Review: ‘Undocumented Lawyer’ – Against All Odds, Protagonist Risks Everything For Immigration Rights – Relentlessly Moving

Lizbeth Mateo, Photo: Emily Topper

We are on the brink of fascism. To sugarcoat and soften the blow of the current state of affairs in this country is a disservice to the truth. We are facing the most important elections of our lives to save our democracy. It’s not alarmist; it’s reality. There is so much at stake: the repealing The Affordable Care Act. Intrusive policies on women’s reproductive rights, and the war on immigrants by the far-right. And at the center of the immigration topic and championing undocumented immigrants like her, is Lizbeth Mateo; the subject of the award-winning documentary, Undocumented Lawyer, by directors Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci and producer Jenna Kelly.

Lizbeth Mateo crossed the border with her family at age 14. They fled cartel violence and poverty from Oaxaca, Mexico to seek a better life: a common thread for many immigrants leaving their homeland behind. But what makes Lizbeth’s story so remarkable is even after 20 years of being in this country, Lizbeth remains undocumented. Undeterred by her circumstances, and living in California, which is a sanctuary state, provided her the opportunity to attend college and law school, and pass the bar exam. Nothing short of exceptional, really. In 2018, she was appointed to a state post as an advisory committee member by senate president, Kevin de leon. The California Student Opportunity and Access Program Project Grant Advisory Committee, (CAL-SOAP) – the committee’s mission is to assist students in underserved communities attend college. This drew criticism in the form of vitriol: death threats to de leon and nasty statements directed to Mateo, calling for her deportation; scrutinizing Mateo and catapulting her into the spotlight. Unfazed by all the attention, Mateo tweeted: “undocumented and unafraid.”

Edith Espinal, Photo: Zach Ingrasci

Dissuaded by efforts to have her deported, as the documentary illustrates, Mateo did more than accomplish the impossible without citizenship or even legal status. She set up a legal practice and hired 4 employees in L.A. to fight for immigration rights. Determined to take on immigration cases that are challenging such as: Edith Espinal’s, a woman avoiding deportation by taking sanctuary in a church in Ohio since 2017. The case has received national attention, including support from former presidential nominee and Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren urging Congress to help to support a bill to protect asylum seekers. With the critical elections looming, there is hope voters are incentivized to vote Democrat across the ballots, and the attack on asylum seekers cease with a new administration at the helm come January 2021.

Top: Lizbeth Mateo, Bottom: Kate del Castillo

Mateo’s fight for equitable immigration law through activism and advocacy is inspirational and she persists in her quest, in spite of a recent deportation case that has been brought against her. Recently, actress Kate del Castillo and Latinx House, hosted an Instagram Live Q&A with Lizbeth Mateo to bring national awareness and fundraising initiatives to Mateo’s own immigration case and that of her clients. An impassioned Kate del Castillo is an ardent supporter of Mateo and said “she will do everything in her power to keep her in the U.S.” – a great moment of solidarity for viewers to witness and get involved in. To stream Undocumented Lawyer now and donate to Lizbeth’s cause, click here. HBO Latino acquired the documentary and will begin airing it early 2021. Undocumented Lawyer has a 20 minute run time.

Amy Poehler’s Grassroots Biden Funded Event Gave Viewers Much Needed Comedic Relief

From Top Left: Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee, Kamala Harrris, Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Bottom Left, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph

If you’re like me, you may be experiencing Zoom fatigue.  Whether it’s for your job, activism, or getting together with friends and business associates via virtual chat – the novelty of this communication method seems to be waning for many. And with the pandemic, thriving in many states across the U.S. – Zoom or other virtual conferencing platforms seem likely to stay. Yet, the virtual Grassroots Event hosted by Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph with guest speakers Democratic Vice President nominee, Kamala Harris and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, this week, made me less sour about the medium and restored some of my faith on its benefits.

There were some hiccups, as there always is on Zoom meetings. Someone’s muted; they keep talking, don’t know they are muted, go off to the side, come back and start speaking again and everyone can hear them. In this case, it happened to Amy Poehler: the host. She carried on with her funny animated gestures while Maya Rudolph stepped in. Rudolph attributed to the glitch to a conspiracy plot, while Hillary Clinton blamed the Russians. It was all done in good fun and the mood was light. These two comediennes, who are known to impersonate their guests, knew how to ask pressing questions without the rigidity of typical political discourse and also make us laugh. We found out some interesting facts about the panelists. Hillary likes to nap during quarantine, Kamala has been cooking the same three meals on rotation, Amy has been teaching her kids sign language and Maya has been immersed in playing new games with her children.  The hosts did pose serious questions to Harris and Clinton.

Kamala Harris

They discussed the lack of leadership in the White House, the admission made by Trump on tape, recorded by journalist, Bob Woodward, about how deadly the Coronavirus is, it’s impact, and the near 200,000 Americans left to die because of Trump’s inaction. How Trump projects hostility and can’t take a joke, or make a joke for that matter; a sign, all the speakers agreed is telling of a flawed character.  Kamala Harris spoke about Biden’s plans to address climate change with the devastating fires pummeling the West Coast. Joe Biden’s commitment to unite the country. Both Harris and Clinton couldn’t praise the other enough and Clinton assured conference attendees to watch Kamala Harris emerge as the victor during Kamala Harris and Mike Pence’s debate, scheduled in a few weeks. To learn more about future grassroots events and to get Joe Biden and Kamala elected, click here. Also to learn whether you are registered to vote, click here.

