Registering the Registry 2019: Zoot Suit (1981)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, Luis Valdez brings his play Zoot Suit, Broadway’s first Chicano production, to the big screen in a hybrid mix of stage show and film. To what end? Let’s see!

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(Originally published December 13th, 2020)

The historical background’s gonna take a few paragraphs this time round. Mexican-American history, like the histories of all disenfranchised American groups, is terribly serviced by the US education system, deliberately so in my state during my high school years. Information regarding the country’s sorry history of racial profiling and systemic judicial discrimination that should crop up as readymade examples in basic classes about the country’s past are left for the curious to discover on their own through individual research or happenstance wikiwalks. Thankfully we’ve such robust resources at our disposal to educate a know-nothing like me in matters such as this, but it’s still sad even APUSH courses often themselves to the Greatest Hits version of America’s legacy, and it means I’ve gotta ramble for quite a time to ensure we’re all on the same page.

So: Relations between America’s white population and those who hail from south of the border (be they recent immigrants or long-term residents) have never been particularly great, shock of shockers. Los Angeles in the 1940s, however, proved an especially tense time for the Hispanic population: shoddily-implemented Mexican-American repatriation programs from a decade prior that often deported fully legal citizens in an act of badly disguised ethnic cleansing and the exploitative Bracero agricultural program left local communities on unsteady ground as neighbors came and went across the line with no predictability, as decades of discrimination forced them into increasingly isolated and dilapidated barrios. Stereotypes about Mexicans as simultaneously lazy, docile drones who could be easily mastered as semi-slaves in the fields and yet also inherent savages given to bloodlust by supposed Aztec heritage found popularity and credence not only in the general population, but many in the LA press at the time. With such pressure mounting all across the southern border, young men did as young men are wont to do, and formed a subculture based in embracing and exaggerating everything the world spat their direction. Having reclaimed the slur Chicano (a diminutive form of the bastardized term “Mejicano”) for themselves, the Chicano youth of the day formed a culture based in strong masculinity, anti-assimilation stances, and slick style to distance themselves from the white communities who hated them and the elders in their own who wanted to merge Mexican-American as a white identity. The pachuco way of life is so born.

Cast our attention to Commerce, California, in the summer of 1942, August 2nd to be exact. José Gallardo Díaz is found dying near the Sleepy Lagoon reservoir (a popular swimming hole for the area’s youth), under mysterious and still unsolved circumstances. The LAPD quickly arrest seventeen suspects affiliated with the 38th Street gang, which soon become twelve defendants in a mass trial alleging murder in the first degree, including for our purposes shortly one Henry Leyva. Their trial proves a pig circus, a despicable miscarriage of justice as the defendants are denied hygienic services so the jury can easily identify the inherent criminal element, forced to stand every time their name is mentioned, denied counsel with their lawyers, and generally characterized as natural-born killers whose racial ancestry made them unfit to walk free. Naturally, the trial ends in conviction, and all defendants are wrongfully sentenced, which gives the local papers excuse for a field day and three-quarters. In particular, eager reporting on the naturally, obviously criminal pachucos focuses on the young men’s zoot suits, overlarge articles of clothing with high waists, pinned trousers, and excessive amounts of fabric, drawn from drape suits and Harlem nightclub fashion. Though an entirely harmless fashion choice to you and I, a radicalized press of the 1940s characterized the suits a decadent and degenerate, on basis of the amount of material needed to tailor them during wartime rationing and their association with a “known” criminal element.

Come June 3rd of 1943, the situation is ready to boil over. Military ships have docked in LA for shore leave, and a combination of inflammatory press, preexisting aggressive attitudes as part of longstanding posturing amongst the city’s white residents and pachuco gang members, and armed personnel from all over the country unfamiliar with anything Mexican save what they’ve heard in the news has already resulted in aggravated confrontations between sailors and zoot suiters over the last few days. That night, a group of navy men band together and assault a small group of Chicanos in zoot suits; the next, hundreds of sailors and civilians alike begin a pattern of roaming the streets at night, confronting anyone wearing a zoot suit, and stripping them bare while beating them senseless before moving on to the next street. LAPD, ever stalwart on the job, do nothing to halt these roaming mobs, and instead arrest and charge victims by the hundreds. This continues for a solid week, all the way to the 8th, until military police are brought in to quelle the violence, Los Angeles is declared off-limits to sailors, and the city council passes a resolution banning zoot suits in the city limits. To the country at large, this stands as a brief national embarrassment, accurately identified as an example of deliberate race-baiting in the press in a largely ignored committee report, regarded as a sorry state of affairs for a week or two, and then forgotten beneath larger concerns over the war in Europe.

