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100 Greatest Gangster Films: American Me, #72

Edward James Olmos in American Me

100 Greatest Gangster Films

100 Greatest Gangster Films: American Me, #72

But the gang becomes even more powerful behind bars, controlling the drug trade out on the streets. “There was nothing the system could do to stop me,” Santana reflects in the movie. “I could run the show from solitary.”

Movie Still: American Me

Edward James Olmos plays Montoya Santana who is able to lead his Los Angeles gang from inside prison. (1992-R)
© Universal Pictures

The truly frightening aspect of Edward James Olmos’ American Me is not watching the film—although that has its moments. It’s learning what happened away from the cameras during and after the production of this movie about the Mexican Mafia in Los Angeles.

Olmos tried to forge a truce among rival gangs, in part by casting real gang members to act in the movie. But as American Me was being filmed, one of those young men was shot to death away from the set. Olmos started receiving death threats and applied for a license to carry a concealed weapon.

Things got worse when American Me came out in 1992. Members of La Eme—the Mexican Mafia—were infuriated with Olmos’ final product. Some reports said the gang had cooperated because they expected a Hispanic version of The Godfather rather than American Me’s scathing portrayal of their way of life. There is no romance in Olmos’ vision of barrio warfare.

To watch the full movie of American Me.

Within two months of release, two of the film’s consultants were executed. One was 49-year-old Ana Lizarraga, a reformed gang member who also had a small role in the film. She was murdered in a drive-by shooting while standing in her driveway.

The movie’s biggest offense to La Eme (Spanish for the letter “M”) was apparently it’s blurring of fact and fiction. The opening of American Me says its “events are inspired by a true story.” Like most filmmakers, Olmos takes liberties with the truth.

Based on the life of La Eme founder Rodolfo (Cheyenne) Cadena, the film’s lead character is shown being sodomized on his first night in juvenile jail. Later in the film, he is impotent with a woman and eventually gets murdered by his own clan. Those episodes, true or not, insulted the gang’s sense of honor and machismo.

“It may be just a movie, but not to the Mexican Mafia’s way of thinking,” California Prisons Lt. Leo Duarte told the Los Angeles Times. “This is their world, their environment. If they think you did something disrespectful, even if they’re wrong, there’s going to be repercussions.”

For several years, Olmos, who directed, co-produced, and starred in American Me, believed there was a contract on his life. Even years later, he declined to talk about events surrounding the film.

The shame is that he went into the project with the best intentions. “I want to show that there’s a cancer in this subculture of the gangs,” he told the Times before the film’s release. “They’ll say: ‘You’ve taken away our manhood with this movie.’ I say to them: ‘Either you treat the cancer or it’ll eat you alive.’ “

In this fictionalized portrayal, Cadena becomes Montoya Santana and La Eme becomes La Primera, a gang that controls drugs, gambling, extortion, and prostitution inside and outside of California’s prison system.

American Me traces Santana and his cohorts from their childhoods when they band together to survive the mean streets. A wrong turn in their teens lands them in juvenile jail, where Santana avenges that first-night rape by stabbing his attacker to death. That act keeps him incarcerated into his mid-30s.

But the gang becomes even more powerful behind bars, controlling the drug trade out on the streets. “There was nothing the system could do to stop me,” Santana reflects in the movie. “I could run the show from solitary.”

The scenes shot at Folsom Prison (again, using real gang members) are fearsome. The ones out on the streets are no gentler. One of the best points made in American Me is how gang violence gets handed down from generation to generation, becoming increasingly brutal along the way.

One of the final scenes shows the initiation of a new gang member—who can’t be older than 12. His teenaged companions get him high on an inhalant in a paper bag and then take him out for a drive.

They hand him a gun. Go ahead and fire, one gang member instructs him as they slowly cruise the main drag. With a slight trepidation, the youngster asks, “Who do I shoot?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he is told. The boy spots a group of people on the corner. With a look of expectation and intoxication, he aims and fires into the crowd.

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Olmos explained the scene: “In the 1980s, they were fighting over turf, over the right to sell drugs. But now it’s gotten into a new phenomenon, one that war veterans know very well—the adrenalin that rushes through the body, creating a high when you fire a weapon at somebody. It’s like a narcotic.”

HIT: Make sure you watch Lives in Hazard, the 58-minute documentary included with the film’s DVD. It explains how American Me was created around the stories of those trying to survive in the barrios of East Los Angeles. If American Me is harrowing, this looks at boys in gangs, and the men they become in prison is downright petrifying.

MISS: Much of the movie is Santana’s narration of his thoughts while sitting in a prison cell. Fine. Except that, for some reason, it’s mostly done in rhyme, which makes the character sound like an evil Dr. Seuss.

WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “As a prominent and well-respected Hispanic-American figure, Olmos is commended for not choosing the easy road. . . . He takes his community to task for its self-destructive legacies, for its internalization of failure. To underscore this, he himself plays a most unflattering character, a crime lord named Santana who goes into prison as a young boy and, because he does what he must to survive and maintain respect, becomes a gang kingpin.”—Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle

IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE Blood In, Blood Out, the 1993 story of two brothers and a cousin growing up in East Los Angeles. One becomes a prison gang leader, one becomes a cop and one becomes an artist and heroin addict.

VIOLENCE LEVEL: Those who cross the Mexican Mafia end up being shot in the genitals, torched with gasoline, stabbed with tattoo needles, strangled with a cord, and sodomized with a serrated dagger. So we’d say, the violence level is pretty high.

REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: See the above paragraph and decide for yourself.

PIVOTAL SCENES: When Santana gets out of prison after 18 years, he and his lieutenant, JD (William Forsythe), move to gain more control over the drug business by challenging the Italian mob. They visit Don Antonio Scagnelli, who’s shown tending his garden like Don Vito Corleone.

From now on, JD tells the powerful mob boss, “Your business in the barrio is going to be our business, too.” Santana not-so-gently reminds Scagnelli that the don’s son is in Folsom Prison, within reach of La Primera’s members.

“You listen to me,” snaps Scagnelli. “Anything happens to my son and you will regret the day you made that choice.”

In the next scene in prison, the Hispanic mobsters pal up to the younger Scagnelli, getting him drunk on homemade rotgut. Then they tie him down, rape him and stab him to death.

Cut to the don’s mansion, where you hear him (like Hollywood producer Jack Woltz in The Godfather) howl to the heavens after receiving the news. The bottom line is this: Santana and his crew fear taking on no one.

BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Most of the paid extras (as in non-prisoners) hired for the Folsom scenes quit after one day of shooting. Guards treated the extras exactly as they treated prisoners, making them ask permission to use the bathroom and keeping them penned in a gated area next to an open sewer.

“I KNOW THAT GUY”: The leader of the Aryan Nation band of hitmen is played by legendary Hollywood tough guy William Smith. You may recognize him as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s father in Conan the Barbarian or as Soviet Col. Strelnikov in Red Dawn.

BEST LINE: Santana, reflecting on ordering one of his favorite underlings murdered for turning down a job: “I was proud I didn’t let my feelings get in the way of what had to be done to Pie Face that day. Killing one of our own earned us new respect.”

BODY COUNT: Eighteen—the most memorable one being the guy who gets smothered in his own stash of cocaine.


Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time — a new entry every Thursday! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.

[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]

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George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the "Philadelphia Inquirer" and author of several books, including "Blood and Honor" which Jimmy Breslin called "the best gangster book ever written." Glen Macnow was a writer for the "Philadelphia Inquirer" and "Detroit Free Press." He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia. George and Glen have co-authored "The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies."

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