Call for Book Reviewers and Bloggers

Film
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA



From the perspective of another culture


NOTE: This interview took place 18 January 2002, as the film was opening theatrically. Piñero is available on DVD, 16 July 2002. The DVD includes a documentary, A Look at Miguel Piñero The Man.


Benjamin Bratt sits in a Four Seasons Hotel room. He looks comfortable, if a little tired too, while sinking into one of those fancy-fabricked, overstuffed sofas. But as soon as he starts talking, he leans forward, displaying his passion for Piñero, Leon Ichaso’s stunning biography of poet-playwright-junkie-thief and cofounder of the Nuyorican Poets Café, Miguel Piñero. Piñero brings an edgy, provocative aesthetics and subtle politics not often achieved in narrative films, sketching a mind in constant motion, propelled equally by fear, self-awareness, rage, and passion.


Bratt himself was born and raised in San Francisco by a single mother, a nurse and a Peruvian Quechua Indian who became a Native American activist once she moved to the States. In other words, he comes with his own self-awareness and sense of politics, as well as a profound devotion to his family. Rightfully proud of Piñero, Bratt is eager to talk about Piñero’s importance as an artist and public figure, as well as the various communities the film addresses and represents. The 39-year-old actor (probably best known previously for his work on Law Order, as well as Traffic and 1993’s Blood In, Blood Out), he has regained the 20 pounds he lost to play “Mikey” Piñero. He’s energetic, gracious, and most enthusiastic about working with Cuban born writer-director Ichaso.




PopMatters:



The film obviously reaches various audiences. Did you have any concerns about poets who know Piñero’s work, or even more specifically, Nuyorican poets, who have a vested interest in this representation?




Benjamin Bratt:



They’re the toughest crowd. We had maybe 25 or 30 of the new Nuyorican poets, the followers of Miguel Algarin, who is the surviving best friend of Piñero. They were at the premiere, and you could feel the bracing before the film got underway. They were shouting and talking to the screen before things got rolling, during the introduction. And then things began to settle, you could feel they were falling into the rhythm of the film. And by the end, they were whooping and hollering. Especially after the scene on the rooftop—“Seeking the clouds”—they were enthusiastic.




PM:



I bet that made you feel great.




BB:



It was a proud moment for me, but more importantly, it was for them as well, because it’s reflective of their experience.




PM:



What kind of research did you do?




BB:



I had enough familiarity with Piñero’s work, to know when I read the screenplay, that the job that Leon Ichaso did, in matching his words with those of Piñero was done in a seamless way, and in a way that completely reflected the power and beauty of Piñero’s poetry in particular, I was so knocked out by it that I read it twice in one sitting, as I wasn’t entirely sure what I had just read. Because the way it was written is reflected in the final film, in an abstracted form, almost like a collage. And to date, even though it’s a completed film, Leon Ichaso says that he’s not quite sure what it is. It feels like a poem itself, or like song, or an abstract painting, in that it jumps from black and white to color, time frame to time frame, without any seeming explanation. But that was purposeful, both in the writing and in the rendering in the film, in hopes of conveying the kineticism and chaos that existed in Mikey’s life. And a sense of confusion too. It’s a challenging film, to say the least, told in a nonlinear form. What we’re finding though, is that even with that challenge, and a feeling of being lost at times within the storytelling, people are emerging from theaters with a sense of who Miguel Piñero really was, and that’s the best we can ask for. And they’re inspired to find out more about him, to read his work [Arte Público publishes Piñero’s poems, Bratt recommends La Bodega Sold Dreams; see http://www.arte.uh.edu/].




PM:



I imagine reading the script was exciting: how did you process it as an actor, putting together a coherent performance?




BB:



Recognizing that it was a huge responsibility, not only in terms of being true to his memory and the essence of who that man was in all of his complications, I realized from jump street that I was going to have to be answerable to Miguel Algarin and Miguel Piñero’s family. But after I began to research his work, I relaxed a little it, because it’s all right there in the text. And it’s funny because as an acting student, especially when we read Shakespeare, the teachers would always say, “The answers are in the text.” And that held true for Miguel Piñero. In his poems, though he certainly understood the classical structure of poetry, he infused his own ideas and influences and created something new, that reflected his personal experience, the sense of marginalization, displacement, and the great social taboos that we as a society tend not to want to look at—prostitution, petty crime, incarceration, incest, and childhood neglect. And he was a remarkable artist in that I got the impression that he didn’t self-edit. His work is raw and gritty and powerful in its fearlessness.