Review: ‘Mr. Soul!’- A Black Cultural Experience To Be Treasured – Hypnotic and Poignant

Photo: Ivan Cury, Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions

Not long ago, when life had some semblance of normalcy, I had covered the Urbanworld Film Festival in person and was tasked with writing about the festival’s anticipated blockbusters. While waiting for one of these films to begin, I snuck into an adjacent theater to watch the documentary, Mr. Soul! by director and producer, Melissa Haizlip.  I was intrigued by the film’s poster; it read: Before Oprah, Before Arsenio…There was: Mr. Soul! As a longtime fan of late-night talk shows, I was irritated and frustrated at myself for not knowing whom this revolutionary pioneer of Black entertainment and culture was. His name: Ellis Haizlip. The producer and host of the PBS variety show: Soul! changed the national scope and existing perceptions of Blacks in a volatile 1960s backdrop – forever! No surprise it won Urbanworld Film Festival’s Best Documentary category and received a standing ovation the Sundance Film Festival.  So what was so extraordinary about Ellis Haizlip and this entertainment show he launched in 1968?

Ellis Haizlip Surrounded by Members of the J.C. White Choir, Photo: Alex Harsley, Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions

Ellis Haizlip was a visionary and determined to shatter contrived media perception of Blacks at the time, as victims subjected to abject poverty or lawless citizens in the United States. Raised in Washington in a middle-class family and setting his sights on New York to form his production company, his aim was to push Black Arts forward, as it was evident to Haizlip that there was a huge void to fill. Blair Underwood, executive produced and narrates Ellis Haizlip’s thoughts in the film so eloquently and powerfully states: “Before we can educate and entertain, we need to share the Black experience.” And that Ellis did. In its inception, Soul! aired only in New York and managed to go national in 1969. The once local program set forth the careers of the most prominent artists in Black history: Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder and his Wonderlove band, Al Green, Cicely Tyson, Sidney Poitier, and Toni Morrison to name a few. Haizlip was fearless in giving a visual platform to outspoken Black poets like The Last Poets – including 6 female poets, such as Sonia Sanchez, and pushed boundaries by interviewing Minister Louis Farrakhan and Kathleen Cleaver (wife of exiled Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver).

Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin in 1971, Film Still Courtesy of: Shoes in the Bed Productions.

In his quest to unleash artists’ natural talents via the television medium, he often prompted poets and singers to take the stage unfiltered and unencumbered. He employed females on his set and advocated for an interview conducted by renowned poet and activist, Nikki Giovanni and literary legend, James Baldwin in England. The footage of the animated and captivating Baldwin and inquisitive Giovanni is unprecedented – a Black female interviewer engaging in a fiery conservation with one of America’s beloved writers is quite impressionable to see in 1971, shortly after, Soul! aired until 1973, defunded and shut down by nefarious forces, as detailed in the documentary.

(L to R) – AMANDA SEALES; TOP – MELISSA HAIZLIP/BLAIR UNDERWOOD; MIDDLE – STAN LATHAN/NIKKI GIOVANNI; BOTTOM – SONIA SANCHEZ/ROBERT GLASPER/THE LAST POETS/BLACK IVORY – Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions

So where are we now? It’s 2020 and social justice continues to be a pressing urgent issue in the United States as police brutality continues to plague Black Americans, exacerbated by the tragic loss of our Black icons this year. Mr. Soul’s recent Kickback premiere reminded us of the past, present, and future Black Excellence represents and the need to cultivate and preserve its existence. Host and comedienne, Amanda Seales led the conversation with guests, Melissa Haizlip (Ellis Haizlip’s niece & creative engine behind Mr. Soul!) Actor Blair Underwood, acclaimed director, Stan Lathan (former director of Soul!) Activist and poet Felipe Luciano who guest-hosted the popular “Shades of Soul” episode, featuring Tito Puente and his orchestra, Haizlip exposed television audiences to Latin music and multi-cultural Afro-Latino bands. To say the Soul! television show was groundbreaking doesn’t suffice; it was one of a kind until this day. The legacy Ellis Haizlip left behind cemented the foundation for Black culture never before seen on a national scale – fusing poetry, activism, theatre, dance, and music for the world to experience and solidify the richness of Black arts. Mr. Soul! is available in more than 70 virtual cinemas worldwide through September 10th. To buy tickets and learn more about Mr. Soul! click here.

Review: ‘American Street Kid’ – Narrative Meets Documentary Style Portrayal of America’s Homeless Youth – Bitingly Gritty and Honest

Homeless kids in Los Angeles, Photo: Jeff Farkash

By definition, documentaries are meant to educate, shed light, and “document reality” to inspire and move audiences on any given subject they may know nothing about. American Street Kid, by writer/director Michael Leoni, met these criteria – and then some. He pushed the genre further by injecting himself into the story; weary at first, I thought his inclusion would taint the outcome of the film – turns out I was wrong. Leoni begins the film by asking random people – young and old – their perception of homeless youth. Typical responses: lazy, unmotivated, and labeled as undesirable.  Disheartening to hear as the absence of empathy reflects society’s lack of interest and understanding of how these youths become entrenched in these unfortunate circumstances.