To those activists and organizers who would eventually found the Chicano Movement, though, the Zoot Suit Riots are a flashpoint moment. Though the pachuco lifestyle and their zoot suits diminished in cultural prominence following the mid-40s, their tenets and example lived on as the country turned to societal revolution. In a social milieu of resistance against colonizing and assimilating forces, pachuco strength and resilience against such violent persecution becomes one of many events to inspire a cultural movement whose heads and followers will, across the 60s and 70s, organize labor unions, contribute to significant Vietnam War protests, rally students into walkout activism, and foster pride in a distinctly Chicano heritage in contrast to conservative downplaying of such ties in past decades. Zoot suiters were but one influence amidst a sea of inspirations, but they certainly left their mark. Although COINTELPRO sabotage from within the ranks, an inherited focus on masculinity as essential to the Chicano identity at the expense of female and queer voices in the community, and a census-backed push to make the less politically-charged term “Hispanic” the racial umbrella would largely crumble the movement’s political influences by 70s’ end, art drawn from the movement’s goals and ideals would only just then break into the mainstream. Consider Luis Valdez, initially one of Cesar Chavez’s labor organizers, who performed his function by way of El Teatro Campesino, a farmer’s acting troupe dedicated to travelling the southwest and performing humorous but educational plays to spread the unionizing message. Success speaking to the common man’s power led to Valdez expanding his troupe to urbane Chicano audiences, gradually growing his influence across the country until a major breakthrough in 1979. His previous year’s success from the LA theater circuit, Zoot Suit, is brought to Broadway for a prestige season opener, and so becomes the very first Chicano play on the country’s largest theatrical stage. Success begats success for the play, based on the aforementioned Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the Zoot Suit Riots, and in turn, Valdez and his company translate the play to silver screen using the same principles from Broadway, brother Daniel Valdez and Tony-nominee Edward James Olmos.

Having spent a whole four paragraphs contextualizing Zoot Suit, we can perhaps now finally begin discussion of the film proper. My apologies if any of the above proved redundant to any in the audience.

First and most important thing to understand about Zoot Suit is this: it wears its live theatrical origins loud and proud on its sleeve. A majority of sets used in the film are easily reduced to simple black backdrops of nothingness for characters to argue and exposit before in tight close-ups, or else contain some element of stark blankness the camera can capture when placed at the right angle. The settings of greatest importance to protagonist Henry Reyna (Daniel Valdez) are better fleshed across more angles — the swinging night club where he casts his memory back at key moments, the courtroom where he and his friends are humiliated and profiled, the jail block where they meet with their activist contact Alice Bloomfield (Tyne Daly) all bear the look of a complete, properly dressed set, yet they do not take the additional step of appearing convincing as real life locations as one might expect from a filmic adaptation. Turn the camera too far from stage’s back, and you’ll catch the edges of reality shrinking into nothing, and you’ll certainly note how both the dance floor and jail cells are laid out to accommodate musical numbers. The only spaces presented as fully real, locations wholly divorced from the stage, are Henry’s home and a few briefly glimpsed residences for other characters, none of which linger long enough in the main body to feel concrete. They’re places of certainty and comfort, and they’re a million miles away. During heavily introspective moments, Henry recedes into pure blackbox, nothing but himself and another actor and heavy atmospheric lighting to set the scene; and this before the characters go freely amongst the audience, their laughter and clapping and stunned silences an integral part of the moment. We’re watching and living in the world of live theater through and through, where the greatest actors and finest lavishry cannot fully distract you from the inherent fakeness of the story before your eyes.

