Judge Katie Herrell is busy thinking up ways to turn her family history into a profitable documentary.
"The joy and the pride is infectious."
If the measure of a good documentary is gaining knowledge or understanding or new perspective about a topic then ¡Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'que Tu Lo Sepas! (I'm Boricua Just So You Know) is a good documentary. But if the measure of a good documentary is the above, plus stunning visual elements, then this movie is still climbing.
Facts of the Case
Actress Rosie Perez—she of the infamous laugh—tries out directing with ¡Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'que Tu Lo Sepas!. Starting with the New York City Puerto Rican Day Parade, Perez and her family (namely her sister and cousin) analyze the history of Puerto Rican Americans; their island's tempestuous relationship with the United States; and the reconciling of being "from" one country while living in another. With tons of archival footage and photographs, this film is both a now and then look at both countries, their governments and their people.
First off, this is not a vanity project by Perez. There is very little discussion of Perez's acting career and she blends seamlessly—well, until she laughs—into the mash of characters this film interviews. She really seems very normal—loyal to her family, her culture, etc.—and intelligent, plus socially conscious and civically aware.
As the film introduces the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the Perez entourage piles into a striped van with Puerto Rican flags a flying to travel to the event. Right away the stage is set for the tone and setting of this documentary. This is not high art. This film is linoleum as opposed to hard wood. It is beer as opposed to wine. It is…you get the idea. There is no pedestal for Perez or anyone to stand and preach on.
That said, it is narrated by the actor Jimmie Smits and not, say, Perez's grandfather. There is a ton of archival footage and photographs that Perez's credentials may have helped her secure. But how Perez got the footage is not the point. The point is that this film is as much a history lesson and it is a modern-day commentary on the lives of Puerto Ricans Americans.
I think the strongest aspect of this film is the archival footage and the history lesson that Smits offers to accommodate them. I would estimate that 40% of the entire film is archival footage. This is high-quality reproduced materials with hardly a watermark or fuzzy edge to the bunch. In one scene, the old pictures are artfully card-piled one on top of the other, and the black and white footage is powerful imagery.
One powerful photograph features a cargo plane with rows and rows of beach chairs holding Puerto Ricans en route to the U.S. The forced sterilization of many Puerto Rican women was another eye-opening revelation for me, as was the fact that Commonwealth laws on the island force locals to pay taxes to the U.S. and serve in the U.S. military when drafted, but don't allow the inhabitants to vote for U.S. president.
Besides the archival footage, the story of the Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rican Americans is told through interviews with an interesting array of characters. While I thought the movie could have benefitted from a more youthful perspective, it is the older crowd that has really seen the stature of Puerto Rican Americans evolve. And not just with the rise of such stars as J. Lo. For a time in NYC, the Puerto Rican communities saw the city inconsistently pick up their trash, allowing it to overflow into the streets. Thanks to a vocal group of protesters, The Young Lords, the Puerto Ricans were able to gain fairer treatment within the boroughs. Plus, several of the people interviewed during the film had Ph.D.'s—a marker of progress all by itself.
I also thought the film was a bit focused on Perez and her family, and there was a distracting tug within the film between its role as a history documentary and as Perez's film memoir. While I understand Perez's family history represents the Puerto Rican (American) experience and history as much as as anyone else's, the scenes where she is just reminiscing with her family about their past were a bit staid. At one point she looked like a third-grade teacher, explaining to family members she'd just met about the family lineage with two aging photographs propped up on her lap.
Furthermore, I thought the film good have benefitted a bit more from an artistic or cinematic touch. Perez has been in the industry long enough to realize the benefit of a good soundtrack (of which this film had none) and the importance of creativity, color and angle within film. The most enticing imagery of this film were the pictures of modern Puerto Rican American enclaves within New York City. These patches of colorful island life amidst the towering gray and black of the city are a strong visual representation of heritage and culture taking root in a, once, unfamiliar place.
This is a complex film about Puerto Rican Americans. Couched by the positive imagery of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the film illuminates some unpleasant patches of Puerto Rican history—primarily brought on by the U.S. But it is not a blaming film or an angry film. For every negative story there is a positive one, and the ultimate message is that Puerto Rican Americans are proud of their history and culture, and are proud to live in NYC and America. They have persevered in the face of adversity and emerged with their colorful (and loud, as the parade indicates) pride intact.
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