Ish playing guitar, Photo: Jeff Farkash

Director Michael Leoni gives us a glimpse into the lives of these troubled young people by hanging out in the Los Angeles neighborhoods they frequent. Unsettled by and distrusting of Leoni, it took time for the filmmaker to gain the kids’ trust. Once he did, the audience meets incredibly charismatic and endearing characters like Ish, a talented African-American musician who struggles with childhood abandonment and abuse by a pimp father and prostitute mother, Greenz and Nick, likeable guy-next door types with winning personalities, yet drugged-addicted with abusive parents that led them to run away and seek a better life in the streets of Los Angeles. Bublez and Kiki, two of the younger kids, the filmmaker encounters, with so much promise, likely destined for tragedy. Although post-film release, Marquesha “Kiki” Babers has launched a successful career as a poet, touring nationwide and speaking about her experiences in conferences.

Bublez on the streets of Los Angeles, Photo: Jeff Farkash

For many of these kids, their fates are sealed in death or imprisonment. It’s inevitable. Failed bureaucratic agencies doing the minimum to assist these kids and overworked staff unable to meet the influx of homeless teens in overcrowded facilities, as Leoni experiences when reaching out to them. But, the filmmaker doesn’t solely rely on the mishaps and the negative circumstances these young people endure to tell the story, he incorporates narrative elements to build storylines with these real-life characters – to not just keep you engaged and sympathize with their abysmal situations, but root for them as you’d be inclined for protagonists in any narrative drama or comedy. It’s a refreshing spin. And it works.

Homeless kids on the streets of Los Angeles, Photo: Jeff Farkash

What started as an assignment to produce a 2-minute PSA on America’s homeless youth turned into an 8-year journey for director, Michael Leoni. Compelled to document the struggles and hardship of America’s 1.8 million forgotten homeless youth, after struggling with financial hardship in New York City at the age of 19, became more than a passion project for him. Leoni launched the Spare Some Change nonprofit to engage and empower homeless youth to change their lives and create a stable future. The film earned the Social Impact Award at the Hollywood Film Festival and Excellence Award at the Impact Doc Awards!  The film has a run time of 104 minutes. American Street Kid begins streaming worldwide today on Apple, Amazon Prime, Spectrum, and another popular services. To learn more about more the American Street Kid documentary, click here.

Review: ‘Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado’ – Nostalgic and Magical!

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Walter Mercado, Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Growing up in my Latin household, I was guaranteed three things: flavorful rice and beans, the sound of salsa, and exposure to astrological phenomenon, Walter Mercado. I miss and relish all three, but what stuck with me throughout the years is the influence of the latter. I attribute my love of sparkles and all things astrology to the enigmatic Walter Mercado. I can’t remember any other time during my Cuban childhood home, or my extended family’s, where we’d sit in complete silence, listening to Walter Mercado deliver new developments for each sign of the horoscope. We were all captivated by his presence and larger-than-life TV persona. And, come July 8th you will be too, as Netflix begins streaming Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado globally, to entice – existing and new fans – with this wonderful documentary of the iconic clairvoyant.

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Eugenio Derbez, Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

The documentary begins with a series of Walter Mercado images from the height of his popularity on television, displaying his signature choreographed arm moves to draw the viewer’s attention, and in true Mercado form – he succeeded in commanding it! Millions of Latin families tuned in daily to listen and absorb new astrological insights pertaining to the zodiac. Actor/Comedian, Eugenio Derbez says: “ When I first saw him on TV, I was like, What is this I’m watching? Is it a woman, a man, a sorcerer?” Derbez was hooked! Legions of Walter Mercado fans continue to experience this sentiment. With his grandiose beautiful outfits, soothing voice, and mesmerizing gaze he was unstoppable. Undoubtedly, gender non-confirming Walter Mercado was a pioneer for LGTBQ+ personalities we see today. As the documentary delves deeper into his life, we learn that he refused to adhere to societal rules, and instead, opted to break them.

Mercado, born in 1932, knew he was different from the outset and destined for a different life from that of his siblings and the poor rural area of Ponce, Puerto Rico where he was from. After breathing life into a small bird on the brink of death, young Walter Mercado became the talk of his town and was deemed a mystic figure people sought advice and help from. His mother accepted and encouraged his newfound adulation and set up a designated space in their home for Walter to thrive as fortune consultant. Following his natural gift for entertainment, Mercado enrolled in the University of Ponce and pursued dancing and acting and landed telenovela roles with Telemundo.

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Walter Mercado at home, Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

A momentous visit to the set from the head of Telemundo at the time, prompted Mercado to create a promo for the soap opera that would launch his astrological career. For decades, Mercado’s message of peace, love, and prosperity has impacted Latinos and Americans around the world. He’s the most renowned astrological figure nationally and internationally, meeting the likes of prime ministers, former presidents with special guest appearances on American talk shows. The documentary doesn’t just focus on his successes, tragedy befell the icon, which almost left him for dead and the film does a superb job allowing Mercado, and those close to him, tell his story. Mucho Mucho Amor (Mercado’s signature catchphrase) captures the essence of the legend and depicts his ups and downs with authenticity and grace, from the music to the use of tarot cards. Although Mercado left the limelight and remained dormant for a while, his comeback was almost inevitable as a new generation of adoring fans surfaced on social media and beyond.