And why not? Zoot Suit is, after all, a film literally haunted by the need to project and perform. Every step of the way along Henry’s journey into and out of jail, he is followed by Olmos’ El Pachuco, an idealized vision of the lifestyle he’s chasing. El Pachuco, a smooth-talker who’s always got just the right thing at tongue’s tip, dressed in a red and black zoot suit with a backwards lean and an exaggerated jolt to his steps, passing judgement on all round him, summoning swing and brass and jazz from nothing for a good time whenever he likes. Scenes may pass without his comment, yet he’s always there, conspicuously posed as an onlooker in the background, a jester to a belligerent judge, a shadow to Henry’s every move. When he does speak, he can pause time and darken the stage with a snap of his fingers, and slickly speak circles round the young man who alternately follows his every suggestion and argues with the vision about the right way forward. Sometimes El Pachuco can stop Henry from making the wrong choice at the last second, encouraging introspection and warning against the dangers of acting so tough and manly you do something stupid, while at other turns a click of those fingers isn’t enough to stop explosive violence born of misplaced passion. Real as anything, realer than their surroundings, terrifyingly prescient when he wants, and yet immaterial as Henry’s idea of what he really wants from life beyond out of this mess. When the perfect personification of something intangible and unattainable walks the stage, why not remind the audience it’s all a stage?

The audience is as instrumental to the image’s power becoming real as the man himself, after all. These boys, the characters in the film and the defendants in reality alike, are and were forced before a waiting public as examples of an expected stereotype, the bloodthirsty Latino youth who hates the country that graciously gave him shelter, who flaunts his disdain in his extravagant dress mixed with filthy hygiene, whose actions have and need no explanation except the simple fact of evil on their dirty souls. Even before their hour in the limelight in front of a dishonest press and the eager masses, there’s always the threat they’ll be thrust forward. Disdain from their parents, socioeconomic isolation, and threats from rival gangs ensure they know everyone expects only the worst from the young Chicano, so they lean into it and huddle round the spirit of El Pachuco, rehearsing and refining their tough guy image for a private audience so they can properly harden against whatever’s coming whenever it comes. Then they step forward, the world sees what it expects in what it has molded, and the spell is complete. Nobody sees the people, the young men trying to define themselves in the same action they defend themselves against those who’d take advantage of them for being too weak or soft. They just see the zoot suiter, and so the zoot suiter emerges from the damning contact between performer and audience — hence why, when Valdez deigns to show the murder in flashback, we find El Pachuco beating the victim to death rather than any flesh and blood character. Keep the story in a liminal space, emphasize how the defendants are forced to wear their costumes and hit so hard it’s maintain the act or crumble on the spot, remind us every step of the way how much the stereotype is dependent on cartoonish imagined spaces and long-standing prejudices by breaking the cinematic illusion with incomplete sets and bursts of incongruous diegetic song, and the role of the beholder in all this becomes a constant reminder present in nearly every corner of the picture.

El Pachuco certainly knows the double-edged nature of his offer. For all he gives in confidence, style, and security, the world’s ceaseless prejudice means he must demand performance at all times, and so Henry will sometimes act contrary to his best interests. He’ll reject the love and advice of his parents, stand apart from his fellow innocents in pursuit of stoic individualism, treat his case worker as antagonist and later potential lover more than good-natured ally, all in the name of still defining himself as pachuco. He’s in so deep with the spirit, following El Pachuco’s advice lands him in hotter water, while acting against it projects the image of a steel edge gone blunt and soft and vulnerable. When plunged into the total isolation of solitary confinement late in the picture, he’s tormented with images of the Zoot Suit Riots as embodied by El Pachuco, deftly skewering an embodiment of the racist press with only his words and expertly vaulting through the theater to avoid sailors and cops alike, only to get caught, beaten, and reduced to the whimpering form of Henry’s brother, a fellow pursuant of the pachuco life. Fine for yourself if you can take it, but what of those who catch a glimpse of the spirit at your back and chase after the ideal you now embody, those you love and don’t want to see harmed? There is so much of value on tap, so much certainty in yourself and a place in the world, and yet the price of entry is intensified persecution, constant fear for your life, a brand across your entire body that tells the world you’re trash with an inflated sense of ego and a ready target for whatever petty violence and injustice they wish to visit upon you. All the identity you’ve been denied, with ever more of the tribulations you’ve always suffered, and you’ll have to dust yourself off, tend to your bruises, and do it all again come break of day. It’s what El Pachuco does in the semi-darkness of the soul; why should he expect anything less of you?

