’Gun Hill Road’ :: Family dynamics, 21st century style
Part tough street film and part sensitive gay character study, "Gun Hill Road" offers a complex and insightful portrait of a family divided told from the perspective of the classic father-son dysfunctional narrative.
The film, the debut effort of Bronx native Rashaad Ernesto Green, asks the question: How does one reconcile a parent’s unconditional love for his/her child with the annihilating pressure of one’s own cultural beliefs?
Such is the quest of Enrique (the film’s protagonist played to perfection by Esai Morales) who, after three years spent in prison, returns home to the Bronx to find the world he once knew has drastically changed. His wife, Angela (Judy Reyes) struggles to hide an emotional affair; while his teenage son, Michael/Vanessa (newcomer Harmony Santana), is shifting identity and social circles much to Enrique’s immense despair.
Unable to come to terms with his son’s transgender lifestyle choices, Enrique desperately clings on to his instilled macho ideals (as if to preserve his own virility); while Angela in all her feminine woman stereotypical role attempts to keep the family together by protecting Michael. Will Enrique take the journey towards gradual acceptance of his son’s true identity to become the father he needs to be or, will he once again risk losing his family and freedom?
"Gun Hill Road" had its world premiere this past January at Sundance 2011 as part of the Festival’s Dramatic competition. Since then the film has been accumulating accolades and special recognitions, including being selected for the 2010 Tribeca All Access Program; as well as being named a recipient of the 2009 Spike Lee Fellowship, winner of the Princess Grace Foundation Award, and given a Hollywood Foreign Press Association Grant. It also was recognized by the Urban Arts Initiative in New York and the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance.
The film opened in limited release in New York and Los Angeles this week. For upcoming dates or to request that the film play at a theater near you, visit the film’s website.
EDGE caught up with the young Latino New Yorker filmmaker Rashaad Ernesto Green and the film’s breakout star, newcomer Harmony Santana, to talk about the making of the film, its impact on both the Hispanic and the LGBT communities, its homage to the Bronx, and how its narrative dynamic was reflected in real-life situations.
The Bronx connection
EDGE: What does "Gun Hill Road" mean?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: It’s street in the Bronx. Because I feel that the Bronx is a character in the story I wanted to have immediate recognition from the title.
It’s important because it informs the mindset of the characters and shapes the way they view the world. And it can also be broken down in terms of "gun" referring to Enrique’s character violent history. It also works in a double-entendre kind of way.
EDGE: What inspired you to want to tell such a compelling story tackling such controversial, taboo topic as acceptance of alternative lifestyle within the Latin culture?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: It’s inspired by someone in my own family who went through something very similar as Enrique. His child was also going through the transition process and he didn’t exactly have the tools to understand. I saw the struggle. I saw a man who was broken and I saw a child without her father and I wanted to make a piece of art that didn’t necessarily give them all the answers but at least pointed the way that if you put love and family first you can really do anything - everything else becomes secondary.
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Watch the trailer for "Gun Hill Road":
About family, first & foremost
EDGE: For the roles of the mother and the father, it was important for you to cast actors with a connection to the Bronx. Was it as important that they also be straight actors? Do you think the key to making a LGBT themed movie successfully cross over to mainstream is to have a cast with fairly recognizable IMDB profiles and be non-gay?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: For me, although it has LGBT themes, the film is about a family, first and foremost. It’s a story about a Latino family. I’m Latino and I have a family and these issues are in our family as well as many families and not only across the world but of course in the Bronx. I wanted to tell this story because it’s the kind of story people are afraid to tell.
EDGE: Is it because most people don’t want to see it on the big screen?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: The reason why Harmony has friends that have gone through atrocities and pain is because we’re constantly trying to sweep it under the rug and hide it. But arts allow us to bring such topics at the surface and make us aware of the issues that we’re going through. And it’s not that I am attempting to air dirty laundry but it’s an opportunity for us to talk about the things that we need to with as much authenticity as possible.
EDGE: How has that "authenticity" translated in your movie?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: For me it’s performance that I place before anything.
I wanted to be as authentic as possible and it had to start with the casting choices. I wrote the role with Esai Morales in mind. I wanted him to play the role from the very start. He’s a Puerto Rican man from the Bronx and Judy Reyes was born and raised in the Bronx as well. Harmony is Puerto Rican and Dominican and has lived in the Bronx.
