San Francisco's colorful 'hood gets a big-screen close-up
By Elise-Marie Brown
FILM Che Rivera, a strong, middle-aged Latino man, approaches his son with festering anger and fury in his eyes. With outrage, he yells, "Why does this motherfucker have his tongue down your fucking throat?" as he points to a photo of his teenage son kissing another man. "Why do you think?" his son replies in a sharp tone. His rage surfacing, Che leans over, beats the boy, and forces him to leave their Mission District home.
Tackling issues of homophobia, masculinity, and violence, independent film La Mission uncovers the inner struggle of an obstinate father (Benjamin Bratt) learning to accept his son, Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez) for being gay. Throughout the film, Che is a dominating machismo presence. By day he works as a Muni driver who strives to keep his bus in line by fighting off difficult passengers. At night he customizes low rider cars and leads a group of friends and family through cruises in the city.
"Che is kind of the alpha male within Latino culture, as well as the alpha male in the dominant culture," said director and writer Peter Bratt during a recent phone interview alongside younger brother Benjamin. "Something about the Latino community and having a gay son threatens the idea of being a powerful male."
The role of Che was based on a real Mission resident, a fact that Bratt believes gives the movie more of an authentic feel. "The real Che is a larger-than-life persona. When he walks into the room, you feel his presence," Peter said. "He's a brown and proud Chicano who we thought represented the passion and vibrancy of the neighborhood."
As the film unfolds, the audience starts to learn that Che is more than just a man of aggression. He also feels a strong love for his son and community, despite having a difficult time expressing that love.
"We found it intriguing to take a character like [Che] who appears to be one way and start to peel the layers back," Benjamin explained. "A real tenderness exists. You don't see it expressed in words or a physical action, But it comes in other forms."
After looking back at films that portray men of color as one-dimensional, the actor decided his character would embody an array of emotions and struggles that previous stories had not explored. "When you look at a lot of representations of men of color, they're often drawn as people to be feared," Benjamin continued. "Che is a very familiar character that we've seen in cholo and urban films. We wanted to pull back the layers and actually show that there is a complex being underneath the swagger and stance."
When it came to starting the production of the film and choosing a location, the Bratt brothers — who grew up in San Francisco — didn't hesitate to base the story in the Mission.
"Benjamin and I had already dreamed of making a film in the Mission," Peter said. "We know about Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens from filmmakers like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. We feel like the Mission is up there with those neighborhoods. It's just as vibrant, politically and culturally."
In the four weeks it took to shoot the film, members of the community helped by working behind the cameras as well as in front of them. "We cast a lot of people right from the Mission, which we thought lent a certain level of authenticity," Peter said.
Although the film takes place in a neighborhood with multiple cultures, traditions, and social issues, the Bratts believe the particular journey undertaken by their characters isn't something everyone in the community goes through.
"There are a million and one stories going on in the Mission at any given time and this was not our attempt to create the definitive Mission story," Benjamin said. "Our goal was to create something authentic and ultimately something that would entertain and enlighten you." *
LA MISSION opens in Bay Area theaters Fri/16.