The Movie That Makes Magic With Pennies

Falling in love with a movie can happen now and then, but how often does a dazzling film like Follow Me Home come along? A film whose politics make the revolution seem possible after all, whose aesthetics are brilliantly unpredictable and whose acting is superb? A film that not only confronts the nightmare of today’s dehumanized, racist society but also suggests how we might build a different world—without denying all the obstacles including those inside ourselves?

Yet Follow Me Home, the first feature film of 34-year-old writer-director Peter Bratt, is today a film without a commercial distributor or advertising. A film that has made its way from theatres on the West to the East Coast thanks mostly to enthusiastic word-of-mouth. A film too often reviewed by white critics who label it "anti-white" or just don’t get it. A film that cost $300,000 to make (lunch money for a Hollywood flick), with a crew that worked for free. The experience of Follow Me Home is a classic example of Americana as known to most artists of color, an epic struggle that goes way back. The question remains: why?

The film’s basic story line presents four street artists—two Chicanos (Abel and Tudee), one African American (Kaz), and one Native American (Freddy)—who set out in a van from San Francisco for Washington, DC. They plan to paint a mural on the White House, to put on that symbolic structure "our colors and our images," "the faces of our ancestors."

Along the way, in Nebraska, the artists pick up an African American woman, Evey, whose car has just collided with that of a white man costumed as an Indian on his way to a local reenactment of U.S. history. He has died in the accident and the ancient tomahawk in his van full of native paraphenalia has vanished. This leads our group to be attacked by the white man’s friends, also on their way to the reenactment and costumed as Civil War soldiers.

Call it a "road movie" if you like, but remember that in Gringolandia there are roads and then there are roads. The artists’ long drive is a journey of discovery, exploring both external and internal truths about this nation and its people. Above all, it journeys to the deepest roots of U.S. nationhood—historical roots that include genocide, enslavement, and imperialist expansion southward. Roots that so many of us, especially Anglo-Americans, would deny. One detail speaks to the depth of the film’s discovery: those Civil War soldiers wear the uniform of the Union, not that of the Confederacy. They are not caricatures of southern racism; they speak to an illness afflicting the whole nation.

Nothing is simple about what happens and how it is depicted, or about the characters of color and the white men they meet on the road. Everything is both surreal and all-too-real. Follow Me Home alternates haunting black-and-white dream sequences with full-color ugliness and terror, but the line between reality and surreality can easily vanish. The racist white men in Civil War costumes firing their 19th century pistols sometimes seem like a joke on themselves—yet they can also kill people. The point of such duality is just that: we confront contradiction everywhere and must search hard for a sense of balance.

Not Just Good Guys and Bad Guys

This is a film about racism but it’s not about Good Guys (of color) vs. Bad Guys (white). It is a film about privilege and greed, but it’s not about Poor Guys (of color) vs. Rich Guys (white). Among the men of color we have the recovered alcoholic Freddy, seeking to renew an ancestral pride. We have Abel, the Chicano cholo whose sexism, repetitive profanity, and anti-social aggressiveness veil his internalized racism and self-destructiveness. He changes on the road, especially when Evey talks him into a silent nod of agreement with her strong declaration that "I am not a whore. I am not a bitch. I am a woman." Kaz, the African American Buddhist, remains the least developed character individually. Yet he emanates a personal knowledge of racism at its most vicious, creating an aura more powerful in its near-silence than any words might be.

Then there is Tudee, the group’s leader of sorts, whose art patron in dream sequences is an elderly white man dressed to combine Roman emperor and bewigged English colonialist. With his encouragement, Tudee plans to secretly collect for himself all the income from sales of paintings done by the group. In one stunning dream scene Tudee seems to fully recognize how much he has internalized the competitive value system of the white colonizer and lost the sense of inter-dependence embodied in indigenous cultures. So much for the supposed crime of idealizing victimhood.

As for the white men, it is one of the Civil War soldiers (Perry) who rejects his friends’ deadly racism with three words: "It’s not right." (The film has even made this Good Guy a good-looking white man.) When Tudee encounters his former girlfriend and her current Anglo boyfriend in a store on the road, the Anglo speaks a decently accented gringo-Spanish and behaves in relatively civilized fashion while Tudee launches insults. As for the short-order cook at the roadside restaurant, shotgun in hand as he demands proper behavior from the group, where did he ever surface before? Racist he surely is, but no redneck dummy.