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Walter Mercado and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Mucho Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, and produced by Alex Fumero has a run time of 93 minutes and begins streaming on Netflix, July 8th. Don’t miss this spectacular documentary and special appearance by Lin-Manuel Miranda fan-boying Walter Mercado as he meets the iconic psychic in Puerto Rico. To learn more about the film, click here.

Film Independent’s Project Involve 2020 Showcase Raises The Creativity Bar With Thought-Provoking Films

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Jonah Beres as Sam in Balloon, Photo: Courtesy of Film Independent

We are living in unprecedented times. That’s a given. A global pandemic claiming more than 2 million lives and counting, a monumental Black Lives Matter Movement calling for the dismantlement of systemic racism rooted in American foundations. Yet, in the midst of all this chaos (ultimately for the greater good) there is beauty waiting to be discovered through the magical storytelling lens of filmmakers. Stories about communities underrepresented on the screen that need to be seen. This year, Film Independent unveiled 6 short films from their 27th Project Involve program poised to make a lasting impression on audiences. 4 of these films are laced with bittersweet, funny, and controversial themes expressing emotions validating our universal experiences we share as humans.

Balloon, directed by Jeremy Merrifield, and edited by Bowei Yue, follows 14 year-old Sam (Jonah Beres) in the middle of an active-shooter drill, led by the talented Paul Scheer (Officer Hart). Sam, a quiet teen, is the target of harassment after a video of him crying goes viral after being punched by school bully, Jason (Carson Severson). Jason is dead set on seizing any opportunity to get a rise out of Sam and his other victims. Sam’s friend, Adam (Jaylin Ogle), tries to console Sam and urges him to fight back, while not wanting to be labeled as weak by the other boys. When Sam discovers he has super powers to defend himself from his aggressors, he’s at a crossroads: fight back or continue enduring the brutal torments. The film reveals an all too familiar toxic masculinity in American culture and what’s at stake for children and young adults to survive in school. It’s relevant and timely and worth watching.

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Lara Cengiz as Kati in Bambirak, Photo Courtesy of Film Independent

The film Bambirak by director Zamarin Wahdat, about an 8 year-old Afghan girl (Kati) and her single father (Faruk), adapting to a new country they’ve sought asylum in is poignant and speaks to the collective solid bond fathers and daughters have. The story begins with Kati (Lara Cengiz) hiding in her dad’s delivery truck. Once he discovers her while making deliveries, Faruck (Kailas Mahadevan) becomes desperate to drop Kati at the grandmother’s home, although she’s nowhere to be found. Faruk enlists Kati to be his assistant. Everything seems to go smoothly until a racist turn-of-events challenge the father-daughter duo. Tensions flare, accusations are made, and with minimal dialogue, the father-daughter team accept the trade-off of being in a new country. Wonderfully acted and scripted, Bambirak is a gem of a short film.

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Buck, the narrative short by director Elegance Bratton and co-director Jovan James follows Lynn (Malik Shakur), a young gay black man dealing with his depression in a self-destructive manner that has the potential to lead to tragedy. The film starts off with Lynn’s mother pressing him about his meds. Determined to seek happiness with a visit to his white male lover, Richard (Gabe Peyton), the encounter proves to be disappointing. Lynn realizes there is another gay couple waiting for him to partake in a sexual party. Reluctant and declining to participate, Lynn decides to leave even though he’s taken a hit of Meth, is barely conscious, and is rescued by fellow black gay man whose life is on borrowed time. With the 25 million Americans suffering from depression to date, we don’t see nearly enough films examining and exploring individual experiences with this disease and Buck does a great job of portraying someone who battles mental illness, with empathy, not pity.

 

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Saint from La Gloria film, Photo: Courtesy of Film Independent

La Gloria a film by Mary Evangelista explores the aftermath of an attempted suicide by a young gay Latina (Gloria). And she how copes with lovesickness and sorrow with the help of her grandmother’s optimism and dream-channeling to achieve hope and peace. While the rest of her family glosses over her suicide attempt and go about their everyday lives. Gloria (Chris Gris) and her grandmother’s bond is authentic and compelling. It offers a sweet glimpse into relationships between younger and older generations. And we are here for it!

Film Independent’s 2020 Project Involve Showcase, a carefully curated program of short films spotlighting some of the program’s most exciting new filmmakers. Project Involve (PI for short) fosters the careers of talented filmmakers from communities traditionally underrepresented in the industry, and is celebrating 27 years of working toward a more inclusive entertainment landscape. The program serves as a valuable incubator for diverse talent and has cultivated the careers of more than 820 filmmakers. Notable alumni include Linda Yvette Chavez & Marvin Lemus (Gentefied); Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians); Jomo Fray (Selah and the Spades); LaToya Morgan (Into the Badlands); Justin Simien (Dear White People); Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Kim Yutani (Director of Programming, Sundance) and many more. To learn more about Film Independent and Project Involve, click here.

Review: ‘Ovid and the Art of Love’ – Resoundingly Mirrors Modern Times

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Corbin Bleu as Ovid, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Esmé von Hoffman’s latest film to hit the streaming platforms, Ovid and the Art of Love, couldn’t have come at a better time amidst a global pandemic and the ensuing chaos the current administration is wittingly encouraging in our nation. Its social and political commentary will resonate with audiences. As millions of Americans affected with the repercussions of the novel coronavirus (over 76K+ deaths domestically, an unemployment surge of 14.7%, a statistic unseen since the Great Depression) continues to wreak havoc in our daily lives.

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John Savage as Augustus, Kimberly Cruchon Brooks as Livia, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Parallels of our stark reality compounded by the film’s theme are spot on. Writer/Director Esmé von Hoffman’s version of the old tale of beloved poet, Ovid, otherwise known as Publius Ovidius Naso, who was exiled by Roman emperor, Augustus in 8 AD, “allegedly” because of his exotic and provocative books of poetry. Corbin Bleu (“High School Musical,” “Dancing with the Stars”) is charming as he breathes life into modern-day Ovid, and finds his purpose in the urban streets of Detroit. He’s summoned by Augustus, the inept and hypocritical emperor, played by the talented John Savage, (“Deer Hunter”) to pursue a career in law but his interests lie elsewhere: poetry. Determined to follow his passion, Ovid attempts to read his poems at open mic clubs, failing at first and ridiculed by patrons, later finds his rhythm in verse and love as he follows a woman he thought would fulfill his life. As Ovid’s poetry career and romantic conquests flourish, the citizens of Rome, A.K.A. Detroit, are in an upheaval; jobs are lacking, health insurance is scarce, and people are protesting inadequate leadership. Ring a bell? It’s 2020 on screen, minus the fancy togas, and elegant headpieces.

 

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Director Esmé von Hoffman, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Ovid and The Art Love is a tale as old as humanity – depicting average citizens standing up to power with truths and freedom of expression to affect change and the dire consequences that result, in this case, Ovid, regarded as the canonical poet of Latin literature, is exiled and sent to Romania, but his beautiful poetry and popularity lives on. In 2017, Ovid’s birthplace of Sulmona formerly Sulmo in Italy, acquitted the poet of any wrongdoing, Florence followed suit.

Check out this wonderful adaptation of Ovid and the Art of Love by director, Esmé von Hoffman, when it’s released on May 19th by Level 33 Entertainment via major streaming and VOD platforms including Amazon, iTunes, Comcast, XFinity, Dish, Sling, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube and many more.

 

 

Film Review: ‘The State of Texas Vs. Melissa’ – A Gripping Doc on the Judicial System’s Exploitation of the Marginalized in America

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Melissa Lucio, Photo: Courtesy of The 2050 Group

As the first Hispanic woman facing death row in the state of Texas, Melissa Lucio’s milestone or accomplishment isn’t worthy of recognition, especially for Latinos, yet her story and impending fate is compelling and requires attention. The State of Texas vs. Melissa, a documentary by French-American director, Sabrina Van Tassel (The Silenced Wall) asserts how the laws of injustice favor poor, uneducated people of color. And how their cases are inevitably swept into the vortex of anonymity. Sabrina Van Tassel first encountered Melissa as she was researching for her documentary about women in jail. Van Tassel, an investigative journalist and filmmaker for over 15 years, was reluctant to meet Lucio as her case centered on the homicide of her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah. An abhorrent charge, undoubtedly. What drew Van Tassel to Melissa’s case was the inmate’s demeanor, the facts of the case, and belief that she’s innocent.

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Director, Sabrina Van Tassel, Photo: Courtesy of The 2050 Group

The director does a fantastic job of letting the images and cast of characters guide the narrative- everyone from Melissa’s family members to defense attorneys and forensic scientists play significant roles in how the documentary unfolds. From the beginning, as Melissa is interrogated for over 7 hours by unrelenting police in Southern Texas, the audience can surmise she was coerced into confessing to the murder. The filmmaker paints a vivid picture of Melissa’s life. We see she comes from a broken home, suffered physical abuse at the hands of relatives and her mother’s ex-boyfriends. The indifference Melissa’s mother shows towards her daughter’s sexual abuse and current situation is quite telling of the lack of parental and emotional support Melissa received. The drug abuse, abject poverty and guardianship of 14 children overwhelmed Lucio. It’s obvious her unresolved trauma led to her downward spiral, but this impossible situation does not make a murderer. Or does it? With no history of violence, as confirmed by family members and psychologists, there wasn’t sufficient evidence she was prone to commit this heinous crime. Melissa Lucio was a negligent mother and child services eventually removed her children from her care, the director glosses over these facts. The audience could have benefitted from learning more about Melissa’s state of mind during the actual death of Mariah.

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Although some details were omitted, the documentary chronicles the turn of events that make Melissa’s story so fascinating. A corrupt DA looking to seek re-election in Texas’  Cameron county; a defense attorney with career aspirations that trumped his client’s best interest and goal of being freed; Melissa’s other daughter, who may have been responsible for her sister’s death. Van Tassel sets the stage for a documentary-style whodunit. And in doing so, we see how easily Lucio was railroaded in a failed judicial system. Sitting on death row for over 13 years, Melissa Lucio is on her last appeal, which if overturned, may go to the Supreme Court.

Making its Tribeca 2020 Film Festival world premiere, The State of Texas vs. Melissa has received well-deserved media attention from virtual festival filmgoers and panelists. Written and Directed by Sabrina Van Tassel, produced by Vito Films in co-production with Tahli Films and Andaman Films has a running time of 97 minutes. To learn more about The State of Texas vs. Melissa, click here.

 

 

Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz – Get Ready for the Next Household Name in Comedy!