EDGE: As a first time feature film director was it hard to get an actor of Esai Morales’ caliber on board?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: Well, it was not as hard as I thought it would be. Esai is the co-founder of an organization with Jimmy Smits and Sonia Braga called National Hispanic Foundation of The Arts and they awarded me a scholarship for school three years in a row when I was at NYU. I got to meet Esai at one of the annual galas. I told him how much of a fan I was of his work and how I was looking forward to work with him one day.
And then the last year that I went again to the gala I actually had a script to show him and told him that I had written that role for him. I didn’t give him the script right at that moment; I did go through the proper channels once I had everything in place. And when he got the script he remembered who wrote it and was attracted to the material, which was basically tailor-made for him.
EDGE: What are your thoughts on your film being chosen to open the LA LGBT film festival Outfest?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: It’s an honor! I went by the Orpheum Theater today and it really dawned on me how awesome it will be tonight to have that theater filled with two thousand fans who the film speaks to. It’s an amazing feeling and I am honored that they chose this film to represent the festival in a way - that they took a chance on us.
It’s a film that appeals to a cross stream of audiences and I am glad they felt that it can speak to the LGBT community just as much as we hope that it speaks to everyone.
Hispanic community’s response?
EDGE: Obviously the film has been embraced by the LGBT community, what about the Hispanic community? What has been the feedback so far?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: With the few screenings that we’ve had so far it’s been a wonderful reception.
We need to tell more Latino stories like this. It’s real life. If they open their mind they will find themselves rooting for and identifying with the characters they didn’t think they would. They would have compassion and move beyond their preconceived judgments and ignorance. Anyone can identify with a family and its issues.
EDGE: Do you think "Gun Hill Road" will help eradicate homophobia within a Latino community deeply rooted in religious beliefs?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: My hope, of course, is that we specifically speak to the community that it takes place in. That we speak to the Enriques and the Angelas and that we give them hope. If they realize that they’re not alone then they can have hope that there’s a brighter future that lies ahead. Of course when you have religion involved it’s going to be a harder road to climb, especially with how much reverence we give to our ancestors and our parents who raised us. But these issues have been in the culture for years. It’s not something knew, it’s just something that we haven’t spoken about. And it’s not just the Latino culture. Basically you can name any culture - Italian, Middle-Eastern, Jewish - and there will be some sort of machismo in the masculine population of that culture. But with Arts we hope to knock that hill down.
Shifting my interview to Harmony Santana, I proceeded to ask her a few questions:
EDGE: Rashaad serendipitously found you at a parade booth in Queens and basically offered you the seminal role of Michael/Vanessa. What motivated you to want to step into the shoes of this character?
Harmony Santana: When I first read the script I thought it was amazing. I told myself I should do this role for our community. I related with the character because as the movie was made I was going through my own personal real life transition. Also I am Latino and am very close to my mother. I don’t have a relationship with my father and haven’t spoken to him in 4-5 years.
EDGE: How did you prepare for the role?
Harmony Santana: HS: I went through a six-week extensive training program. That was a difficult part because they made me go through a lot of exercises that forced me to face the emotional issues I am dealing with my father.
EDGE: In the movie Michael/Vanessa is struggling to find acceptance from his father but is also struggling to overcome the reality of social discrimination. Is that as well the reality you deal with on a daily basis as a transgender?
Harmony Santana: Oh definitely! And not just as Harmony but as my past self. I’d be walking on the street and be called names, made fun of and ridiculed.
EDGE: So have you fully transitioned now?
Harmony Santana: Yes I have been Harmony now for almost a year.
At the beginning of filming I was going to the set as a boy. At the end of the shoot I was coming to the set as Harmony.
Rashaad Ernesto Green: I think it’s also important to mention the fact that Harmony is the first real-life transgender actor playing a transgender onscreen.
EDGE: So what’s next for you Rashaad?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: I just want to continue to tell stories - the important ones that have some sort of hope or uplifting theory.
For more about "Gun Hill Road", visit the the film’s website.
Watch this interview with filmmaker Rashaad Ernesto Green "Gun Hill Road" from the Sundance Film Festival:
Watch this interview with Harmony Santana from the Sundance Film Festival: