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Edward James Olmos on ‘Stand and Deliver’s 25th Anniversary and the Release of ‘Filly Brown’

This article has been republished from IndieWire, with the permission of our resident film writer Vanessa Erazos.

In the late eighties, a month after the release of La Bamba—at the time the biggest Latino box office hit ever—Newsweek magazine proclaimed that it was the era of the “Hispanic Hollywood.” That same summer came the release of the Chicano classic Born in East L.A. written, directed, and starring Cheech Marin. Compared to the box office smash La Bamba which made $54 million, Marin’s comedy was only a modest success making $17 million. But, for Latino films which struggle to make it to millions in ticket sales these two films were blockbusters that made Hollywood studios stand up and take notice of the moneymaking potential that laid in the hands of the Latino moviegoing audience

The 1980 census had thrown the industry into a tizzy when it brought to light that the Latino population had grown by more than half since the previous decade. Then Variety published a report on the ‘Top 20 Hispanic Markets’ where it revealed that Latinos were a huge part of the total population of large cities like L.A. and New York, that they spent 30% more on entertainment than the average American, and that they held an overall purchasing power of $180 billion (now it’s more than $1 trillion). Movie studio bigwigs suddenly saw dollar signs in the barrios of the U.S.A. For the first time they saw the advantage of distributing films with Latino stories, creating bilingual marketing campaigns, and circulating movie prints that were subtitled or dubbed in Spanish.

Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver

Edward James Olmos in 'Stand and Deliver'

In March of 1988, amidst Hollywood’s giddiness over the Latino box office, Warner Bros. released Stand and Deliver theatrically. It was a small, independently made Latino film starring the legendary Edward James Olmos and a young Lou Diamond Phillips. Based on actual events the movie tells the story of Jaime Escalante (Olmos), a Bolivian immigrant, who teaches math at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles to mostly Latino students. The school is facing losing its accreditation and the students are failing miserably. Mr. Escalante, or Kimo as his students call him, decides to teach AP Calculus against the advice of the school administration. The chair of the math department says, “You can’t teach logarithms to illiterates.” Kimo responds, “Students will rise to the level of expectation.” When a record number of students pass the AP Calculus exam they are accused of cheating by the Educational Testing Service.

The film, 25 years later, is now a Latino classic thanks in large part to Edward James Olmos. He not only produced and starred in the film but also participated in an aggressive grassroots marketing campaign. He traveled across the country championing the film, doing interviews, setting up community screenings, and even giving away free tickets to anyone who wanted to see the film. It’s now one of the most watched Latino films, ever.

LatinoBuzz got a chance to chat with Edward James Olmos about the 25th anniversary of the film, the state of Latino filmmaking, and the upcoming release of Filly Brown, a film his son directed and stars in himself along with the late Jenny Rivera in her first (and sadly last) movie role.

LatinoBuzz: Stand and Deliver earned close to $14 million dollars at the box office. This is a huge feat for a Latino film, even today. Last year’s most successful Latino movie made a little under $6 million. What do you think contributed to Stand and Deliver’s success?

EJO: The biggest contributor, the biggest factor of its success is the story, hands down the story. It’s a universal story and we wanted people see it. So, we allowed people to see it. We practically gave the film away to anyone who wanted to see it. And because of that the word of mouth was strong. Now practically everyone has seen this movie. Most students see it at least once before leaving high school. Sometimes they see it two or three times in school. The usage of the film by teachers has been incredible. And it’s because of the story. It’s an inspirational piece, it’s uplifting and it’s not only inspiring for the kids but for the teachers too.