Latino, yes, but also universal

'American Family' attempts to debunk stereotypes; 'Stephen' disturbs viewers

A new series on PBS celebrates the "American Family." It's a Latino family, consisting of three generations living in East Los Angeles. And while creator and producer Gregory Nava delves into the particularities of Latino and Latin-American culture, the family he portrays is universal.

In recent interviews, Mr. Nava and one of his stars, Edward James Olmos, talked about the experimental nature and profound humanity of American Family (PBS, Jan. 23 and 24, check local listings; series continues on Wednesdays, beginning Jan. 30).

There's no question that this is breakthrough television. Nava says he drew on family, friends, and research to create his characters, basing them on a combination of sources - not all of which are Latino.

"I have a brother almost exactly like Jess," says Mr. Olmos. This character is well known in our community, but is never seen on TV. He is conservative - a combination of Zorba the Greek and Archie Bunker."

Nava's filmography includes "El Norte," "Mi Familia/My Family," and "Selena," all of which use classical film techniques. For example, in "Selena," a split screen is used à la Able Gance's "Napoleon," a silent masterpiece. Both Nava and Olmos chuckle over one episode that is done like a silent film comedy.

Jess (Olmos) tells his grandchildren the story of their great, great grandmother who fought in the Mexican Revolution. As he tells the story, the children imagine the scene as a black-and-white silent movie (shot on grainy 8mm film) with the family members playing different roles of the revolutionaries and the Federales. The dialogue is provided in subtitles.

"The actors loved it, and they knew how to do it instinctively - they took to silent-film acting like ducks to water," Nava says.

In the pilot, Berta (Sonia Braga), the matriarch of the family, dies. But she lives through flashbacks. The pilot is by no means the best of the series. Watch it only to get the background on the characters. Then watch the second episode: "The Sewing Machine." It is a heartfelt, beautifully acted, and thematically rich investigation of a culture in transition.

Each episode is done in a different style, and various stars, such as Raquel Welch, make guest appearances. An episode near the end of the series is shot in real time. During that 45 minutes, the character's entire life changes.

In one gritty story, Esai Morales plays a family member in trouble with the law. He is redeemed by a special program run by firefighters. When his apprenticeship is up, he works with gang members, turning the negative into the positive.

There is, as Olmos and Nava point out, a poverty of Latino faces on network television. This show attempts to debunk stereotypes not only of race and class but of storytelling styles as well. "It's an allegory about human values," Olmos says. There is, he adds, no violence, no sex, and no malice of any kind. "This show is Capraesque - a world where funny things happen, and get a little exaggerated."

From gritty realism to a parody that might be called "A Midsummer Night's Dream in East Los Angeles," the desire is to celebrate the diversity of the American community, the Latino community, and the human heart. "Especially in light of what has happened since 9/11," Olmos says. The aim was to create a world "people could visit for 50 minutes a week and come out of it with a sense of hope...."

* * *

In 1993, a young black man named Stephen was murdered by neo-Nazi thugs in London. Police suspected the black teenager of gang involvement, and though eye-witnesses named the thugs, they were not arrested. All material evidence was destroyed. Police incompetence and institutional racism, later censured by Prime Minister Tony Blair, stood in the way of justice - the police believed the attack was provoked.

But Stephen's parents hired investigators and a lawyer. A private prosecution (allowed under British law) found the white boys guilty. They could not be retried, so they got away with murder. Masterpiece Theatre's re-creation of The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (PBS, Jan. 21, check local listings) is disturbing, shot like cinéma vérité, and confusing. Filmmakers want us to experience the ghastly farce as Stephen's parents experienced it.

The technique doesn't always work. The hand-held camera - particularly at the murder site - is overbearing. But the acting is superb. Marianne Jean-Baptiste ("Secrets & Lies") is moving in the role of Stephen's mother. The effect of the fine performances helps viewers think about the meaning of hatred and wrath. The dignity of the parents and black community as depicted here counterbalances the horror of the story.

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