The second half of the 20th century was a complicated time for national minorities who faced many racial problems. The Hispanic group has been one of the biggest minority communities and it continues to grow nowadays. The mentioned period was the most challenging for them, as it is depicted in the films Stand and Deliver and American Me. Although these motion pictures demonstrate different aspects of the life of Hispanics in the US, they have much in common as well. The purpose of this paper is to compare these films and examine how they are alike and what makes them different. The paper will focus on the analysis of central artistic elements, cultural themes, sociological aspects, political and historical background, and ethical questions both films arouse.
To begin with, it is importamt to examine the artistic elements the films demonstrate, because the acceptance of these elements leads to the realization of the problems raised through the catharsis. The first aspect is the system of characters and actors. The same actor - Edward James Olmos, plays the main character in each film. He perfomed brilliantly in both films. In Stand and Deliver, he truly reflected all the features of a passionate teacher Escalante, whose dream was to change the world and whose methods of teaching were accepted by troubled students. In American Me, his Santana was a grim, strict but intelligent gang member, impatient for injustice. He was able to change and become a better loving person, but his complicated life reflected on his actions so much that left him no way back; in the end, he died in prison.
Another significant artistic element is the film form. Despite the fact that both films are dramas, their forms are different. Stand and Deliver is a biographical drama about a Math teacher and high school life. Its plot is linear and uncovers the period of about a year. All the events unfold logically and consequentially. The culmination comes during the final exam. The characters are more or less simple and pleasant for a viewer.
On the other hand, American Me is a biographical criminal drama, and it has a more complicated form. It starts as a narration of Santana, which makes a frame for the whole film. The story is revelead through Santana’s letters and diaries, which makes viewers understand his psychology and experience his life through the prism of his own interpretation. This method makes American Me more dramatic than Stand and Deliver. In addition, the time period that the film covers is broader, which provides a wider historical background making the viewer a member of the story and not only the observer, as it is in Stand and Deliver.
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The role of music should be also considered as an artistic element. Olmos, a producer of American Me, used a bigger variety of music with different purposes: for example, rock’n’roll was used to emphasize on the time period; dramatic music accompanied culmination scenes. However, Menendez, a director of Stand and Deliver, only supported the positive mood of his story.
In addition, it is important to analyze cultural themes in both films. The main cultural problem raised in each film is lack of education among minority communities. A low cultural level of Hispanics is a result of government carelessness and social racial impatience. However, in the film American Me, viewers may notice that Santana writes letters, which became “poetry” for those who read them (Olmos). He also confessed that he had read a lot about his ancestors and revolutions while being imprisoned. The main character had a desire to raise his cultural level, but there was no possibility to use the knowledge obtained in a proper way because of his criminal way of life. However, readings made him an honest self-respecting person with a significant potential, but he followed a wrong path. That is why he dies in the end – he had no exit from the life he had chosen.
The above-mentioned concept of desire (“ganos”) was alsouncovered in the film Stand and Deliver (Menendez). Once Escalante mentions that Maya, Hispanic ancestors, invented the notion of “zero”, students begin to respect the subject and their teacher more. This small reference to the native ancient culture of the students evoked something humanistic in their self-perception. They realized that their past was not only crime and violence but also a rich culture and talents that could appear in themselves.
Both films are alike in that they propagate that culture and education may change a person and bring him/her to a better life. The difference is that cultural aspects became a starting point for improving the lives of all characters in Stand and Deliver, but in American Me they proved good only for Julie, Santana’s love. She began attending a school for adults on Santana’s advice in the end of the film with a hope to give her children another non-criminal future.
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Apart from that, sociological aspects of each motion picture should be also paid attention to. Both films represent the social problems of Hispanic groups. These are family values, national identity issues, social respect and equality, government injustice as well as the problem of drug abuse, violence, and crime. Among the family values problems raised is also a problem of generations, when parents want their children continue their way of life. For instance, in Stand and Deliver, Maria’s father wanted her to run their family café, while she wanted to study Medicine. Another example is Little Puppet in American Me, who got into prison and joined the gang band on his elder brother’s request. As a result, his own brother killed him being unable to go against the band traditions. Thus, American Me discovers the problem of generation revenge, which was also demonstrated in Godfather, another popular motion picture of those times. To compare both films, American Me shows a broader relationship problem among generations. Santana was born because of sexual violence; still he loved his mother but had complicated relationships with his father. This influenced him a lot, especially in his desire to earn respectful attitude to him and his folks. The way he was born predetermined the way he lived with all the shifted notions of honesty and justice. Julie once told him that “there was no hope for their kids with people like him” (American Me). Continuing with the family relations, Santana often thought how his way of life reflected on his mother, especially after she died. He changed his worldview, but it was too late. Still, he had to die to give a hope for another life.
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Another significant problem concerns national identity since many Hispanics associate themselves with the criminal past of their ancestors. The purpose of Escalante was to change this misunderstanding and make his students successful law-abiding people. He wanted them to associate themselves with their great Maya ancestors and rich culture, but not those gangs depicted in American Me. In contrast, Santana read a lot about Mexican revolutions, but his final dialogue with Julie showed that he was ruled only by the notions of protests and rebellion and was not connected to a deeper cultural identity.
The two films are also different in the way characters try to earn respect and equality. American Me shows the violent way in which Hispanics gain their self-esteem with the help of crime, while Stand and Deliver describes teenagers who are not hopeless and can earn respect by studying hard.