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Photo: Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz

Latinos loved to be entertained. We love, laugh, cry and yearn to see our cultural truths and customs depicted – especially on social media. And in recent years, many comedic Internet superstars have emerged and drawn material from their Dominican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican heritage with hilarious content. Taking it to the next level, with popular audio streaming services, is Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz, who co-hosts the weekly podcast“ “Latinos Out Loud” on the Revolver Network with Michael “Juan Bago” Diaz, Jaime “JFernz” Fernandez, and Frank Nibbs. Now in its 7th season and winning a Tecla award for “Best Podcast Content Creator” this Latino vehicle is amplifying Latino voices throughout the country. We chatted with comedienne/actor/producer Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz to get the inside scoop as to why this multi-hyphenate star on the rise, merits the spotlight. Apart from cohosting “Latinos Out Loud,” Rachel is part of the comedy troupe Room 28, featured on NBC’s “Bring on the Funny,” hosts and produces HERlarious, a diverse and all female collective featuring the best sketch, stand up and character acts in New York. With her involvement in variety of entertainment projects, Rachel is primed to shake up the Hollywood status quo for Latinx.

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Room 28 Comedy Troupe on NBC’s “Bring on the Funny,” Photo: Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz

DSMC: What’s your earliest memory of wanting to be in entertainment?

Rachel: I can remember as far back as age 9 when my parents would go out on Saturday nights and leave me behind with my older siblings. They were 9 years older than me. And they’d let me stay up late to watch Saturday Night Live so I’d stop annoying them. I was in awe. These actors would interpret these different multiple roles and act them out. I remember thinking to myself: That’s the coolest thing ever! I want to do this! I was always involved in the performing arts in school, growing up in South Brooklyn, I was very much part of after-school life. Participating in plays, rehearsals, dance, and theatre. Growing up with a Dominican mother, my mom was like “No, mija that’s not going to make you money…Aaa-aah.” So I went to college. Pursued a career in marketing and I never let the acting bug go, once it’s in you – you never let it go. It’s like a parasite and it creeps into your system, until finally, you’re like fine! It has to come out. When my son Donovan was born 4 years ago, that’s when it came seeping through my pores. I said to myself: Why am I here, in corporate America? The money brings me some happiness, but there’s nothing like making other people smile, laugh – entertaining them. I gave all the corporate stuff up and said: Fuck it! Let’s see where this goes. I want to be the mother that I always wanted to be and the actress that I wanted to be. Those are the two things I’ve been pursuing hard body full-time the last four years.

DSMC: Brooklyn College is both our alma mater. At one point they had a thriving diverse performing arts program? Did you receive formal acting training from Brooklyn College?

Rachel: I took a few undergrad classes, but when I decided to pursue acting full time with formal training, I enrolled in private acting lessons with well-known teachers. I’m a two-time recipient of the diversity scholarship at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. With a career in comedy it’s smart to understand the methods and approaches of the different schools of comedy that are recognized and accredited throughout the world. I began with Improv Comedy 101 and heard about the diversity scholarship. I saw the lack of diversity within the student body. I went for it. I didn’t get it the first 3 times I applied. I just kept at it. Finally, I got the good news in 2016. Since then, I’ve been nonstop. The beauty of being a diversity scholarship recipient is that they hook you up! If there are open seats, in other classes that don’t sell out, the scholarship recipients are the first to get the notifications about open seats at UCB. I’m so thankful. Now that I’m 40, I’m super focused, and want to do everything I can to add “sazón” to the comedy bucket. I’m trying to hone in on where my passions lie and that’s sketch comedy right now. I just finished the sketch writing circuit at the school. I’ve touched on the 3 pillars of the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB).

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Center: Amy Poehler, Photo: Courtesy of UCB

Side note: The Upright Citizens Brigade, which readers in case you didn’t know – was co-founded by the supremely talented, Amy Poehler, which also founded Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, bringing to the spotlight incredible women making strides in varied industries. The Upright Citizens Brigade is the only accredited Improv and sketch comedy school in major cities like New York and Los Angeles. To learn more about the Upright Citizens Brigade, click here.

DSMC: You have a lot on your plate with acting, parenting two toddlers, producing, podcasting. You co-founded the podcast: “Latinos Out Loud” What’s it like sharing the airwaves with 3 men?

Rachel: Finding your voice is so important, but maintaining it, is equally as important. Sometimes, all the testosterone around me can easily drown me out. We have this ongoing joke that they have crowned me the Queen Bee of the podcast. And, “Dejame decirte!” I’m not about that life: Oh, bow down! You know, Beehive, but I have to maintain that position. I can get stepped on, not literally, but figuratively. I gotta represent. The female voice within this crowd of funny men is so important. I feel I have to play multiple roles. I modulate and sometimes I have to be the voice of reason, or the voice of femininity. When there’s too much dick talk, and I’m like, all right guys let’s bring it back to comedy.

DSMC: You have a knack for switching up character voices on the podcast, after listening to the 100th episode with Lin-Manuel Miranda Jr. and Sr. as guests, I observed that. Congrats on this milestone! You’re able to do urban, prim and proper, corporate voice, whereas the others on the podcast panelists struggle at times.

