When I first saw Zoot Suit, it knocked me out. I liked what I thought was the way the movie segued from a theater--in which it is being performed as the stage musical that it was before author-director Luis Valdez had it adapted, by Valdez's brother Daniel, who plays the lead character, Henry Reyna, for the screen--and movie sets. Now that I plainly see that the film is played entirely within a theater, "exterior" scenes and all, my admiration knows no bounds. As a "serious" musical, ZS's only rival must be Show Boat. Like SB, its topical theme is white racism; unlike SB, ZS is based on real events in 1942 the justice-system overreaction to which spurred the so called Zoot Suit riots in 1943 inn Los Angeles. Using none of the real names of persons involved in the Sleep Lagoon murder and subsequent kangaroo trial, ZS stresses those incidents' psychological issues through the mephistofilian character El Pachuco, who discourages Henry Reyna's optimism and bolsters his defeatist cynicism as Henry's devil-figure; Henry does overcome El Pachuco on that score, though the movie's coda establishes that the zoot suit and the Chicano self-assertion and spirit it positively embodies remain alive and thriving among young people like Henry. That El Pachuco indeed does embody good as well as bad is further proved by the alternative scenarios for Henry's life after his ordeal that El Pachuco lays out. Luis Valdez as director is remarkably resourceful at turning a stage performance into a fluid motion picture as he draws on the pre-WWII Hollywood manner of visually opening up the play, cutting liberally during the ensemble dancing scenes that constitute all of ZS's musical element and further realizing the performances of the actors, most of whom come from the first Los Angeles and Broadway casts. The songs by father of Chicano music Lalo Guerrero and, again, Daniel Valdez, abound with the energies and the intentness of youth. --Ray Olson
This film is mainly famous for the superb, angry performance of Edward James Olomos as "El Pachuco." He was truly magnificent in his role. Angry, defiant, and totally opposed to White oppression.
Still, the movie was biased to make it appear as the Pachuco zoot suiters were just victims of unjustified White racial bias. That is a lie. If you study WWII in LA and NYC, the situations were far more complex than presented by this simplistic movie. Pachucos hated Anglo oppression, and many Pachucos especially hated being drafted to die in an Anglo War that had nothing to do with them, their families, their friends, or their culture. So, they dodged the WWII draft by engaging in outrageous behavior that would result in minor felony convictions that would make them "unfit for military service". Anglos who supported their GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR viciously attacked them for their open defiance, and arrested them as attackers and not just victims. Vicious Fascist nationalism ran deep win White USA during WWII. Actually, Vicious Fascist White Nationalism runs rampant during mr tRUMP's vile Fascist occupation of the USA. Destroy the monster.
Personally, I identify with the Pachuco defiance of draft. While at university, I was a Closet Draft Dodger. In grad school with no student deferment, I dodged the draft at great personal expense by faking a medical disability for two long years.
BUT, unlike the Pacuhcos, I kept a very low profile knowing that it would protect me from the "worst militaristic impulses" of my Fascist Draft board. The poor Pachucos had to get arrested and convicted of minor felonies. All I had to do was to hide my hatred, look "conservative", and be "underweight for the draft" --- e.g, starve myself for two long years.
Regarded as (one of) the best Chicano films ever, Zoot Suit is a historical counter-statement against wartime racism, an allegory of Chicano cultural resistance, and a powerful artistic statement. It's inimitable rendering also captures the evolution and transformation of the magical Chicano teatro movement of the 60's-70's into cinema. Rhetorically, the film captures the underground Chicano language of the pachuco, de aquellas, mas firme que wow, y a toda madre buti suave. Transformed my outlook on Chicano artistic capacities and potentials when I saw this as a teenager.
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