From the earliest days of this country, Americans have believed that access to education and a culture of hard work is the formula for general prosperity and civil, if not economic, equality. After we shucked all too slowly the atrocity of slavery and the indignity of Jim Crow, the U.S. Supreme Court immortalized in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision the central role education must play in tearing down the barriers against upward mobility for all. This is a premise that most of us, Republican and Democrat alike, still hold, despite the miserable job we're doing with public education in most every city across the nation. What we have insufficiently contemplated is the way in which education is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient for the society we would build. That's the exact premise explored in writer-director Eric Eason's Manito, a gritty urban drama set in contemporary New York.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Manito is a Boyz N the Hood for the Hispanic community. Its story concerns two Dominican-American Washington Heights brothers, with a relationship reminiscent of the friendship between Cuba Gooding Jr.'s high school student and Ice Cube's South Central Los Angeles gang-banger in Boyz N the Hood. A man in his mid-to-late 20s, Junior Moreno (Franky G.) is an ex-con now running a painting business. Junior has the physique of an NFL linebacker and the same kind of ferocious drive. His brother Manny (Leo Minaya) is his high school class salutatorian, a sunny, cerebral young man who is tall but bean-sprout thin. Junior is married with a small son, but he's also a congenital womanizer, a habit his wife knows and tolerates in ill humor. Manny's girlfriend, Marisol (Jessica Morales), lives with her grandmother and her infant son from another relationship. Unlike Manny, Marisol doesn't graduate when she fails English. She talks of attending summer school, but it's unclear that she's really serious about doing so.
The action of the film centers around a graduation party Junior throws for Manny. And as the narrative unfolds, we learn much about family relationships and history. Junior and Manny's father now runs a grocery. But once (and perhaps still) he was a major neighborhood drug dealer. When Junior was old enough, the father brought his son into the crack trade, and Junior went to jail to protect his father. An ungrateful senior Moreno never visited his son in prison. The paternal role has now fallen to the older brother, and he's determined to protect Manny in the way he himself was never protected. He keeps Manny out of and off drugs and provides him as much material comfort as he can afford.
One of the key insights this film has to offer is how much investment immigrant (and other working-class) families sometimes place on the success of one of their number. The whole extended family shares the triumph of Manny's academic accomplishments in high school and his scholarship to attend Syracuse University. Junior will never have such an opportunity, but he is dedicated to keeping that opportunity alive for his brother. The selfless nature of Junior's devotion to Manny turns him into the film's major character. As a businessman, he's the painter from hell. He shows up late, forges insurance papers and city permits, uses inferior materials and employs illegal laborers from Mexico (the rivalry between the two Latino cultures is a sidelight that could have benefited from greater exploration). As a boss, he's a tyrant. As a husband, he's a heel. And yet Junior is redeemed by genuinely yearning for Manny to escape and to prosper, to let Manny lead the family somewhere Junior will never be able to go himself.
Alas, none of the other characters are developed in comparable detail -- not even Manny, for whom the film is named. The picture runs a scant 75 minutes, and still much of the footage is devoted to overlong sequences of characters moving from one place to the next or frolicking at Manny's party. Given the low budget by which a film like this is always limited, we can forgive (but not like) the herky-jerky cinema verite style in which it was inevitably shot. Not so easy to forgive is the woefully thin plotting. The turn the picture takes as the party ends abandons earlier concerns with a particular culture and the people who thrive or wither within it. In place of character and culture we get the kind of melodrama for which Hollywood convention is notorious.
Still, I think fans of independent filmmaking should give Manito a look. The acting is notably convincing by the entire cast. And the film understands and communicates something important. Educational achievement is a way out of poverty, but it's not a guaranteed way. The hazards along the mean streets of urban America are varied and hardly easy to avoid.
- Manny (Leo Minaya) and his girlfriend, Marisol (Jessica Morales), share a moment in Eric Eason's gritty urban drama Manito.