Friday, April 23, 2010

Film Review: La Mission

We don't often recommend films or books that are not directly related to corrections, but Peter Bratt's film La Mission will be an exception for two reasons. First, it is a phenomenal film, which receives its promotion by word of mouth and is fast becoming a Bay Area phenomenon; and second, it is an excellent example of how mass incarceration in California, and the pervasiveness of law enforcement, permeate all aspects of life, especially in neighborhoods such as San Francisco's Mission District.

An independent, modestly-funded, gorgeously-filmed movie, La Mission tells the story of Che (Benjamin Bratt), a man who has lived in the Mission District his whole life, and who has singlehandedly raised his son, Jes, in the neighborhood. He is a Muni driver who devotes much of his spare time to fixing up lowrider cars, an interest he has always shared with his son. Jes has been admitted to UCLA, but has a big secret from his father: He is gay. When Che finds out, he finds the culture he grew up in hard to reconcile with his love for his son. It sounds like a predictable, clich├ęd story, but when authentically told by the Bratt brothers and a set of first-time actors from the neighborhood, it is anything but. Erica Alexander co-stars in a fantastic, thought-provoking role.

Everyone should see this film, but folks interested in corrections and in the interrelation between crime and other social problems will find it particularly illuminating. Che's background includes a stint in prison, and this fact shapes and defines him in deeper ways than his neighborhood connections. It is strongly hinted that his homophobia and rigidity have much to do with the incarceration experience, and that this powerful experience frames his experiences with his son. Prison and alcoholism become a master status for Che, a definitive feature of his life, and while the movie almost never explicitly discusses prison, it introduces its deep effects in a subtle and effective way. The viewer is left thinking, in light of mass incarceration, how many "men of their times" share this background, and how deeply it has affected their relationships with family members and loved ones.

The other interesting feature is the realistic depiction of the police's presence in the film. The police is not there when Jes, Che's son, needs them to be; however, much of the footage of the Mission High School includes police cars. The police is an active, ever-present feature in high school life, and their readiness to intervene, while sometimes a blessing, is a prime example of Governing Through Crime.

The film has not been marketed by major commercial means, and gets its publicity mostly by word of mouth. It will open next week in several locations in South and East Bay and is playing in several locations in San Francisco. I can't recommend it enough.

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