American Me

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American Me
American me poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byEdward James Olmos
Produced byEdward James Olmos
Robert M. Young
Sean Daniel
Screenplay byFloyd Mutrux
Desmond Nakano
Story byFloyd Mutrux
Music byClaude Gaudette
Dennis Lambert
CinematographyReynaldo Villalobos
Edited byRichard Candib
Arthur Coburn
Olmos Productions
YOY Productions
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • March 13, 1992 (1992-03-13)
Running time
126 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$16 million
Box office$13,086,430

American Me is a 1992 American crime drama film produced and directed by Edward James Olmos, his first film as a director, and written by Floyd Mutrux and Desmond Nakano. Olmos also stars as the film's protagonist, Montoya Santana. Executive producers included record producer Lou Adler, screenwriter Mutrux, and Irwin Young.[1] It depicts a fictionalized account of the founding and rise to power of the Mexican Mafia in the California prison system from the 1950s into the 1980s.


The film depicts 30 years of Chicano gang life in Los Angeles. It focuses on Montoya Santana, a teen who forms a gang along with his friends J.D. (William Forsythe) and Mundo (Pepe Serna). They soon find themselves committing crimes and are arrested.

In juvenile hall, Santana murders a fellow inmate (Eric Close) who had raped him and as a result, has his sentence extended into Folsom State Prison after he turns 18. Once there, Santana (now played by Edward James Olmos) becomes the leader of a powerful gang, La Eme. Upon his release he tries to relate his life experiences to the society that has changed so much since he left. La Eme has become a feared criminal organization beyond Folsom, selling drugs and committing murder.

Santana starts to see the error of his ways but before he can take action, is sent back to prison for drug possession. There, he tells his former lieutenant J.D. that he is no longer interested in leading La Eme. However, following a precedent set by Santana himself earlier in the film, his men murder him to show the other prison gangs that, despite having no leader, they are not weak, and he is stabbed fatally and thrown off the balcony to his death.



Factual basis[edit]

The character of Montoya Santana is modeled after Rodolfo Cadena, who was a high-ranking and founding member of the prison gang La Eme, known popularly as the Mexican Mafia. In real life, Cadena unsuccessfully attempted to steer La Eme into left-wing activism before being stabbed to death by members of the rival Nuestra Familia. In the film, Santana is stabbed and killed by his own gang.

The character of J.D. was based on Joe "Pegleg" Morgan, a Croatian-American gang member and prisoner who preferred the company of Chicanos and along with Cadena helped found La Eme, becoming a high-ranking, respected, and feared member of the Latino gang even though he was of Croatian descent. Morgan died from liver cancer in 1993, while he was incarcerated at California State Prison, Corcoran.


Olmos, in neo-realist fashion, used actual prisoners as extras and bit players when he filmed at Folsom Prison.

Filming locations[edit]

Filming locations include Folsom State Prison and East Los Angeles, California.


The producers of the film used the following tagline to market the film: In prison, they are the law. On the streets, they are the power.


Critical response[edit]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times liked the reality that came through in the film and that it rang true: "What I felt watching American Me, however, is that it is based on a true situation—on the reality that street gangs and prison, mixed with the drug sales that finance the process, work together to create a professional criminal class."[2]

Janet Maslin writes in The New York Times, "But Mr. Olmos's dark, slow and solemn, so much so that it diverts energy from the film's fundamental frankness. Violent as it is, American Me is seldom dramatic enough to bring its material to life."[3]

Marjorie Baumgarten, a film critic for The Austin Chronicle, wrote, "American Me is crafted with heart and conviction and intelligence. It demands no less of its audience. It insists that there are no quick fixes, but that solutions are of the utmost urgency."[4]

The film was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival.[5]

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes currently lists American Me with a 75% positive approval rating, with 6 out of 8 reviews by professional movie critics listed as positive.[6]

Box office[edit]

The film opened in wide release in the United States on March 13, 1992 (830 screens). The opening weekend's gross was $3,378,100 and the total receipts for the first three weeks were $9,108,435. The film was in wide release for three weeks (seventeen days). In its widest release the film was featured in 830 theaters across the country. The final box office gross amounted to $13,086,430.[7]

Mexican Mafia reaction[edit]

The Mexican Mafia was enraged by the film. The lead character, Santana Montoya, is portrayed as having been raped as a juvenile, and is ultimately stabbed to death by his own followers at the end of his criminal career, which never happened to any Mexican Mafia member who bears any similarity to Santana. Whether as retaliation over the offensive depiction, or as a routine criminal racket, Mexican Mafia member Joe "Pegleg" Morgan allegedly attempted to extort money from Olmos. Court documents show that Olmos was a victim in one extortion count contained in a 33-count federal indictment. According to reportage by CBS News weekly 60 Minutes, three consultants on this film were later murdered because of the depiction of a homosexual rape scene which offended the Mexican Mafia gangsters' machismo.[8] The first killing occurred 12 days after the film's premiere when one of the film's consultants, Charles "Charlie Brown" Manriquez, a member of La Eme, was slain in Ramona Gardens, L.A.'s oldest public housing project.[9] Another consultant to the film, 49-year-old grandmother Ana Lizarraga, commonly known as "The Gang Lady", was murdered when she was gunned down in her East Los Angeles driveway while unloading groceries. A federal indictment accused La Eme of ordering the 1992 murder of Lizarraga.[10] Lizarraga was a former gang member who was, by the time she was killed, an anti-gang counselor. She played a grandmother in the film. Her murder occurred eight months after American Me was completed.


Since the film deals with a Latino subculture, the music included in the soundtrack was Latino oriented; late 1970s urban sounds and oldies from the 1950s.

The original soundtrack was released on April 28, 1992, by Virgin Records.

The CD contains ten tracks and includes songs performed by various artists including: Los Lobos, Santana, Ike & Tina Turner, Bobby Day, Kid Frost, War, and other performers.


  1. ^ American Me on IMDb
  2. ^ Ebert, Roger. Chicago Sun-Times, film review, March 13, 1992.
  3. ^ Maslin, Janet. The New York Times, film review, March 13, 1992.
  4. ^ Baumgarten, Marjorie. The Austin Chronicle, film review, March 20, 1992.
  5. ^ "Festival de Cannes: American Me". Archived from the original on 2012-10-05. Retrieved 2009-08-15.
  6. ^ American Me at Rotten Tomatoes. Last accessed: May 31, 2011.
  7. ^ American Me at Box Office Mojo
  8. ^ Lombardi, John. New York Magazine, "Scenes from a Bad Movie Marriage." January 12, 1998.
  9. ^ Katz, Jesse. article from June 13, 1993 Los Angeles Times, upload/LA times American Me.doc[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ Associated Press, October 24, 1996.

External links[edit]