“We are not just thugs,” emphasized Dominican-American actor Victor Almanzar when referring to the one-note roles Latino men are typically chosen to play within the Hollywood machinery. “We are not just the guys that are doing negative things in our communities. We are doing certain things because of the environment that we are raised in. We are more than just what people outside see,” he added, describing the character he plays in his latest film 11:55. The independent feature, which recently premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is a tense and intimate crime drama Almanzar co-wrote with the film’s directors Ben Snyder and Ari Issler.
Set in Newburgh, New York, this tale of honor and forgiveness takes place over the course of a single day. Almanzar plays Nelson, an army veteran who has just returned to his troubled neighborhood and is immediately forced to confront a terrible mistake from his past. The actor explains that he originally had a different project in mind to develop with Snyder, but was persuaded by the filmmaker to tap into his personal experiences both in the service and in the streets to craft a much more authentic project. “This is a story that I know; I experienced it, I lived it, but it’s not being told,” he confided. “There are so many people out there that I know that have so many good things to offer the world, but they just don’t have the opportunities, they just don’t have the outlets. I think that this is something that a lot of people will see and connect with. This is an American story.”
Underrepresentation is the perpetual enemy of people of color in our turbulent relationship with the entertainment industry, and as Puerto Rican-Colombian actress Shirley Rumierk points out, for Latinos, the battle is twice as excruciating. She describes her character Livvy as, “the satin glove with a very firm hand,” and praises the way Snyder portrays the female experience in his writing — something she rarely sees, whether the character is Latina or not. Not surprisingly she praised the work of her co-star Elizabeth Rodriguez, who plays Victor’s aunt Angie and steals the film with a single scene: “[Her] role is straight fire. She is calling the shots in that barbershop scene. Ella es la que manda. Ella es la jefa.” Similarly, Almanzar noted the stereotypes that he and the co-writers tried to avoid when writing female characters to inhabit this world: “In most films Latina women are portrayed as just a pretty face, the one that’s showing too much, or the one that’s always yelling at her man. Women are not like that.”
“This is a story that I know; I experienced it, I lived it, but it’s not being told”
Just as sexual objectification hinders the artistic development of actresses across the industry, Almanzar finds hyper-masculinity and the idea of the violently-wired macho Latino equally as problematic. Boys in underprivileged segments of society are encouraged not explore any emotion that could be perceived as weakness or lack of resolve. “I bet you money when they go home they are the sweetest kids, and they are hugging their mothers, and they are helping them clean. But you don’t see that in the streets,” adds the actor who knows the dynamics of communities like this from his own recollections.
Such daily exposure to poverty, crime, and death, push the female counterparts to adopt a position of strength to make it through, Rumierk says. “Women have to step up to survive and try to keep their family together. The pressures of the environment are so strong. All three of the women [in the film] take up arms to defend something that is good.” Pointing to the fact that his character is forsaken by his male peers in the face of great adversity, Almanzar is quick to give credit where credit is due: “It’s a very masculine film, but it’s funny that the men are backing down from this challenge, and the only people that this guy has to fall in for help and support are women.”
It’s evident that in order to flood the screen with authentic images, the production had to take place where these types of stories are real, and for 11:55 that meant Newburgh. “This is one of the poorest communities in the United States, where the crime rate is so high,” said Almanzar while also expressing the joy that bringing jobs and opportunities to people in this town gave him and everyone involved. “A lot of the extras that you see tatted-up are real people, we didn’t have the budget to do tattoos with makeup,” candidly added Rumierk. “The community embraced us.”
Of course, a huge part of urban life, where a sense of community is born, is the local barbershops and beauty salons, and this plays an important role in the way Almanzar’s character relates to those around him in the film. “Every neighborhood has the barbershop and that’s where the local news happens. That’s where you get informed about this guy seeing this girl, or this dude has a problem with this dude, or what happened yesterday with this person in this club; the fights, happiness, and the vibe of everyday life.”
This place served as a comforting space for both Almanzar and his character, Nelson, as they returned from the Marines. Here, the pressures of the outside world are momentarily forgotten: “Your barber is the person that you tell all your secrets. Every Friday there was basically a party in the barbershop. It’s a big part of every urban community. You go there, you talk, you have fun, you get your cut, you look fly for the next day. It’s a semi-safe haven.”
“Pregoneros!” interjected Rumierk, referring to the gossiping men at the barbershop as Almanzar elaborated on his own relationship with the bastion of male-bonding. “That’s where I sharpened up my rapping skills. I do hip-hop music, I just happened to rap in Spanish. And in the barbershop there were a lot of times when I had to battle this guy, or I’ll bring my new song to the barbershop and I’d get the opinion of real people,” he added. On the opposite end, Rumierk, who says her character is “not all hood but she is hood-light,” mentioned that salons are equally as relevant in the lives of Latinas. These are the places where they go to form familial bonds and find out about “the latest news, the latest bochinche in the neighborhood, advice on how to raise your kids and other unsolicited opinions usually.”
Comparable in structure to High Noon – Fred Zinnemann’s 50s classic – Snyder and Issler’s 11:55 carries the tone and quiet intensity of epic mob films, but adapted to the idiosyncrasies of a Latino community in transition. Judging by the authentic language, interactions, and cultural specificity of the project, one can’t help but wonder why there aren’t more directors and production companies willing to hire Latinos to imbue their stories with fierce truth. The bochinche on the street is that they should.