Judge Jennifer Malkowski thinks directors shouldn't risk subconsciously encouraging theatrical audiences by calling a film Walkout. Luckily, this one showed on HBO, making mass walkouts unlikely.
Reading. Writing. Revolution.
Walkout reenacts the 1968 mass walkouts among Chicano and Chicana students in East L.A. to protest the racist policies of the public school system. This inspiring story is unfortunately diluted by an uninspired script and a stiff cast.
Facts of the Case
In 1968, L.A.'s public schools treat Mexican-American students with a mixture of negligence, apathy, and occasional cruelty. Graduation rates are low, their culture is repressed, and students caught speaking Spanish in class are paddled on the spot. Paula Crisostomo (Alexa Vega) is one of the lucky ones—she is smart, gets good grades, and will probably go to college. But when she attends a student leadership conference organized by her progressive teacher, Sal Castro (Michael Peña), she begins to see the bigger cultural picture.
Networking with both peaceful activists and a more extreme "Brown Panthers" group, Paula becomes a major force in organizing huge walkouts from five East L.A. schools. Criticized by her school's administration and her father, Paula must find her own strength through her emerging Chicana voice.
Michael Peña and the passionate Chicano teacher, Sal Castro, that he portrays are the acting and character highlights of Walkout, and they start the film out strongly with a history lesson. He tells them to search their textbook for a few important Mexican-Americans that he names. When the kids can't find any of them, he tells them to read the part aloud:
Sal: "Read the part about the nine thousand Mexican-Americans who
fought in the American Civil War."
In this brief scene, we are made to understand the root of the problem and Sal's determination to fight for the students' Chicano heritage. Paula pinpoints this problem eloquently in an article she writes later in the film, arguing that the East L.A. schools simply don't honor the culture of their students. Trying to convince other students to act, she shouts out an apt and timely comparison: "Our schools are the back of the bus!" These are real issues that still have relevance today in our school system, and Walkout does a good job in convincing us of their importance—both intellectually and emotionally. When Paula jumps onto a car hood and yells "Chicano power!" during the first walkout, for instance, my heart beat a little faster.
Unfortunately, the screenplay and Alexa Vega are not able to make Paula a particularly compelling character in most of the film's other scenes. She and many of the other students are likable enough, but surprisingly bland and wooden. None of their scenes ever really feel organic, in terms of both their lines and their performances. When Paula timidly distributes a survey about school conditions, for example, her fellow students vocally exhibit a level of raw excitement I don't think any group has ever felt for filling out a survey. When violence erupts during one walkout, the film reaches peak stiffness with prolonged, stagy fights, and beatings. It doesn't help the struggling cast that the character development frequently takes inexplicable leaps. Mocte's first scene places him in opposition with the Brown Berets, advocating education to the utmost. But he is one of the first to loudly support the students' leaving school to protest, and to call for the Brown Beret's involvement. The Brown Berets, in turn, spend the first half of the movie shooting their mouths off about the power of violent protest. But on the eve of the first walkout, their leader is telling participants to do passive resistance and go limp, when two days ago he had been talking about Molotov cocktails.
The closing minutes of the film make the dangerous, but powerful, choice to show us the real-life Paula, Sal, Mocte, and others portrayed in the film. Just before the credits roll, their faces float by, offering moving snippets of their stories. Mocte Esparaza is particularly eloquent, explaining, "This was a time in which enough of the Chicano students had gained mastery of the tools that were necessary to shake up the system and had taken the ideals of the country to heart. And so, we protested for our rights." I call this segment dangerous because it gives us a sense of how much more moving Walkout could have been, considering the source material. Some of these clips came from an old PBS documentary about the same events. So if you're halfway through Walkout and feel the acting and writing is doing this historical event a disservice, there is something you can do: walk out. Walk out and track down that documentary to hear more from the real people behind this powerful protest.
Olmos does a great job of visually recreating late '60s L.A., bathing exterior scenes in warm, sunny tones and outfitting his actors in all the fun retro fashions—of the clean-cut, non-hippie variety. This transfer nicely preserves the rich colors of the image and atmospheric soundtrack. In the special features department, HBO goes for quantity rather than quality or variety, loading the disc with three separate commentary tracks and no other extras. Why the three separate tracks were recorded is unclear, and the breakup of the commentators is rather odd, with the three screenwriters spread over two tracks. I'm guessing this split boils down to poor planning, with conflicting schedules that prevented everyone from showing up to record the tracks at the same time. Whatever the reason, one track would have been plenty. Olmos and Esparaza's commentary is the one to listen to, for those who undertake one of the three. Olmos is intelligent and passionate as a director and Moctesuma Esparaza, represented on screen in this film by actor Bodie Olsmos, was really there for the walkouts. The two share personal tidbits about growing up Chicano in the '60s, and explain their research process and the fact that almost every character in the film is based on a real person who participated in the walkouts. The other two commentary tracks are significantly less engaging, with Sexton's being particularly sparse—though he does reveal a quirky narrative structure that distinguishes among the three different walkouts: they mirror the tone of the three original Star Wars films. Let's hope any upcoming prequel protests have the good sense not to follow Lucas further…
Choking back tears, the real Sal Castro attests in the final shot of Walkout: "It was beautiful to be a Chicano that day." If Olmos and Co. fail to fully capture that beauty, they at least give us a taste of it, and perhaps encourage us to learn and think more about the issues raised that day.
Walkout is hereby found guilty—but it is permitted to use itself as an instructional video to secure its own release via protest.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Edward James Olmos and Producer Moctesuma Esparza
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