American Me tells the story of Montoya Santana (Edward James Olmos). Conceived during the Zoot Suit Riots of the 1940s, Santana is first arrested when he’s just 14 years old. It’s only a breaking-and-entering charge but, on his first night in juvenile hall, Santana is raped by another inmate. When Santana retaliates by murdering his rapist, his fate is set. As soon as he’s 18, he’s transferred to Folsom Prison but, by that time, he and his friend J.D. (William Forsythe) have already formed what will become La Eme, the Mexican Mafia. Running things from their cells, Santana and J.D. not only control the prison’s drug trade but they also keep an eye on who, from their old neighborhood, is going to be joining them behind bars. Santana establishes early on that the punishment for any sign of weakness or disloyalty is death.
When Santana is finally released from prison, he finds that the world has changed since he was first incarcerated. La Eme has become powerful both inside and outside of prison and nearly everyone in Santana’s old neighborhood looks up to him. But Santana, himself, is lost. In prison, Santana was feared and respected but, on the outside, he’s a 34 year-old man who has never had a job or a relationship. He’s never even learned how to drive.
After meeting and falling in love with Julie (Evelina Fernandez) and seeing firsthand the damage that the drug trade is doing to his community, Santana starts to have second thoughts about La Eme. But, according to the rules that he previously established, trying to leave La Eme is punishable by death.
American Me is a classic gangster film and I’m always surprised that it doesn’t have a bigger following than it does. Along with starring in the film, Olmos made his directorial debut with American Me and he provides an unflinchingly brutal look at the drug trade and the violence that goes along with it. Olmos was allowed to film inside Folsom Prison and even used actual prisoners are extras, bringing a touch of neorealist verisimilitude to the prison scenes. Early on, there’s a sequence that follows a baggie of heroin from one orifice to another until it finally reaches it destination in the prison. It leaves you with no doubt that if people are willing to go through that much trouble to get drugs, it’s going to take something more than just zero tolerance laws to dissuade them.
Once Santana is released, Olmos does a good job, as both an actor and director, of showing just how lost he is. In prison, Santana was in charge and feared but, when dealing with people in the real world, he’s just as awkward as he was when he was a teenager on his way to juvenile hall. Olmos gives a tightly-wound, subtle performance as a man who is as much a prisoner of his outlook as he is of the state of California.
The men who served as the real-life inspiration for Olmos’s film were reportedly outraged by American Me. They weren’t upset by the film’s portrayal of the drug trade or their callous disregard for the members of their community. Instead, the film’s crime was suggesting that their organization was founded by someone who had been previously raped in prison. (That Santana subsequently killed his rapist made no difference.) Three people associated with the Mexican Mafia, all of whom has served as consultants to American Me, were subsequently murdered in the days immediately following the release of the film.
As for Edward James Olmos, he has remained busy as an actor. One generation got know him on Miami Vice and then the next came to know him from Battlestar Galactica. He’s subsequently directed four other films. For me, his strongest work, as both an actor and a director, remains American Me.