When we talked to Jonathan Jakubowicz back in June about his upcoming boxing biopic Hands of Stone, he had a lot to say. The Venezuelan-born director is essentially a human sound bite machine. He spoke adamantly about his mission of making films that counteract negative stereotypes about Latinos. In particular, he hopes to fight Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric about immigrants.
“When Donald Trump describes Mexicans as rapist, drug dealers, illegal immigrants, and criminals, he’s describing 90% of the roles Latino actors have played in Hollywood movies and TV shows for the last hundred years. He didn’t invent the stereotype, he’s reacting to it and using it for his benefit. Most Trump supporters don’t even think he’s racist, because they too have been exposed to the stereotype since they were born. This is why I decided to make a movie about a Latin hero. We need to change the stereotype. And tell stories about those Latinos that make us proud,” Jakubowicz said in an interview with Remezcla.
Two months later, at the SVA Theater for the New York premiere of Hands of Stone, he implored the audience to help spread the word about the resulting film that took an extraordinary amount of effort to complete. “We are now counting on you to join us in this journey by telling everyone that this movie exists.”
Telling the life story of legendary fighter Roberto Durán’s rise to Welterweight Champion took an estimated $20 million, a crew of 300, and 15,000 extras. In the quick-paced and sometimes flashy drama, Édgar Ramírez plays Durán while Usher takes on the role of his rival, Sugar Ray Leonard. Robert De Niro as his trainer and Rubén Blades as his manager round out the powerhouse cast.
Shot in both Panama City and New York, the transformation of a poor-but-streetwise kid known as Cholo into a world-famous boxer with “manos de piedra” is set up against a political narrative. Durán’s father was an American Marine who abandoned the family when his tour ended soon after the US invasion of Panama. Growing up with an absentee gringo dad in a country that was under US military occupation left him no choice; he became staunchly anti-USA. His later bouts against American icon Sugar Ray Leonard became more than just a battle for a title, Durán wanted to avenge his country. It’s an epic rags-to-riches tale about one of boxing’s greats set to music written by Usher and Blades.
Finding investors for a feel-good sports movie shouldn’t have been hard, but this one had a Latin American hero at its center. This small but important detail made it impossible to finance in the United States. Jakubowicz explains, “It was very hard to get this movie made. This is a story where most characters are either Latino or African Americans — it goes against every stereotype, and getting it made within the system was impossible. We were lucky to find independent financing, and Harvey Weinstein fell in love with it.” The money eventually came in the form of a special fund created by Panama’s congress.
For the director it was a victory, but he acknowledges that Hollywood still needs a major overhaul for more stories like this one to be told. “It’s a happy ending to a difficult journey where we faced very big cultural barriers. But most other similar efforts don’t end well. Most movies with Latino leads who are positive characters simply don’t get made. And I think it’s urgent to change that.”
Now Hands of Stone will have one the biggest theatrical releases in history for a Latino film in the U.S., eventually playing in 2,500 cinemas.
Hands of Stone opens in theaters August 26, 2016.
Photos from the Hands of Stone New York premiere by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company.