Rachel: Thank you, I don’t think I code-switch. I do think it’s important to know your audience. I actually attribute and thank my corporate background for having that ability to modulate, because we need to. I could be hood, but there’s a time and a place. I’m working on me also. I’m a work-in-progress on the Mic. I went from dropping F-bombs on the 1st season every other minute to occasionally using the N- word and that’s not who I wanted to be on the Mic. I still struggle with the F-bombs. I’m from Brooklyn. You know what Im sayin’? I would like to get to the point where I don’t need to say it. The same way I don’t need to say the N-word or curse every other 3 words. I want to be who’d I like to listen to on a podcast. I listen to every episode of the podcast 5 times. It’s my method. I look for errors to edit and fix in the car. To make sure the episode is the best it can be audibly. I’m very structured and anal with voice and what I’m projecting. We take a lot of pride in the audible quality. I get angry when I listen to some of my favorite podcasts and the jokes fall flat, and not because they’re not funny, but the crispness of the sound isn’t there. Nobody wants to hear white noise, black noise, and hear anything else other than the podcast host. We’re all on the same page and I love that. It’s our friendship and our interdependence that makes it thrive. Collectively we’ve been friends for a little over 10 years. We hang out with each other on the side, holidays too. We’re still friends. It’s cool.

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Top (L) Jaime Fernandez, Bottom (L) Juan Bago, Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz, Frank Nibbs, Photo: Revolver Network

DSMC: I remember listening to Howard Stern and Robin Quivers, when it was free on local NY stations. And they had great chemistry. They did pop culture, comedy sketches. Sure, it was controversial, but funny. There doesn’t seem to be anything like that for Latinos. What comes close is New York’s 97.9 FM La Mega, and they seem to fall short. What are your thoughts on this?

Rachel: I would love that – to eventually be the Howard Stern, Robin and Bababooey for the Latino market. We don’t have that. We recently had the president and CEO, and co-founder of Casanova Advertising Agency, Ingrid Otero-Smart. She’s Puerto Rican and has been in the industry for a while. We asked her about the current state of Latinos in podcasting? And she mentioned: “You guys are pioneers right now. You are setting a path for those that are going to follow in your footsteps and it’s so important to make the best decisions you can.” There is a huge weight on our shoulders. She’s right. We don’t have a textbook to read, handbook or manual or someone that came before us. What comes close is La Mega, “El Vacilón de La Mañana.” That’s not a podcast!

DSMC: Whenever I heard “El Vacilón De La Mañana,” I’d interpret the skits and majority of the listeners as gullible – a dumbing down of the Latino population that I never liked. That’s not who Latinos are. We’re educated. We’re smart. We are not here to be disparaged. 

Rachel: I appreciate what the Luis Jimenezs’ of the world do. My mom still thinks he’s hilarious. Sadly, I do not. I don’t relate to most of the content. He’s a funny man. I get it and he’s talented. No disrespect. I’m 40 years-old. I’m on a different comedy wavelength than those guys. We have to do our part to elevate this void. I watch SNL, white/black/Asian sketch shows. When I was out in L.A. to do NBC’s “Bring on the funny.” I was in The Ubers – hittin’ up the dispensaries, left and right. One night I was with the director of Room 28, Jerry Diaz, in the back seat. And, the Uber driver turns around and says: “Rachel “La Loca” – Latinos Out Loud.” Yeeees! That’s me. “I listen to you guys all the time. “You don’t know how much we need you.” I said, really, how so? “They feed us this chancletazo bullshit or Mexican-American comedy that we don’t find funny anymore. My friends and I listen to you even though you’re Caribbean, Dominican, even though your jokes have a New York-centric attitude, my friends and me think it’s hilarious. It’s still Latino, it’s still cultural, and we can still relate.” I think this divide we saw in the past, among different pillars, one of them comedy, is fading out – it’s fizzling away. Finally, we are approaching this convergence that black comedy has already crossed, where we are just about each other and NOT where we are from anymore and it’s about the cultural relevance and the unity, especially with 45 right now. Comedy will always be a universal language.

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Daniel Craig on SNL, Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews

DSMC: What’s next for Rachel “La Loca”? Are you doing more sketch comedy? Continuing with the “Latinos Out Loud” podcast?

Rachel: Collectively, the 4 of us are treating this as a business. We are rebranding and redoing our website and looking to elevate the brand for 2020. We are looking to do more live shows – especially with the markets that have shown us a lot of love; right now it’s a tie between New York and L.A. Our top five markets are New York, California, Chicago, Texas and D.C.; it fluctuates. We want to bring more live shows, hopefully with sponsors attached to them across the country. Our listeners hear themselves when they listen to us. They feel like they’re chillin’ with their cousins snappin’ on each other in a living room. We want to do pop-up podcasts across the country.

Rachel con’t: We took 2019 to focus on our network television debut, branded content development and performing in the comedy festival circuit, as well as a bit of company restructuring, and are really looking forward to our off-Broadway return after our stint on NBC’s “Bring the Funny.” We’re proud to have released a 5-part web series written, produced and starring Room 28 players for the non-profit organization Somos Community Care. The goal of the content is to connect our community with in-culture and in-language primary care doctors that can target the ailments that plague our community before they get to urgent levels.  The organization’s research has shown that on average, our people wait until the last minute to seek medical attention when it comes to the ailments that attack their health, thus making it harder to combat at that stage.  We partnered up and created the “Sick!!” series where our very own Jaime Fernandez plays “El Profeta de la Salud,” a Walter Mercado-like character that can predict your health future.  I believe this is Jaime’ best character yet! He’s a stellar writer. The series is available on the MiSomos app or on their web site https://misomos.com/sick.

