How the Mission came to the movies
by David Lamble
San Francisco natives Benjamin and Peter Bratt's family drama La Mission is overflowing with feeling. Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez), a beautiful, college-bound Latino boy, is confronted with an angry father, Che (Benjamin Bratt), in a bedroom chock-full of souvenirs attesting to pride in his hood. Che stands over his kid, clutching a fistful of Polaroids revealing Jesse in a club, dancing half-naked with another boy.
"Who's this white boy?"
"What kind of friend? Why's he got his hands all over you like you were a Mexican bitch?"
Things quickly escalate, and within moments, father and son are fighting on the sidewalk. Jesse gets a bloody lip. Neighbors have to pull them apart. As the Bratts make clear, few deeds in Che's world go either unpunished or uncommented upon by a community of folks who always seem to know your business. The next morning, the fact that a boy has been kicked out of his home and publicly disowned is acknowledged by a spray-painted epithet, which Che scrubs away with the assistance of comely upstairs neighbor Lena (Erika Alexander).
The creation of Che is a career-defining moment for Benjamin Bratt, his most singular achievement since his 2002 turn as the iconic Latino poet/playwright/actor Miguel Pinero. When we first see him, Che is driving a 14 Mission bus. Bratt's Muni driver is a no-nonsense, "get behind the yellow line" dude who wears his uniform like it was issued with Green Berets insignia. Che is the driver we silently root for when he's kicking the boombox hoodies off the bus, but we still fear getting on his bad side. Here is a man who only smiles when he has the upper hand. Cross or defy him, like his gay son, his uppity female neighbor, or some random white guy in a pickup, and vengeance is swift. The secret is a delicate balance between Che's positive traits – the tender loving care he lavishes on a virtual fleet of restored low-rider buggies – and his volcanic outbursts. Che is all the more dangerous because he's so good at impersonating a nice guy.
La Mission is that rare homegrown feature film project that may irritate some for its deliberate pace. Those used to the Mission District's colorful denizens being relegated to the DIY doc circuit or breaking-news TV homicide updates may not dig the long takes where Che raps with his homey car-fanatic buddies in the manner of the African American Barbershop franchise. But the Bratts are out to show how insidious "progress" – Jesse's UCLA education as much as his blond boyfriend Jordan (Max Rosenak), and tea-drinking black women with sharp radar for tattooed, rage-prone dudes – is undermining Che's precarious grip on his manhood. As Bratt devolves deeper into the roots of his character's outbursts, he's given fine support from Valdez, who makes Jesse a complex mix of soft and hard traits. The sensitive boy who hoped holding down the shotgun seat in his dad's low-rider would somehow conceal or excuse his queerness develops backbone and ability to fight for who he is, even at the cost of crossing gender, racial and class lines.
Watching La Mission at the Metreon with an overflow crowd from the district, one was struck by the visceral response to the film's most provocative moments, like the first sight of a gay Latino boy in the Castro (a kind of collective gasp and slight moan of derision arises from only part of the audience). The most uncomfortable scene in the movie is when Che viciously cold-cocks a white driver in a pickup
La Mission climaxes with a carefully orchestrated montage of indigenous prayer rituals, as a despairing Che is blindsided by a sidewalk memorial for a young man he once considered a mortal enemy. The movie ends on a cautiously hopeful note as a deflated raging bull gets behind the wheel and heads south.
On the record
SF-raised filmmakers Benjamin and Peter Bratt were in town last week to celebrate a dream come true: bringing their hood onto a big screen in all its stereotype-defying complexity.
David Lamble: How did this remarkable film come about?
Peter Bratt: As the writer [and director], I was set on exploring the ideas of power, how we define them – not just in the Latino community, but in the dominant culture as well – and how that informs many ideas about masculinity. As I started the process, I found that the film was becoming a meditation on violence, and to further that exploration of using an ultra-masculine man, Che, the catalyst became discovering that his son was gay. Part of my process was talking to a lot of different queers of color, within my family and also within the community. What I found, particularly speaking to young gay men of color, was that when they're demeaned and sometimes even beaten down, they're feminized, they're referred to by derogatory terms for women or women's body parts. Not only does that speak to the homophobia within the community, but also the misogyny within the community. That combined with the fact that Benjamin and I are both local boys trying to fulfill a dream of making a movie in our own backyard, about our favorite neighborhood in the country, La Mission.
Benjamin Bratt: That's a lot of heavy lifting to be frank, a lot of themes to explore in a film, but the perfect framework we discovered was to explore it through my character of Che Rivera, who's actually based on a real-life guy. Che is an archetype, not unlike characters from Clint Eastwood, Bruce Lee or Charles Bronson, who negotiates his way through life with few words and ultimately brute force. We thought it would be interesting to subvert that character, peel back the layers, and display a real humanity that you don't often get to see in characters drawn this complexly.
Peter Bratt: We tried to contrast Che with Jesse, a young man trying to come out in a community where homosexuality is still very much looked down upon. It's still a very strong taboo within the Latin community, and when Benjamin and I first tried to get financial support for the film in Hollywood, we were told, even sometimes by gay executives, that the subject was passe – hadn't we seen Brokeback Mountain? I don't think it was until Proposition 8 surprised and shocked people, especially progressives, when record numbers of Latinos and African Americans turned out to support the ban on gay marriage, that people came to the revelation that this is still a huge taboo subject within minority communities.
La Mission is now in theaters.