So the locus of good and evil in individual people is not simplistic. Yet a certainty about the power of collective goodness reverberates, like the film’s haunting soundtrack. In its most unforgettable scene, the folk of color find themselves in the inescapable hands of racism, facing death. Responding to the evil around them, they begin to rhythmically chant what sounds like a child’s jump-rope song (but is actually "Rapper’s Delight"). The chanting rises insistently, persistently, filling all dimensions of space and sound. It is the collectivity of their voices together with the power of memory that make time stop.

In this moment of spiritual triumph we can see why the film begins with a quote from Chief Seattle, when he said that after the last Red man is gone the land would still be filled with their spirits…"the white man will never be alone."

Is this a promise (as heard by some people of color) or a threat (as heard by some whites) or simply a truth that we should all heed? Again, Follow Me Home is not some mechanical celebration of indigenous peoples and their values. "Our battle," as one character says, "is not just to remember something ancient but to create something new." For that endeavour Follow Me Home offers us a splendid strength. It does so without abandoning its basic humility, so luminously captured in the rhyme that Evey made up for her young daughter: "A lost penny isn’t tragic/Pick it up and it makes magic."

Meanwhile, Back in Hollywood

Follow Me Home premiered at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and showed at other festivals without finding a distributor to date. This has occurred despite the known names in its cast: playing Abel, Benjamin Bratt (brother of the director) is a regular on TV’s Law and Order as well as appearing in Demolition Man and Clear and Present Danger; Jesse Borrego as Tudee, with Mi Vida Loca and Lone Star among his credits; Calvin Levels, (<M>Point of No Return) as Kaz; Steve Reevis (Fargo, Dances With Wolves) as Freddy; and the celebrated Alfre Woodard as a compelling Evey. Yet all that talent could not change the minds of Hollywood distributors, who cater primarily to white males between ages 14 and 24, according to Dr. Jesse Rhines, a professor at Rutgers University and author of Black Film/White Money.

The problem, I think, goes deeper than the market, than making money. The San Francisco Chronicle denounced the film’s "mean-spirited, caricatured presentation of white middle-American characters." The New York Times said the movie "is peopled with white racist stereotypes who are fully as monstruous as Hollywood’s worst B-movie nightmares of black homeboy gangsters." Other critics rattle on about the film’s "stereotypes," "cliches," and "sophomoric, condescending tone." The Chronicle reviewer also tells us how the film is taken over at the end by "its paranoid fantasies" of racist white behavior.

Tell that to Rodney King, among others. Which is, of course, the heart of the matter. The producers, directors, funders, and critics of U.S. film, theater, and TV almost never come in colors. They usually have no knowledge of, or patience for, any culture but their own. At the same time, most of the critics are arrogantly quick to denounce any depiction by a person of another culture as "simplistic" or "stereotypical" (remember some of the comments on Gregory Nava’s film Mi Familia/My Family). They cannot wait to indulge their own stereotypes and at best they are patronizing, paternalistic. Should a person of color be so bold as to depict a less than perfect Anglo, get ready for accusations of "caricature," "political correctness," "glorified victimhood." Along with their straight-up racism, most critics are uncomfortable with anybody’s symbolism and irony if focussed on racial issues.

It is easy enough, and perhaps commonplace, to trash critics. It is perhaps a contradiction of this film’s own complexity to give so much weight to a white supremacist worldview. But how else to fully understand why Alice Walker has called Follow Me Home "a work of genius," while numerous Anglo writers (though not all) blast away with their biggest eurocentric guns? We cannot escape drawing a color line of explanation. In the end we should not avoid doing so, if there is to be a newness built free of its tyranny.