It’s worth noting, whatever is demonic or destructive about El Pachuco is presented as pure perception from those who consider him an evil, the dual edge to his offer sharpened against the wielder by outside influence rather than an immutable, inherent quality. As the final scene shows, when Henry and his fellow pachucos are turned free as cleared, innocent men after years of effort from their families and Bloomfield’s activism, El Pachuco can appear as an angel in white, offering a happy ending for one who stayed the course and endured the pain… yet he is easily and instantly rendered a figure of sinister reds and blacks again when colored by the press, reporting on a sorry, tragic early end for Henry following picture’s close. That which is El Pachuco cannot allow for such extremes to give Henry so dishonest an end one way or the other, though, and so we actually finish on a rousing rendition of “Vamous A Bailar” as Henry and his friends are returned to the dance floor, scene of so much revelry and violence in the past, and characters from throughout the narrative reflect on who Henry Reyna is to them. Perspectives differ, futures shift, no two see the boy who acted as stand-in defendant for the zoot suiter way of life quite the same, and for the record the press agent’s account is most accurate to the real Henry Leyva’s life compared to the dates and events offered by others, if purposefully omitting a turnaround for the better in later years — but the message is clear. However he is seen, whatever the facts of the situation he is Henry Reyna, son, brother, lover, friend, outlaw, innocent, victim, independent, Mexican-American, Chicano, pachuco to the end, as much defined by his wonts and needs as he is by how the world with its billion eyes wants to see him. The man, just as with all men, exists in a twin state of bodily fact and societal perception. All is projection and performance, and it’s down to those who watch and judge to decide. Best we look past the self-made artifice and find something close to the honest, real person as we can rather than give as our society has done and all to often continues to do to this day, yeah?

Talking about Zoot Suit as a cinematic experience, I’ll say it offers plenty of in-the-moment pleasures to guide you through its exploration of the Chicano self and racism as murky colored glasses. The music’s pretty excellent across the board, a blend of big band tunes from the 40s and Broadway numbers delivered by Olmos to strong effect, be it the in-context mockery of “Mary Juana Boogie” or the weird hard-slapping empathy of “Handball.” Whenever we cut to the night club, it’s an explosion of swinging pastels and bright block colors as a relief from and contrast to the heavy swallowing blacks or engineered dismal grays of the courtroom and jailhouse. Our supporting cast, though firmly in the realm of supporting a larger structure instead of contributing their own narratives, acquit themselves as entertaining presences, from Charles Aidman as the gang’s Columbo-like lawyer to Mike Gomez, Marco Rodriguez, and Kelly Ward With A Y as the most prominent of Henry’s fellow gang members. While the decision to retain the picture’s off-Broadway given the Broadway polish quality to the multiplex results in a few moments of histrionics I could likely do without — notably just how wild and wooly the acting gets when something outrageous and racist happens in the courtroom — it generally all fits with Valdez’s point about societal assumptions creating ludicrous situations that nevertheless damn innocents one way or the other, and he generally brings the film back around to something terribly effective with a moment like Alice realizing Henry’s trying to court her or Henry gazing down the horrors inside his own head. When it wants to take the camera inside the theater for a fresh, cinematically-intimate look in on the story, it strikes and strikes hard.

And to its place in the National Film Registry? It can function as a valuable teaching tool regarding its influences and subject matter, or at least an introduction to the topics. It captures an awareness of the community-stressing flaws inherent to the macho posturing of Chicanismo at a time when the Chicano Movement was falling apart, while arguing its continued validity as a unifying and identity-defining force in a manner consistent with the movement’s later 90s revival and even more recent branch into pan-global identity embracing , queer-inclusive Xicanx push. It certainly illustrates a unique method of merging two artistic mediums to take advantage of the incongruity of one’s style within the other and advance a overarching point about perception as dominant over physical or factual realities. All to say, Zoot Suit hits the three checkmarks of providing historical, cultural, and aesthetic value in a cinematic package, and more than earns its place in these preserving walls. Damned thing deserves quite a bit wider recognition than it currently enjoys.

Got me excited for when we cover La Bamba a few cycles from now, at least.

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What a tour this week! Lots of words to pick through up there. Got any thoughts? Leave ’em below if you do, and be sure to check back next week for more Registry writing! We’re jumping forward to 1984 to watch and consider Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg’s documentary about American LGBTQ life in the early 20th century, Before Stonewall! Kanopy and OVID have it up to stream, while Amazon’s got it for rental or purchase. See y’all then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, and rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter.

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I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus

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Gargus

I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus