the ethnic group. Repositioning dominant viewers and placing them — even momentarily — at the margins forces them into a location from which they might begin to see the world differently. Moreover, when characters speak in their native tongue it makes the action more naturalistic and the relationships more intimate.

Language reveals cultural ties between characters. A beautiful scene in ONE-EYED JACKS between a Mexican mother (Katy Jurado) and her daughter (Pina Pellicer) takes place the morning after the daughter has spent the night with Brando's cowboy. Dramatically breaking with standard Hollywood practice, director Brando plays the delicate scene entirely in Spanish and without subtitles, and it is as remarkable for that as for its melodramatic restraint. Since the content of the scene is clear, even to non-Spanish speakers, the fact that it is played in Spanish adds an element of naturalism and closeness to what might have otherwise been a stale and hackneyed generation-gap confrontation scene.


A legitimate fear for screenwriters who alter the tried-and-true formula is that no one in Hollywood will want to produce their script Respond to the charge that you are violating a sacred formula, that this is not the way "we make movies," with something Hollywood can understand: product differentiation, novelty as a time-honored marketing ploy. You bring something to Hollywood movies that nobody else can — promote this as an asset, not a liability. To support your point that difference is marketable, cite as many popular mainstream successes as best suits your bargaining situation: LA BAMBA, DO THE RIGHT THING, BOYZ N THE HOOD, Northern Exposure, The Cosby Show.

Finally, write about things that matter to you. Seek the form that most effectively realizes your vision, regardless of whether or not it adheres to a formula. As Anna Hamilton Phelan, the writer of MASK (1985, d. Peter Bogdanovich) and GORILLAS IN THE MIST (1988, d. Michael Apted) says,

"You just have to write from the heart, though many people and your friends and your family will tell you it's not commercial, but you just have to go ahead and write it if you want to write it. It has to come from your heart, because if you write it from your head or from your wallet…forget it."[22]

We need to make movies from our cultural hearts, using our cinematic eyes and keeping our ideological heads. When we do, we will fill the screen with stories, sights and sounds never seen or heard before in mainstream cinema. But if we turn our backs on our culture, we reject our identity. And if that cultural identity doesn't speak through our stories and our characters — even those that are not obviously "ethnic" — we are no more than vendidos. Then we will have lost everything-our roots, our souls, our way, and our most important screenwriting tool, our insight into the human condition.


1. "SEGUIN: The Same Side of the Alamo," in Gary Keller, ed., Chicano Cinema: Research. Reviews, and Resources (Binghamton, New York: Bilingual Review/Press, 1985), p. 151.

2. See Cine-Aztlán's "Ya Basta Con Yankee Imperialist Documentaries!" (1974) in Chon A. Noriega, ed. Chicanos and Film: Essays on Chicano Representation and Resistance (New York: Garland publishing. 1992), pp. 307315; and Francisco X. Campos' "Toward the Development of a Raza Cinema (1975)," in the same anthology, pp. 317-336.

3. "Between a Weapon and a Formula," in Noriega, ed., p. 163.

4. "Inner City Blues," in Jim Pines and Paul Willemen, eds., Questions of Third Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 1989). p. 223.

5. Among the many screen writing texts, see for example, Alan A. Armer, Writing the Screenplay (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, Inc., 1988); Irwin R. Blacker, The Elements of Screenwriting (New York: Collier Books, 1986); Ben Brady and Lanc, The Understructure of Writing for Film & Television (Austin. Texas: The Univerisity of Texas Press, 1988); Stewart Bronfeld, Writing for Film and Television (New York: Touchstone, 1981); Edward Dmytryk, On Screen Writing (Boston: Focal Press, 1985); Syd Field, The Screenwriter's Workbook (New York: Dell, 1984) and Selling a Screenplay: The Screenwriter's Guide to Hollywood (New Yorlc Dell, 1989); Michael Hauge, Writing Screenplays That Sell (New York: Harper, 1991); Viki King, How to Write a Movie in 21 Days (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); Robert Kosberg, How to Sell Your Idea to Hollywood (New York: Harper Collins, 1991); Wells Root, Writing the Script (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1979); Linda Seger, Making a Good Script Great (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1987) and Creating Unforgettable Characters (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1987); J. Michael Snczynski, The Complete Book of Script Writing (Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Rooks, 1982); Dwight V. Swain and Joye R. Swain, Film Scriptwriting: A Practical Manual, Second Ed., (Boston: Focal Press, 1988); Eugene Vale, The Technique of Screen and Television Writing (New York: Touchstone Books, 1982); Richard Walter, Screenwriting (New York: Plume, 1988); Cynthia Whitcomb, Selling Your Screenplay (New York: Crown Publishers, 1988); Jurgen Wolff and Kerry Cox, Successful Script Writing (Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1988).

In addition there are a number of related works that bear on screenwriting. They include interviews of screenwriters, such as John Brady, The Craft of the Screenwriter (New York: Touchstone Books, 1981); William Froug, The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972) and its sequel, The New Screenwriter Looks at the New Screenwriter (Los Angeles: Silrnan-James Press, 1991).

There are industry anthologies as well. In Roy Paul Madsen, Working Cinema: Learning from the Masters (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1990), see "The Screenwriter," co-written with Norman Corwin (pp. 30-57); in Jason E. Squire, ed., The Movie Business Book (New York: Touchstone Books, 1983), see "The Writer-Director" by Joan Micklin Silver (pp. 38-43) and "The Screenwriter" by William Goldman (pp. 51-61). In addition, there is William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade (New York: Warner Books, 1983) and John Sayles' Thinking in Pictures (Boston: Houghton Muffin Company. 1987).

Finally, Spike Lee's film journals that accompany his scripts are some of the few practical discussions of resisting the Hollywood paradigm by a person of color. See Lee, Spike Lee's GOTTA HAVE IT: Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking (New York: Fireside, 1987); Spike Lee with Lisa Jones, Uplift the Race: the Construction of SCHOOL DAZE (New York: Fireside, 1988), DO THE RIGHT THING (New York: Fireside, 1989), MO' BETTER BLUES (New York: Fireside, 1990).

6. See, for example, the Journal of Film and Video edition on screenwriting, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Summer 1984), which included articles such as "The Hollywood Market Place," "How to Pitch Ideas," and "The Matter of Screenplay Structure."

 7. See especially the list of cinematic imperatives he lists on pp. 327 and 328.

8. (1978), in Patricia Erens, ed., Issues in Feminist Film Criticism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990). pp. 9-12.

9. See, for example, B. Ruby Rich, "In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism," in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods, Vol. II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 340-358; Annette Kuhn, "Textual Politics," in Erens, pp. 250-267; Robert Stam and Louise Spence, "Colonialism, Racism, and Representation: An Introduction," in the Nichols anthology, pp. 632-649; and Robin Wood, "Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic," in the same collection, pp. 649-660.

In addition, a number of essays in Jim Pines and Paul Willemen's Questions of Third Cinema are extremely valuable. Besides Charles Burnett's piece already cited, see Teshome Gabriel's two articles, "Towards a Critical Theory of Third World Films," pp. 30-52, and "Third Cinema as Guardian of Popular Memory: Towards a Third Aesthetics," pp. 53-64; also Trinh T. Minh-ha's "Outside In Inside Out," Woman, Native, Other (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

10. David Bordwell, "Story Causality and Motivation," in Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristen Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp. 16-17.

11. In Chon A. Noriega, ed., Chicanos and Film, pp. 245-268.

12. Cherrie Moraga, "The Welder," in Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldüa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983), pp. 219-220.

13. Wood, "Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic," p. 654.

14. Spike Lee with Lisa Jones, DO THE RIGHT THING, p .45.

15. In Froug, The New Screenwriter, pp. 266-267.

16. See Dyer, Richard. "Stereotyping." In Richard Dyer (ed.), Gays and Film, pp. 27-39. New York: Zoetrope, 1984; and "Rejecting Straight Ideals: Gays in Film," in Peter Steven, (Ed.), Jump Cut: Hollywood, Politics, and Counter Cinema. (New York: Praeger, 1985), pp. 286-295.

17. "Inner City Blues," p. 224.

18. Quoted in Bettelou Peterson, "On Vice Olmos stayed off screen," Austin American Statesman, Show World section, May 24, 1992, p. 37.

19. Sec Akerman's original quote on the making of JEANNE DIELMAN in Teresa de Lauretis, "Rethinking Women's Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Theory," in Erens, pp. 292-293.

20. The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 232.

21. Borderlands, La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987). p. 59.

22. In Froug, The New Screenwriter, p. 31.