I say all this gloomily, as someone who has followed theater, film, TV, and critics’ treatment of non-white stories or characters over the years (for example, watching 50 installments of the TV cop series "Hunter" and dozens from the more genteel "Remington Steel"). The racism ranges from subtle to gargantuan. In the more subtle department we have the Times’ top film critic, Janet Maslin, reviewing Lone Star very favorably but calling its main and almost only Latina actor Elizabeth Penã, "sultry." This seems the least accurate way to characterize her personality in this movie but everybody knows that all Latinas are sultry, right? Another review of this fine film says director Sayles "succumbs to the temptation to make all the Anglo characters nutty, evil, or corrupt." (Did we see the same movie?) Also in the more subtle area of problems: Anglo director Allison Anders’s film about Latina gang girls, Mi Vida Loca, had many strong features. But it is hard to believe that a Latina writer or director would have ignored the girls’ family relations, as Anders did.

Gangbangers and All That

Not at all subtle is the scarcity of positive Latino characters; drug traffickers, gangbangers, slimey informers, corrupt cops, hysterical females and Latin American dictators have filled the TV cop screen for years (to a limited extent "NYPD Blue" is an exception but its Latino detective is no genius and those smart-ass Puerto Rican criminals do manage to seem more obnoxious than others).

All these and other crimes are sustained by a hierarchy of casting that favors the whiter the better. First choice to play Latinos and Latinas has, again and again, been Italians. As Spike Lee once commented, Al Pacino made a career out of playing Hispanics. The best-known example of this was Luis Valdes casting an Italian-American woman as Frida Kahlo in his film about the artist. Sharp criticism from his own community led Valdez to back off, even as he explained the Hollywood pressure that had caused his selection.

With Mi Familia, director Gregory Nava insisted on having Latinos in Latino roles. "This was one of the reasons we had trouble raising money," said Nava in a 1994 interview. "It’s tough to do that, but I stuck to my guns." The point here is not that Nava maintained his integrity, unlike others, but that film-making is a capitalist enterprise with little space for people-of-color as subjects rather than objects. Nor is the problem limited to the United States. Mexican TV constantly makes blondes its stars and has thus been just as racist in its notions of beauty, of what audiences relate to best.

The film House of the Spirits, based on Isabel Allende’s fine novel, marked a high point in Latino casting nightmares, with blondish Euro-American actors playing Chileans who can’t pronounce Spanish correctly. The 1996 movie based on another Allende novel, Of Love and Shadows, continued that tradition. Even one Anglo critic was compelled to ask, "Why, with loads of qualified Latin American actresses…did [Jennifer] Connelly get this part?" (as a beautiful Chilean fashion journalist). Not to mention casting an Italian star as her mother.

The distinguished Chilean author Ariel Dorfman had no problems with Glenn Close being cast in the stage version of Death and the Maiden; she was "more universal," he said. Anyway, Chile has many light-skinned people, given its history of European immigration. But the real issue is not whether Chile’s population includes enough blondes to justify such casting; it is the fact that the dark ones remain invisible. Class and race call the tune: the kitchen maid is never blonde.

Such are the realities that prevail in show biz today. They remain deeply rooted, despite all the hoopla about "the Hispanic market" and such enticements as a TV commercial for Saturn cars that features Mexican mariachis piling giddily into one such vehicle. Salsa is outselling ketchup and a cult of chile is emerging, they say. But it will be a long, long time before such fashions add up to any genuine move away from Anglo-centricity. It will be a long time before a movie like Follow Me Home is widely praised by white critics although many ordinary white viewers are raving about it.

In the end, the experience of Follow Me Home shines a glaring light on the degree of stubborn racism in today’s society. Anglo insistence on being the center of attention, on being the Good Guys of the world, on denying uncomfortable historical truths, on reacting to any criticism as a mortal attack, can seem frightening. As this nation, based on a hateful colorism, becomes ever more colored in its population, the stakes rise and the smell of Anglo fear becomes ever stronger. Who will speak to the fears, who or what will speak to the need for collectively re-imagining Las Americas?

Follow Me Home is one answer to those questions. Watch for it in New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, wherever you can find it this spring. Think about this movie. It’s to die for—no, to live for. Today and tomorrow and in the century to come.       

Elizabeth Martinez, who writes regularly for Z, is the author of six books on social movements including 500 Years of Chicano History. A longtime activist, she teaches Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies at Califronia State University, Hayward. For more information on where Follow Me Home is being shown, call 1-800-9-FOLLOW.