The Godfather of the Italian-American Experience

General | Oct 19, 2016 | Carlos Castillo

I realized Saturday night that Mexican-Americans need to take a page out of Martin Scorsese’s playbook.

I went to see “Bleed For This,” the biopic on Rhode Island boxer Vinny Pazienza. Pazienza had been an entertaining fighter back in the day. I enjoyed his bouts with Greg Haugen in the 1980s, but this part of his career wasn’t covered in the movie, which instead focused on Pazienza’s comeback from a broken neck later in his career.

The presence of this movie is timely. I’m about to launch an effort to raise finishing funds for “Schoolboy,” a documentary on boxing legend Bobby Chacon, who passed away in September. I’ve been nurturing this story for years because it’s an amazing tale. “Schoolboy” also happens to spotlight a Mexican-American, a demographic that is woefully underrepresented in the cinematic canon.

Vinnie Pazienza was a tough dude, but he was no Willie Pep (birth name: Guglielmo Papaleo). I consider Pep, a featherweight, and heavyweight Rocky Marciano as the two greatest Italian-American fighters. But Pep didn’t make it to a movie screen. Marciano, Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta and now Pazienza did, and that’s why I believe those names will live on.

Of course, Scorsese immortalized LaMotta, still punching at 95, in “Raging Bull.” He also executive produced “Bleed For This.” Both movies embrace the Italian-American heritage shared by Scorsese, LaMotta and Pazienza.

The Italian-American angle isn’t the focal point of “Bleed For This,” but it flavors the story just like it did in “Rocky.” Rocky Balboa was a fictional boxer, but “Rocky” is one of the most influential movies of all time when it comes to archetypes and story structure. The fact that the character is Italian-American isn’t the main part of the story, but it is still part of the story. Many Italian-Americans take pride in Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” because through his persevering character they see the potential in themselves.

From a practical standpoint, look for the "Bleed For This" distributor to exploit (not a bad word in the film business) the Italian-American demographic in its marketing of the movie. The Internet has fractionalized the market for filmed entertainment, and audiences that share a cultural common ground can help a film find its legs.

I don’t think I have to connect the dots to get at what I’m trying to say here. Unfortunately, Mexican-Americans don’t have someone with the clout of Scorsese to get the ball rolling, which is sadly ironic given that for decades the film industry has sat smack dab in what I presume to be the densest population of Mexican-Americans in the United States.

But what about Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“The Revenant”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”)? Both were born and raised in Mexico. In my experiences distributing films with a Latino component, I learned that you can’t paint this demographic with a broad brush. Growing up in Mexico and growing up in Los Angeles bring different sensibilities to many things, including creative endeavor.

A related example: In 2005, Duilio Loi was inducted into the boxing hall of fame in Canastota, New York, the same class as my guy, Chacon. Loi lived and boxed primarily in Italy, so most Italian-American boxing fans have probably never heard of the guy. When Scorsese was growing up in the 1950s in lower Manhattan’s Little Italy, I would venture to guess the guys on the street were talking about Marciano and Graziano, not Duilio Loi, who was also active in that era.

I propose that Mexican-Americans, including people with the financial wherewithal to back a film, need to get involved. I won’t get into the societal ramifications for seeing an ethnic group on the big screen. That ground has been covered. But I will say this: Mexican-Americans and other Latinos are much more than just a political punching bag.

Another thing, a little controversial and out of the box: Don’t assume that giving to a grantmaking organization with a filmmaking mission is the answer. I’ve been observing this situation for decades and this approach hasn’t borne enough fruit in a meaningful way. The proof is in the pudding. Instead, seek out actual producers, who are the real entrepreneurs in the filmmaking world. Listen to their pitch and scrutinize their plan. If it doesn’t cut the mustard or seems fishy, pass.

Directly funding a specific project cuts out the bureaucracy of the non-profit model and puts more dollars on the screen instead of paying for overhead, staff salaries and other expenses that have little to do with film production, distribution and promotion.

I love boxers, no matter their ethnic background, color, nationality, religious affiliation or anything else that sets people apart. Muhammad Ali is my hero. I’ve probably seen every documentary on Ali and even saw “The Greatest” (Ali played himself) at the drive-in as a kid growing up in the 1970s.

Just like Ali, Bobby Chacon and other Mexican-American fighters thrilled boxing fans of every stripe back in the day, and some of their stories deserve to be told, too. There’s nothing I’d love more than to have some Mexican-American, Italian-American or African-American kid see my documentary and become inspired and moved by Chacon’s story, warts and all. But filmmakers such as myself need the capital to capture and present these images and stories. Factor in the expense of archival footage to tell stories from the past, and the situation is even more dire.

We need more Mexican-Americans to step up and at least listen to the possibilities.

Keywords: Mexican-American, Scorsese, Bleed For This, Latino, film, filmmaking


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