The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.
Directed by Robert M. Young.
In English and Spanish.
Aside from being the title of this week’s movie, “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” is actually the title of a song. A folk song, or corrido, which is a Mexican story-song in waltz time or polka beat. The story of Gregorio Cortez is a true story from south Texas in 1901. The title character has become a legendary Robin Hood-type figure of the Chicanos, immortalized in the song. The movie is regarded as a landmark of Chicano cinema.
Producer-star Edward James Olmos was born and raised in Los Angeles of Mexican immigrant parents. He has long been a tireless advocate for a greater and improved representation of Hispanics in the U.S. media. He is an Academy Award nominee (for Stand and Deliver) and has appeared in numerous popular projects (like The Blade Runner movies and the Battlestar Galactica re-boot TV series.) He has done numerous projects with director Robert M. Young.
Robert M. Young (1924- ) is a legend on the independent film circuit. He is a truly world-conscious director, both in fiction films and documentaries. As a documentarian for NBC and National Geographic, he shot film in the South during the civil rights movement, travelled to Angola to record a civil war, documented life in the slums of Sicily, and made documentaries on the Serengeti, the tribes of Mindanao (Philippines), Bushmen of Kalahari, Eskimos, the Great Apes of Africa, plus pandas in China for IMAX. In narrative film, he has recorded a significant body of work with Edward James Olmos about the Mexican-American experience.
The term “Chicano cinema” is imprecise. It can mean films by Chicanos or films about Chicanos. If you look at a list of Chicano movies, chances are you’ve only seen 2 or 3 of them at most, and they were probably directed by Robert Rodriguez, who made his fame with El Mariachi, a Spanish language action picture which miraculously made $2 million dollars on a $7,000 budget. Rodriguez has gone on to a long career in big budget American hits and frequent collaborations with Quentin Tarantino.
Hopefully, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez will broaden your horizons and open your eyes to a subject matter that is uniquely American, but often overlooked. This story of racial intolerance from over a century ago is all the more urgent to retell in this era of ICE raids rounding up immigrants, Hispanic children seized from their parents at our southern border, and looming plans for a Wall. The film-makers made the decision to leave the Spanish dialog in the film untranslated. This is a self-reflexively important decision that relates to the meaning of this work, since the core situation in the film involves a case of mis-translated Spanish. If you don’t know Spanish, you won’t miss any of the story, but not understanding half the dialog reinforces your understanding of the xenophobia felt by Cortez’s pursuers. How can you know a man if you can’t speak his language? If you don’t know his language, or don’t want to know his language, how can you empathize with his plight?
This film is a bold work of art, because it is so level-headed. It has the effect of telling the story from both sides. It isn’t preachy. For 2/3 of the film, you really think Cortez is guilty, and then revelations come that force you to re-think what you thought you knew. Apparently there were no easy answers at the border in 1901, just as there are no easy answers today.