So, that was the first place to get information about him. Added to that was filling in fine details was hearing stories from his best friends and family members. Miguel Algarin was an incredible resource of inspiration and insight. He advised me from the beginning to not do Mikey a disservice by portraying him as a one-dimensional conman and street hustler. He was that, but he was many other things as well. One day we were talking about him, and out of his mouth rolled this sentence: “You have to understand that Mikey was an elegant intellectual in the vestments of a street mime.” I thought, “Oh man, this is beautiful, this is the level at which these two men communicated and what they felt for one another.” He made me aware that Mikey was an intellectual of sorts, and well read, and could talk about philosophy and poetry, as well as the latest drug of choice.




PM:



Just looking at the film, it looks like a hugely collaborative effort. How was it on the set?




BB:



Well, there can’t be enough said about the guidance and leadership of Leon Ichaso. Inherent in a successful unfolding of this particular story there had to be a bond of trust between us, and I relied on him a great deal. He has tremendous insight into human nature in general, and in particular into the mindset of someone like Mikey. And he’s an amazing storyteller, incredibly impassioned. It was the way he conducted himself daily that really got the entire crew and cast fired up. He’s a remarkable man, a true artist. So, it was one of those rare filmmaking experiences where money really wasn’t a consideration, in terms of gaining it for yourself. It was certainly a consideration in that it was an obstacle—not having it. But even that kind of helped infuse a collective spirit of excitement about the material itself, rather than outside elements. It was something that impassioned all of us.




PM:



How did you think about portraying a character viewers might find hard to “like”?




BB:



I think it’s dangerous for any actor to approach a character with the idea that he or she is unsympathetic. I think you’re required to find something you can identify with in the character. And I was very careful not to judge any part of Miguel’s behavior or his history. Certainly he was capable of doing things I couldn’t imagine doing, but my job was to portray him as accurately as possible, and recognize the human elements in him. He was deeply troubled, and a lot of his behavior came from this sense of feeling marginalized and displaced from a very early age. As a 7-year-old boy, he didn’t ask to be sexually molested, he didn’t ask to be torn away from his country, he didn’t ask to be brought up in the tough streets of New York in abject poverty. And yet, he was. And in spite of those things, maybe even because of them, he made something of himself. Those experiences became his nearest and dearest ways of identifying himself, and wrote about them in a way that made a traditionally artistic form new. That’s what shot him to fame. When he workshopped Short Eyes [his play about an alleged child rapist punished by fellow inmates in the “Tombs”] in prison, he had no notion that it was going to do what it did. He just wrote what he knew, and when it landed at the Public Theater and was an overnight success, that was because it was so real, in a way that theater and film often times can’t touch. His particular personal tragedy is that, in the face of this success, financial and critical, he refused to get away from those influences. The things that influenced his work were eventually what did him in.




PM:



But the mainstream world that embraced him so suddenly was still damning his experience, his race, his background. So it makes a kind of moral sense that he wouldn’t turn around instantly and celebrate being “in.”




BB:



You’re absolutely right. And I think there is a kind of fatalism in the culture in general. When, from an early age, you’re made to feel “less than” based on the color of your skin or the language that you’re speaking, you grow up with a sense that, even though you’re part of “American society,” you’re always just outside the establishment, defined from a Eurocentric point of view. And sometimes those influences are subtle or not so subtle, and racism can inform your worldview and the way you live your life.




PM:



I was just reading a piece on the Sundance Festival [2002], discussing the “new Latino film boom.” And the writer, Franc Reyes, director of the film Empire, was posing that question: what do you do once you get “inside”? How does this change your sense of identification or audience?




BB:



Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? What I find deplorable is that you find someone bordering on genius—and I’m not talking about Piñero, but Leon Ichaso—and with all the hubbub about the performance, he’s looking for his next gig. I find that so disturbing. I think there is a kind of bias that exists, that unless you’re telling a story that’s extremely mainstream and has a white lead in it, you’re not going to have anyone knocking down your door to make films with you. It’s sad.




PM:



It is, and it’s also selling everyone short, that the category for a film has to be so narrow—so if you’re a black director or a woman director, do you have to define yourself as a “type” of filmmaker, as making “black” films or “women’s” films? What if you’re Miguel Arteta, making Chuck & Buck or The Good Girl, with Jennifer Anniston and Jake Gyllenhaal?




