By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Like Jimenez, Venegas sees the current gangster vogue as a portal. It is an opportunity to get in the door and then, presumably, kick that door off its hinges.
Though most of the Suspects have no show-biz priors, that's not exclusively the case. Anthony DeMarco, a.k.a. Lepke, is a throaty, 40-year-old "renaissance veterano." A writer/actor/pintero(prison vet), Lepke is big (over 6 feet tall), bad, and running on finely honed instinct. He tends to stand too close to others in an effort to intimidate.
"You come down here a little light, homey," he tells me. Lepke's "all business" demeanor is ironically offset by some really expensive-looking, rectangular-framed Chanel glasses. There's something kind of arty about him.
In addition to his "onscreen gangster-personality" career, he is a prolific writer, finishing a book called Set's on the West: Portrait of an Original Gangster. Oddly enough, his acting career has spanned four decades. "My first acting job was a Kool-Aid [commercial] when I was 9 years old," Lepke says, and then launches rapid-fire into his résumé. "My name is Original Gangster Lepke. I'm from Soul Assassins, Suspect Entertainment. The previous movie I just did was featuring Robert Wagner, Jennifer Tilly . . . El Padrino, by Damian Chapa." He also appeared in several music videos, including some with Cypress Hill and Snoop Dogg. Lepke is on a roll, but it's unlikely he will be moving to Brentwood anytime soon.
"Money to me is no big thing. You only can drive that Porsche for so long. One day you're gonna have to lay to rest," he says. "I keep mines real. No plastic coating." Lepke recommends that the kids "stay in school. The bangin' ain't no good."
The commodification of gangster culture is clearly not a revolutionary notion. White people have been making money depicting disenfranchised, ethnic subcultures in film and television for years. Rick Najero is a writer/actor/dramatist who was included in Variety's latest "50 most creative people to watch" list. His play Latinologues was nominated for an American Latino Media Award (ALMA). A regular guest on National Public Radio, Najero has emerged as an authority on the subject of Latino and Hispanic representation in the media. He speaks regularly to Hispanic and Latino organizations, including the National Council of La Raza.
"I have no problem with Suspect, who are taking real gangbangers and putting them on camera. These people, smartly enough, are saying, 'We have something to sell to this media. It's ourselves and our stories. We could have our stories told or go to waste. And we can be involved in this giant machine and get a piece of the pie.' And there's nothing wrong with that." But Najero does have a problem with the media's one-sided portrayal of the Latino story.
"You have to show their humanity. You don't see the Latinos that are going to school and paying taxes. Latinos are the most highly decorated minorities fighting in the war in Afghanistan. We're also the solution. We [America] do more trade with Mexico than Germany, France and England combined. Mexico is one of our top five trading partners in the world. People from there come here, work, send money back, and those people there buy products from America. It's what makes us a rich country. We're also the solution."
Stella has had her share of confrontations with what she terms "these so-called Latino self-empowerment groups." She says, "Established Latino organizations like Nosotros do not like Suspect Entertainment. They want nothing to do with us. We've been asked, on stages and on podiums, to basically be quiet and leave because, according to them, all we are doing is perpetuating stereotypes. [Nosotros did not return calls asking for comments.] What we've said all along is, the reality is that there are Mexican people who rob and kill. There are gangs. We can't pretend that it doesn't exist. However, we don't want to glamorize, we want it to be accurate. We're sick and tired of seeing it portrayed inaccurately. We need to have specifically Mexican writers, Mexican producers and . . ." Stella interrupts herself.
"Do you know how many production designers that we have worked with that are German? From Germany? From Berlin? I'm tired of walking into what they call 'gang houses' that look like something that came out of IKEA. The flip side is that it doesn't always have to be gang-orientated. I wasn't a gang member. No one in my family was a gang member . . . For now, we have found our niche. Our guys are coming out of the prison system. We're literally picking them off the street. They're not actors. They're real people. They're getting in front of a camera. They're learning. Manny said to one of these groups, he said, 'Look, I can play a gangster on film, or I can go and rob you. Pick your poison.' And we have."
Puerto Rican-born writer-director Miguel Arteta (Star Maps, Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl) knows that it's very difficult for Latinos in the industry. "There is an expectation that you will do one of two things," he says. "You'll either be involved in things that are not so positive, one-dimensional portrayals of, like, gangbangers or maids, or, if not, then you're going to go all the way to the other side and be fighting stereotypes, like a Stand and Deliver. It's always a problem when people try to put you in a category and don't give you options. I think what's important as a Latino filmmaker is to fight those expectations and burst out of those categories. The audience is ready to see any kind of Latinos. More Latinos working is good. The more opportunities you get to express yourself in a personal way . . . you should go for that. That means not putting any artistic limits on anyone. That means not saying you can never play a gangbanger. That's silly. It's better to be working than not working."