chapter  11
American Me (1992)
Pages 30

In March 1992, US movie audiences could choose between two films featuring the ethnic colour of American identities: one was The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, the other, American Me. As one critic put it, these were two new movies ‘about Hispanics looking for respect – bandleaders in one film, gang leaders in the other’ (Johnson, 1992: 51). The films marked contrasting points of exemplarity and visibility which triangulated the assimilation of Latinos to American life through entertainment and criminalization. They also offered audiences familiar ways to understand how Hispanics both sustained and threatened American identity. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love achieved popular success and critical approval with its novelistic origins, its Latin lover protagonist, and its musical immigrant romance. American Me, in contrast, languished critically and at the box office, despite the celebrity of its star/director/producer, Edward James Olmos. American Me’s violent prison narrative, its machismo and its pessimistic realism were hard to swallow. But even as the film died at the box office, it gained an afterlife among viewers compelled by its dystopic parable about the American self. It is clear nearly fifteen years later that its unassimilable negativity about the limits of American identity retains its political relevance. More hauntingly, the film’s internment of its characters and its focus on a penitentiary America offers, in retrospect, a prophetic message about the ‘prison-industrial complex’ which presently polices an internal border and which constrains and forecloses national identity in the USA.