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Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz and Jaime Fernandez

DSMC: You mentioned acting as your passion, apart from the sketch comedy and podcasts, what are you looking to do acting-wise?

Rachel: I’ve set this goal for myself: my manager and I are trying to get me booked on networks with co-starring roles. I’m coming so close! I’m out there. I’m auditioning. I’m getting callbacks. I had booked a gig for Identification Discovery. I did a crime-scene reenactment; I was the principle for one episode. I would love to do a recurring role on a network. Pilot season is coming up. I did background work recently. Over the summer I got a taste for film, I did background for West Side Story, working with Spielberg was amazing, and every now and again I do background for SNL. I don’t want to do steady background work anymore unless I’m absorbing and learning something from it. The goal is to book a feature film gig.  

With the ongoing global pandemic grinding life, as we know it, to a startling halt, Latinos everywhere know how to persevere and make the best of the current situation. And that means getting creative when producing comedy. Whether we turn to memes (JLo and Shakira’s history-making halftime show performances are still on people’s minds and social feeds) or creating TikTok videos to Bad Bunny’s or J. Balvin’s tunes, our resilient spirit will never wane. We just can’t hug or kiss like we used to when greeting people – but we make do! Recently, Latinx has made significant strides with shows like Gentefied making its debut, and with the returning season series: On My Block – on Netflix. Latino visibility only accounts for 3% of representation in Hollywood – a dismal situation at best. But, with personalities like Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz committed to breaking barriers in the entertainment industry and paving the way for more Latinx stars, our stories will finally be told and knock mainstream entertainment on its head. Check out and subscribe to the “Latinos Out Loud” podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, iHeart and Stitcher today.

 

 

 

Review: ‘West Side Story’ – A Modern And Riveting Revival

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Cast of West Side Story, Photo by Jan Versweyveld

It’s challenging not succumbing to presumptions, especially before attending a remake of an iconic musical. Recently, this was my dilemma, before the global pandemic crisis we are all currently facing became our new normal. The latest production of West Side Story by Tony Award-winning director Ivo van Hove (A View From the Bridge, The Crucible) exceeded my expectations and my doubts quickly dissolved. The electrifying young and diverse cast (most making their Broadway debut) blew me away. And, I’m certain you will be too when you experience the flurry of captivating choreography, impassioned acting, and vocal intonations that will permeate the theatre and leave you speechless.

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(L) Isaac Powell as Tony, (R) Shereen Pimentel as Maria, Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The cast, led by Isaac Powell (Once on This Island) as Tony and Shereen Pimentel, (The Lion King) as Maria have undeniable chemistry. Powell and Pimentel play off each other’s acting abilities and are superb as the infamous angst-filled couple. The timeless story of two lovers coming together in the midst of racial conflict between their families couldn’t be timelier. More than 60 years after the critically acclaimed musical, written by Arthur Laurents, composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins made its debut on Broadway and changed American theater forever. Now, it is back to remind us that there is no place for hate and intolerance as these detrimental emotions destroy everything in their path, including love. Originally based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with a storyline focusing on the mistreatment of Puerto Ricans in New York City, the musical’s themes strike a nerve with the rising problem of xenophobia in this country.

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Amar Ramasar, Yesenia Ayala (Center), and West Side Story Cast, Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The phenomenal dancing in this classic Broadway favorite lets audiences follow the otherwise inevitable doomed classic love story. The tantalizing new choreography, by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is magnificent. All of the performers glide with fluidity and grace and you can’t keep your eyes off them, especially Amar Ramasar (Bernardo), the classically trained New York City Ballet dancer. Adding to the visual stimulation: the LED screens capturing the dreary backdrops of New York City and handheld cameras projecting each actor’s facial expression up close driving the narrative. After all, this is a modern interpretation of a beloved classic, and new audiences, young and old, will definitely appreciate these additions.

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Dharon E. Jones, Amar Ramasar, and West Side Story Cast, Photo: Jan Versweyveld

West Side Story runs an hour and 45 minutes, sans intermission, and will return on April 12th to the Broadway Theatre in New York City. Yes, a bit of a wait as Broadway actors and staff can’t work from home. If you’d like to donate, please go to Broadwaycares.org. When the lights do come back on, don’t miss Ivo van Hove’s Broadway musical debut with the revival of this widely revered classic and the ageless songs: “America,” “Maria,” and “Tonight,” to sing along. To learn more about the show and get tickets, click here.

Credits: Music: Leonard Bernstein; Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; Book: Arthur Laurents; Director: Ivo van Hove; Choreography: Anne Teresa De Keermaeker; Set and Lighting: Jan Versweyveld; Costume Designer: An D’Huys; Sound Designer: Tom Gibbons; Video Designer: Luke Halls: Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick; Music Director and Supervisor: Alexander Gemignani.
Cast: Isaac Powell, Shereen Pimentel, Dharon E. Jones, Yesenia Ayala, Amar Ramasar, Ahmad Simmons, Elijah A. Carter, Danny Wolohan, Jacob Guzman, Kevin Csolak, Matthew Johnson, Zuri Noelle Ford, Daniel Oreskes, Pippa Pearthree, Thomas Jay Ryan.