BB:



This is something Leon and I are both concerned about, and want to change. You’re not going to get anywhere, waiting around for someone to greenlight your project if in fact your project is told from the perspective of another culture. If you’re telling a story that has a Latino theme, a Native American theme, or an African American theme, it’s got to be “attractive” to the white perspective. That’s really the wrong way of thinking. The fact is that we’re all human beings; and no matter what our respective histories and cultural differences are, we all have stories that have universal themes in them. And that waiting game will never amount in a win for you, and you need to take charge for yourself, and gain access to platforms to tell your own stories.


So, thank god for the advent of digital technology, the whole process is made more available and much cheaper, so that young people who have stories to tell can do so, and hopefully, having done a good job, with the possibility of gaining access to the marketplace, to distribute. That’s really the problem that people of color are up against: they’re working within a system that still doesn’t acknowledge them as equal. It’s troubling, but I think that will change. And unfortunately, at this point, the only thing that will encourage that change is to “prove” that it’s commercially viable.




PM:



On some level, your work on Law & Order has made you a familiar face for mainstream viewers, and that’s partly why the media are all over your performance in the film, rather than talking to Leon. But isn’t the eventual hope to change that system, not to replicate it?




BB:



Yeah, on some level, there’s a validity to infiltrating the system, in order to then set about making change within it. Maybe that’s what’s happening here. Film is an incredibly powerful tool in informing people globally. And when you start getting into stories of particular cultures, it would be nice if those stories came from an authentic place.




PM:



Speaking of infiltrating, how weird is it to do something like the Sandy Bullock movie [Miss Congeniality] and then something like this?




BB:



[laughs] It’s wonderful, to be honest. It’s wonderful to work in different genres, and be free to be as silly or as tough or as earnest as you can be. For me, my primary goal since I was in school was to stay employed.




PM:



You knew early on that you wanted to act?




BB:



I discovered that that’s where I was going to apply myself in college [he attended the University of California at Santa Barbara and then, the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco]. I realize that I’m in a place now where I can take pause and wait for better scripts to come along. I don’t have to take a job just to keep food on the table anymore; those days are gone, thankfully. As long as I feel like the work can be good and it’s a challenge, I’ll take it, I’m fearless that way.




PM:



I’m wondering about the political choices in the film, as in the representations of Piñero’s AIDS and sexuality?




BB:



The sexual identity politics that exist within a prison system are really complex. While it’s accurate to say that Mikey was a practicing bisexual, if you called him “gay,” he’d probably shoot you because he didn’t identify himself that way ex was just sex. And I think the same was true for the way he made himself feel better, the way he medicated himself, whether it was with cocaine or heroin or alcohol. He was a sensualist, and he lived life on his own terms, whatever in the moment was going to make him feel better, that was what he reached for.




PM:



And the Nuyorican identity?




BB:



I don’t know the specifics of the differences of opinion that exist between Island Puerto Ricans and Puerto Ricans who have emigrated to the United States. I do know there is some tension, and it’s demonstrated in the film, and I find that to be a heartbreaking scene: Miguel Piñero, after attaining success in America, returns to his homeland, hoping to be embraced by the island literati, and is soundly rejected by them. I think it threw him into a tailspin that even he didn’t expect. And it further underscored that sense of displacement that he felt from a very early age.


“Nuyorican,” that moniker, is political in nature. It speaks to a political awareness, and in particular, an awareness of where your place is and what your intent is. It’s very much like the label of “Chicano” in California. Miguel Piñero considered himself a militant, but a nonviolent one, and recognized that, historically the power of words, and in particular, in art, was enough, at times and over time, to change paradigms, and change the way people thought about themselves. I think as he got further into his addiction, though, he began to lose sight of the idealism that exists in trying to bring about social change. After a while, it’s just about getting up and seeking out the next high. And he was the conmen of conmen, working the tv shows [guest spots on Miami Vice and Kojak, for examples], it was a paycheck. Even I, as principled as I try to live my life: this is the greatest racket in the world. If you’re lucky enough to work in this business, you’re ahead of the game, because you’re getting paid to do something you love to do, and handsomely, usually.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


Comments
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
Win a 15-CD Pack of Brazilian Music CDs from Six Degrees Records! in PopMatters Contests on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.