Few films educate and entertain in equal measure, and achieve cultural landmark status along the way. The Color Purple, Stand and Deliver, Schindler’s List and Salaam Bombay! are on that short list – and now a new film, Make America Great Again, may soon join them.
The film will soon hit the festival circuit. In a private screening at the Hispanic Information Television Network (HITN), where the film was recently being edited, it evoked laughter and tears from a notably diverse audience – young and old, black, white and Latino – and ignited discussion for nearly an hour. My wife could not stop laughing as she captured every subtle and overt funny line.
The film traces the adventures of Rogelio Yola, a dreamer from the Dominican Republic who comes to America in search of a job, gets falsely accused of terrorism, and is chased by ICE agents for nearly half the movie. Aside from one of the most outrageous chase sequences in recent cinema history, the film offers an intelligent, ironic and politically astute vision of US immigration policy.
The political savvy is no accident. Writer/director Nelson Denis was a New York State Assemblyman. His first feature film premiered in the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival and was described by the New York Times as “reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing but with a lighter touch.” The Boston Globe called it “ebullient…politically charged…mixes quirkiness and cultural poignancy.” Denis also authored the best-selling “War Against all Puerto Ricans” (Nation Books, 2015). HITN, one of the principal sponsors of Make America Great Again, is the largest non-profit Latino broadcaster in the US, with a stated mission to “educate and entertain” the American public about Latino issues. In Donald Trump’s America, immigration and ICE raids are clearly two of those issues.
With a New York touch reminiscent of Woody Allen’s best work, the film pays homage to a neighborhood – but this time, rather than the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the neighborhood is Washington Heights.
The action sequences are extraordinary. An army of ICE agents chase Rogelio through a Kafkaesque series of New York streets, stairs, basements and underground chambers. The paranoia of The Third Man, the POV kinetics of Point Break and Raising Arizona, the urban chaos of Casino Royale and Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior – all these elements explode in a shocking, surrealistic, yet utterly believable chase sequence that left this viewer speechless.
Throughout the entire film, a lively Latino music score spices the action and a standout performance by Angel “Chi Chi” Salazar anchors the story. Audiences remember Chi Chi from the 1983 film Scarface, and from his thirty-year career as a stand-up comedian. Those comic chops are evident in nearly every frame of this film, and Make America Great Again is his story: a modern-day view of an American dream gone sour.
In 2017, with the world upside down, Make America Great Again is a reaffirmation of that dream, and an alternate vision of America. An appropriate film, for an appropriate time. It is well worth viewing.