At first glance, how could El Chicano not be the next Black Panther? The superhero film, written and directed by the Mexican-American former stuntman and actor Benjamin Hernandez Bray, features a Latino superhero named El Chicano, boasts an all-Latino cast, and integrates bits and pieces of Mexican mythology into what is a hard-hitting, cops-versus-cartel action flick where the audience is left to question what it means to be the good guy or bad guy. El Chicano, in a nutshell, is Batman of the Barrio.
The initial reviews of El Chicano have been mixed though — not bad, but mixed — which will be a bummer to superhero film fans who have been awaiting the arrival of a Latinx hero on the big screen. One aspect of the film that many critics have taken issue with is the muddled, gratuitous violence. “We’ve grown used to incoherence in the Marvel movie battles, perhaps — it seems to be an accepted part of the story — but here it’s a fight between two people,” wrote the Chicago Sun-Times. Overall, the paper was disappointed to report that the film was hit or miss. “There’s a need for a Latino superhero film. El Chicano is not it.”
El Chicano had actually been pitched to studios before Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians proved to producers that all-POC casts could, in fact, sell lots of tickets. Because of that, it failed to get traction and ended up having to be funded like an indie flick; producers simply were not willing to gamble on an all-Latino film. Some of them even asked for at least a few white characters to be written into the story, but Bray told the New York Times that he resisted altering his script. “I kept telling them, ‘As a filmmaker and storyteller, this is everything I was exposed to my entire life. There wasn’t any Caucasian people living in my neighborhood. Not even police officers.”
What is perhaps more compelling than the origin story of El Chicano is the origin story of Bray himself. The film was distilled from a memoir that he had been working on to process significant loss and trauma in his life. “I had lost a brother to gang violence. It’s been over ten years and [I] started initially writing ideas, more of a memoir of therapeutically dealing with his death, what my mother was going through, what my brothers and sisters were going through,” Bray told Forbes.
In an interview with Latin Heat, he elaborated on how his mother, in particular, helped to guide him through the challenges that he has faced. Her strength became apparent to him as he wrote his life’s story. “I saw my mom instilled positive characteristics in my life like working hard and making good choices.” Having a strong role model, he explained, helped lift him up from his pain, something that he hoped that the character of El Chicano could do for fans. “I wanted people to know no matter what your socioeconomic background you come from, tragedy hits everyone, but you don’t have to stay trapped in your grief or your surroundings. You can make a better life for yourself. I hope others get inspired by it, especially if you’re from the barrio.”