Lowriders: staying in your lane for another decade

Lowriding is in the news again, thanks to a new film about the cars and culture, which has the unbelievably dull title, “Lowriders.” Still, the film is seeing its fair share of national press and interestingly enough, because the film is being reviewed, the word “Chicano” is also part of the discussion, though not by choice but by default. This is because lowriders are uniquely Chicano – you cannot talk about one without the other. This is amusing to me because normally, both the press and Hollywood bend over backwards to avoid using the word Chicano, but due to this film’s subject matter, they have no choice. And so, for maybe the first time since the 70s, the word Chicano is part of the national lexicon, albeit for a brief period. But, so what?

Is this film going to usher in a new renaissance of “Chicano films”? No. Although, if it makes any money, it might bring a new wave of exploitation flicks like we saw in the 90s, though I doubt it. It’s but a small blip on the radar that missed its mark.

I have a stake in this film’s reception because I published a book in the same genre. Reading review after review for this film, I find myself having the same discussion with myself about this stuff – it’s one I’ve had many times over the years, both publicly and privately – and it’s one of exposition. It’s seems goofy to have to explain yourself endlessly so that people “get it,” but here we are again, explaining ourselves to the masses so they don’t get the “wrong” idea. I blame the film for this, which is, in my opinion, a wasted opportunity, but what else is new?

A quote from the L.A. Times says it all…

“But when many people see lowriders cruising through the city, thoughts of gangs, drugs and violence come to mind. Such expectations, often rooted in stereotypes about the men and women found in the driver’s and passenger seats, rob the long-standing tradition from the familial roots at its core. There truly is more to lowriding than meets the eye.”

Well, duh. Yet, here were are again explaining that very fact.

The L.A. Times goes on to laughably call this film “the first major feature inspired by the people and traditions of the lowrider culture.

I call bullshit.

I’m not sure if the reporter (or whoever else is out there “heralding” Lowriders), has ever seen Boulevard Nights, but I’d recommend it, if for nothing else but to see that Lowriders is not ground breaking in any sense of the word – far from it.

What I find most interesting about this film is that despite having actual, bona fide, no kidding ma, Chicanos in the mix as producers, the film fails to bring anything new to the table in terms of plot or characters or even message. These are the same old tropes – new decade, same story line. What do we have here in terms of characters? A recovering alcoholic father, an ex-con son, and another son who is a tagger, sorry, a “graffiti artist,” who develops a love interest with an outsider, all culminating in a serenade of violent resolution.

If any of these characters sound familiar it’s because they’ve been done about 1,000 times. My essay here is not alone in pointing out how cliche-filled this story is, and it’s easy to see why: they went for mainstream appeal and the mainstream demands that we stay in our designated lanes, for another decade at least.

Is the mainstream going to buy a story about a Chicano dad who works at a law firm and has two sons who are making their way through college? Who knows! Because Hollywood is never going to make that film…despite the fact Chicano lawyers who lowride exist. But who wants reality? Who wants to see lowrider car clubs who love their grandchildren and do community charity on a weekly basis? It’s much easier to delve into the familiar and dial-up Robert Townsend’s “Black Acting School” to see if he has a Chicano section.

Spoiler: he does.

So, who then, is Lowriders for..? I have a hard time believing the intended audience is the hardworking people who build these cars.

Which brings me to my point, I published Lowriting: Shots, Ride & Stories from the Chicano Soul by Art Meza, to push back against these kind of narratives because I know that they are what’s expected and demanded from both the mainstream and from Hollywood. I sought to do something out of the ordinary in order to shed a little light on what the L.A. Times refers to as “gangs, drugs and violence,” because contrary to popular belief, lowrider cars and the people who love them, don’t all fit into your canned tropes.  Shocking, I know.

I’m not here to whine to you that Lowriting did not get its fair share of publicity. And I’m not gonna tell you that this essay is sour grapes against the film Lowriders. Ok, just kidding. Actually, both of those things are true. At the time of this writing, Lowriting has achieved cult status at best, which is disappointing, though I can say that its intended audience was specifically the people who love and build the cars, so on that front I succeeded.

But it’s hilarious to me that a film like Lowriders can achieve national press using clichés yet books like mine cannot because I refused to use those same clichés. Maybe I should have plastered half-naked chicks and gangsters in the book, but I didn’t, on purpose.

There’s a weird kind of disconnect there, from screen to print and back again but looking for it only results in chasing your tail, and we’ve been doing that, collectively, since the 70s.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not here to tell you that it’s any film’s onus to bear the cross of representing an entire group of people, but with films like this being as rare as they are, the responsibility is by default. I can say the same about my book. And so here we are again, explaining ourselves to people who are never going to “get it.”

As flawed as the film is, it at least has people talking, many of whom who are clueless. You can argue that’s a good thing or bad, but any time I see the word “Chicano” in the national press, or lowriders, I count it as a positive; if for nothing else than to hope that some curious person finds my book and has a revelation.

Listen, the film is what it is – a weak attempt to tell a story about a severely underrepresented group of people, i.e. Chicanos. If we’re not portrayed as impoverished immigrants (spoiler: we’re not) struggling for the American dream, or maids (thanks, Eva!), we’re relegated to the realm of gangsters. Why are lowriders forever portrayed as this seedy underground culture for insiders only, when they are anything but?

One of the main points I’ve tried to hammer into people’s thick heads these past few years is that lowriding and lowrider culture is as American a pastime as classic and muscle cars are. One is always seen as wholesome and the other as criminal. One is an American pastime and the other is for alcoholics and ex-cons.

I’ve said this on the radio, in print, to your mom, and in public, yet it falls on deaf ears. Time and again we force ourselves to paint by numbers and portray lowriding culture, which is really an extension of Chicano culture, as this underground cult, which is totally foreign and alien to folks outside of “East L.A.”

What a crock of shit.

Lowriders are, in fact, worldwide and they have been for some time. They’re mainstream by this point. The producers of the film know this. Lowriders have influenced countless cultures over the past few decades, and inspired tons of companies to market (see: rip off) their ideas and sell them to the masses, so to pretend that lowriding culture is still this niche thing is not just stupid, it’s insulting.

But I digress. You can go watch Demian Bichir and Eva Longoria phone in their performances for what passes as a Chicano film these days, or you can delve deeper and go beyond the stereotypes with Lowriting. Of course, I’m going to suggest the latter but I am biased.

Thanks for reading.

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