‘Stand and Deliver’ Is Beloved By Latinos, But What Did Film Critics Think 30 Years Ago?

Lead Photo: 'Stand and Deliver' photo courtesy of Warner Bros./Everett Collection
'Stand and Deliver' photo courtesy of Warner Bros./Everett Collection
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Thirty years since it first hit theaters, Stand and Deliver remains a key part of the U.S. Latino film canon. It stars Edward James Olmos as Jaime Escalante, a dutiful and energizing math teacher at an East LA high school. When faced with a group of rowdy (and mostly Latino) students, he leans into an unorthodox teaching approach that may or may not involve a meat cleaver. The story that follows, which has his class over-performing in their AP Calculus exams at the end of the year, is all the more inspiring given that it’s based on a true story.

Co-produced by Olmos and directed by Cuban-born Ramón Menéndez the movie went on to make close to $14 million dollars in the U.S. It also won six Independent Spirit Awards (including Best Feature), earned two Golden Globe nominations (for Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor for Lou Diamond Phillips) and one Oscar nod (for Olmos’ performance). Nevertheless, critics were mostly lukewarm on the project, even when they hailed the strong ensemble and the novelty of this true-story drama. Thankfully, Stand and Deliver has stood the test of time. It was even added to the National Film Registry back in 2011, citing it as “one of the most popular of a new wave of narrative feature films produced in the 1980s by Latino filmmakers.”

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of its theatrical release, check out some of the OG reviews of this classic. Spoiler alert: none appear to be written by Latinos.

Los Angeles Times

Edward James Olmos and the real Jaime Escalante. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

“As the filmmakers demonstrate, pride is contagious. It has infected Garfield High, where Escalante still holds his standards high and dares kids to follow. Stand and Deliver itself, with its message of the soaring rewards of learning, aims high and delivers perhaps a B+. But it’s already a better, less cliched film than La Bamba, with considerably more on its mind, and its strengths may pave the way for more complex, more demanding stories of the Latino experience for all audiences.”

– Sheila Benson

New York Times

‘Stand and Deliver’ photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

“Structurally, there’s the slight problem of returning the film to its main course every time it makes a detour to examine the home life of one student or another. Ramon Menendez, who directed and co-wrote the film, is understandably eager to show why barrio kids have a hard time doing their homework, but these glimpses aren’t much more than skin deep. When the film occasionally wanders in this way, one can hardly wait to get back to the tireless, wisecracking, one-of-a-kind Mr. Escalante for the next lesson.”

Janet Maslin

The Washington Post

Lou Diamond Phillips in ‘Stand and Deliver.’ Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

“This modest, time-tested storyline pits the little people against the establishment, like The Milagro Beanfield War, but not so evocatively. Even though Cuban-born director Ramon Menendez is familiar with barrio culture, there’s nothing rich and pervasive in the movie’s atmosphere. The language, yes. But you can’t sense the salsa. It’s all math anxiety, and no milieu.”

– Rita Kempley

Chicago Sun Times

‘Stand and Deliver’ photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

“There were moments in Stand and Deliver that moved me very deeply and other moments so artificial and contrived that I wanted to edit them out, right then and there. The result is a film that makes a brave, bold statement about an unexpected subject, but that lacks the full emotional power it really should have.”

Roger Ebert