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American Me

(1992, Olmos)
A film with the word "America" in its title

"Coming to terms with the lessons one learns through the choices one makes is not easy."

American Me follows Montoya Santana (Edward James Olmos) as he goes from troublesome teenager to head of the Mexican Mafia within the American prison system. When we meet Santana, he's a middle age man in prison, reminiscing of the past as the film flashes back to how he grew up and ended up in prison in the first place.

Through Santana's life, we see him go in and out of prison a couple of times. There's a cyclical nature to his life, the events of the film, and how Latinos, and other minorities, are stuck in this prison revolving door, unable to fully step out. And although it doesn't necessarily makes the most of the topic, the subject of the overcriminalization of minorities is very much at the core of the film.

The above quote is said pretty early in the film by Montoya himself, and seems to be a kind of mantra for the character as he learns to accept whatever comes his way, whether through fate or personal choice. Montoya is not a good guy, but it's certainly a man that's trying to figure out the world and how to survive in it, and Olmos manages to create a complex, layered character, instilling him with the necessary mixture of poise and menace in order to make you feel some empathy for him while still acknowledging the errors in his ways.

The supporting cast is solid, especially if you consider that they chose mostly inexperienced actors and/or actual gang members for some of the roles. Even though there are some rough edges, it held up pretty well. I do think that the film could've benefitted from putting more focus on Montoya's relationship with his family, most notably his father, but also his brother. There is an exchange at a cemetery that ends up being quite powerful, despite the relationship being mostly relegated to the background.

Exchanges like that are one of many examples in the film where Montoya has to come to terms with his life, his choices. From the way he was conceived, to why he ends up in jail, how he lives his life in and out of prison, to how he decides to go out. None of them are easy, and not all of his decisions are, from our perspective, the best, but at least he's come to terms with them.