Both films touch the problem of government injustice but in different aspects of social living. Stand and Deliver is an example of intellectual discrimination based on racial and status issues. For example, Andy Garcia’s hero, a member of Educational Committee, suspected students in cheating, because the Committee could not believe that those students were able to pass the advanced Math exam using their knowledge. Yet, he was persuaded in the end. Government injustice in American Me is revealed through the above-described Zoot Suit Riots and the California prison system faults.
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According to Dorothy Mecom’s work “Hispanics and Violent Crime in the United States: Examining the Effect of Segregation,” “negative social conditions (high school dropouts, renters, resource deprivation) influense positively, though not significantly, on Hispanic homicide rates” (22). The results of this research relate to the problems raised in both films. The films show that violent crimes and drugs taking and spreading are results of bad education and living conditions. However, Stand and Deliver is more focused on solving this problem in an appropriate way, while American Me just states the problem, deepening in its different influences and appearances. Santana once said that “we cannot deny the fact that the drugs are among us”, so he took advantage from their spreading. He did not approve what he did, but his actions worsened the problem. Conflicts between bands caused children’s deaths and overdosing all over the district. Then, he realized that struggling for a better life for Hispanics in this way caused bigger problems within the group.
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Another essential aspect to mention is the historical and political background of each film as it is the key element in main themes and ideas. Both films are based on the true stories connected to the Hispanic groups. However, American Me by Edward James Olmos (1992) covers the period of 30 years and even more, if to take into account its allusions to the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943, when the story began. According to the history, on June 3, 1943, a gang of Chicanos attacked several sailors in northern LA. The incident set off several days of violence, known as the Zoot Suit Riots, during which hundreds of military servicemen persecuted Chicanos. Goodman finds this incident as an example of systematic injustices Mexican Americans have faced in the United States.
Parents of the main hero of American Me – Santana – were zoot suiters, so they became victims of this incident. Santana was born after sailors raped his mother; therefore he was a child of injustice as his life started from protesting the violent system. Santana’s life is not only a tragic life story of a real gang – Rodolfo Cadena (Moralez) but also a history of racial gang conflicts between South and North California. It is the story of crime development among the Mexican citizens and narration about California’s imperfect prison system, which connived at the murder and mafia business inside the prison. Rodolfo Cadena – Santana’s prototype, was killed by his own gang – La Eme, named La Primera in the Olmos’ film.
Thus, American Me provides a broader criminal background and covers longer historical periods, while Stand and Deliver is a drama film based on a true story of a high school Math teacher – Jamie Escalante. Although both films are biographical and have the same leading actor, Stand and Deliver describes a very different story. Jamie Escalante was born in December 31, 1930 in Bolivia. In the 1960s, he came to the United States to seek a better life. He was a law-abiding citizen who worked hard for a better life. He used to work as a floor weeper and cook, while he was studying Math by nights. Soon, he got a better job and continued studying hard, until he got the right to teach. In 1974, Escalante took a class in Garfield High School, LA. This school was known for its troubled students, violence, and drugs. Jamie did his best to make the students pass the advanced Math exam and they succeeded (“Jaime Escalante”). The problems started when the Education Committee suspected students in cheating, so that they had to repass the exam to prove their knowledge and skills. Sooner, Garfield High School became a centre of advanced Math teaching (Woo). This situation was an example of Hispanics’ struggle for a better life and their attempts to clear their group from criminal associations. As a result, more and more students of Hispanic origin graduated high schools and entered colleges with high grades (U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States).
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To sum up, on the one hand, historical and political backgrounds of each film make them similar. The main themes of the films also the same – Hispanics’ struggle for a better life, social respect, and equality as well as their national identity concession. In addition, both films are biographical dramas that depict a single person life in complicated social circumstances. Besides, both films are based on the true stories.
On the other hand, the films are different in coverage of time. American Me takes place in 1943 – 1972, while Stand and Deliver shows only 1974. This makes the films chronologically and logically connected. The former one is a positive result of the latter one. Another difference uncovers in the ways the main characters try to gain social respect. American Me explores the origins of Hispanic mafia groups and shows the Hispanic protest against the existing system with the help of crime. Stand and Deliver, in its turn, depicts an attempt of Hispanics to assimilate with the system and work for its development with the help of education.
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Finally, it is important to compare the ethical questions both films raise and to find out which obejcetives they pursue. The essential questions of each film are: whether the life conditions dictate the life choices; how the government injustice reflects on the citizens; and whether a person can have a better life despite all the obstacles. These are rhetorical questions and none of the films answers them to the full. Still, the ending of each film gives a hope. Even American Me, despite being full of violence, drama, and murder, starts with Santana’s mother’s name – Esperanza, which means “hope”.
In conclusion, both films raise similar ethical questions and uncover similar social and cultural problems of Hispanics, such as lack of education, complicated life conditions, government injustice, generation revenge problems, drugs, violence, struggling for social equality, etc. Yet, these issues are presented differently. The main differences lie in historical and political backgrounds, but Menendez’s film can be a logical continuation of the Olmos’s film due to the historical events covered and inner message conveyed. In addition, American Me is more dramatic artistically and covers a bigger time period as well as a wider problematic field, while Stand and Deliver is more positive and covers a short period of main character’s life and focuses only on one main problem – education.
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