Zoot Suit ★★★½

In Los Angeles in the 1940s, the Sleepy Lagoon murder case and the subsequent wrongful imprisonment of a number of Hispanic Americans galvanized the emerging “Chicano” community resulting in an anarchic outcry known as the “zoot suit riots”. It was a seminal, almost defining event in Chicano life, and it is appropriate that Luis Valdez’ play and film based on the incident, Zoot Suit, be considered a vital demonstration of Hispanic-American empowerment through cultural celebration. The play itself was indeed the first play by a Chicano playwright to be produced on Broadway. That success and the generally positive reaction that greeted Valdez’ screen version of his own theatrical work cemented Valdez as perhaps the most important defining figure in a still emerging Chicano cultural movement in theatre and film. Valdez’ involvement in this sub- culture runs through its modern history, starting in the 1960s with his involvement in the much-celebrated El Teatro Campesino which toured not only the USA but Europe as well. Valdez’ body of theatrical works however has yet to receive what many consider their due attention. Indeed, he remains perhaps best known for two films, Zoot Suit and the Ritchie Valens biopic, La Bamba, which was a popular hit and proved another cultural rallying cry.

Zoot Suit is based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder case of 1942. It is set in a time when Chicano culture was beginning to find its own forms of expression, as symbolized in the rebellious fashion of the so-called zoot suit. A young Hispanic man (Daniel Valdez) and his gang are out celebrating when they are arrested for the murder of a man. Valdez, now in prison awaiting trial, remembers his youth and the events that led up to his arrest. Through it all, his alter ego / conscience / idealized self, personified in the form of Edward James Olmos (in the role that virtually launched his career) talks to him and maintains his sense of pride and ethno-cultural identity. A Jewish activist (Tyne Daly) and a lawyer (Charles Aidman) work diligently on the case, believing that in the long run, justice will prevail. Soon, Valdez starts to bond more with Daly and in the process set aside the stubborn Latin pride represented by Olmos. However when the case gets to trial, such aspirations are slowly eroded as it seems clear that the judge is prejudiced against the accused group and that they are intended to be scapegoats, to prove a higher cultural lesson. When the eventual guilty decision is handed down, the race riots begin, with the two activists believing that the case will be reversed on appeal.

The film of Zoot Suit recreates the stage play with additional cinematic tricks, although Valdez is always careful to maintain an air of stylized theatricality, and the film rarely moves from a stage feel. It is primarily about the origins of Chicano cultural identity and what seemed like an official attempt by the powers-that-be to repress it. Fear of cultural otherness thus runs through this movie. The zoot-suit itself is an integral statement, an expression of a new identity of Hispanic America, the Chicano (and embracing rather than flinching from the connotations of that abused term). Likewise, a Chicano culture is in formation – of social, moral and artistic codes – although suffering from the scourge of youth gangs, which are used as an excuse for the authorities to practice prejudicial treatment of the emerging minority subculture. Ironically during the war, much of the press considers this emergent minority to be an enemy threat from within (an aspect which Valdez mentions forcefully) and Valdez ably depicts an America intent on the repression of minority subcultures, for fear of ethnicity and multiculturalism (even though this may be at odds with the immigrant spirit that founded the nation). It is as though the strength of Chicano identity and cultural formation was resented and punished by American authority at this time in history. As socio-cultural statement thus, Zoot Suit is invaluable.

Yet there is more to the film than the desire for cultural identity as it explores this dilemma on a personal, private level in the Daniel Valdez character’s own sense of himself as Chicano. Indeed, much of the film’s success is in the delicate psychological balance between Valdez and Olmos. Olmos represents Valdez’s ideal Chicano self, the cynical, super cool, proud gangster. Yet he also represents the almost self-defeating aspect of Chicano machismo pride. As respected an outlook as he embodies, the time of such fiercely proud cultural identity is waning and Valdez is faced with a more realistic prospect – that of cultural integration, how to maintain cultural pride and identity within a greater cultural context. The idealized Chicano hood arguably thus represents an important first phase in the cultural development of a subculture and the key to Valdez’s growth as a character is his realization of the potential limits of the surrender to what seems a monstrous, although not entirely out of place, Chicano pride. Thus, he gradually must set aside Olmos in order to co-operate with Daly, whose activism represents a potential alternative future to the prejudice that only validates the pride and isolation that could doom these young men. Stubbornness is perhaps the curse of the young Chicano, and the quality of cultural defiance most resented by the unseen American majority whose interests are supposedly represented by the press and justice system. The film thus both celebrates the idealized Chicano persona at this time in history and infers the necessity to transcend it. Cultural validation seems to be the dominant agenda here, but it is not uncritical.