January 18, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘La Leyenda Negra’ review: A Compton immigration tale

Seldom depicted on screen, Compton and other cities in southeast Los Angeles County enliven “La Leyenda Negra,” a bilingual coming-of-age drama with a refreshing slant on the dire immigration conundrum from Portuguese writer-director Patricia Vidal Delgado. Focused on Latino students (all of whom were cast from schools in the area), the politically minded indie film showcases commendable cultural veracity likely derived from the filmmaker’s longstanding involvement with the community.

Fearful of losing her temporary protection from deportation, outspoken Aleteia (Monica Betancourt), a Salvadoran teen, deposits all her hopes for a future on a scholarship she’s been offered to attend UCLA. At night, as part of an anarchist group, she tags slogans, “Respect My Existence or Expect Resistance,” in response to the Trump administration’s bigoted policies. A winsome scene between two older women at a local hair salon poking fun at the president reinforces the community’s disdain for his cruelty and ineptitude.

Amid the uncertainty of her educational prospects, Aleteia — aptly named after the Greek goddess of truth — nurtures her new friendship with kindhearted Rosarito (Kailei Lopez), a bond with the potential to surpass the platonic arena. Targeting the difficulty of the macro social ills from the vantage point of a deftly constructed lead character, Vidal Delgado finds a balanced mode. Evocative black-and-white cinematography by Matt Maio, who succeeds at making the L.A. River seem a scintillating destination, grant the economically achieved piece a mesmeric quality.

A first-time performer without formal training, Betancourt is a true revelation and the most accomplished player in an impressive ensemble of nonactors. Her rendition of Aleteia emanates warranted anger and resentment toward the system that belittles her, without completely doing away with her youthful naiveté. Though suffering from occasional stiffness in the delivery, the Spanglish dialogue works often enough to feel entrenched to their identity. Standard high school trappings, such as a bully that could star in a Latino take on “Mean Girls” and an obligatory quinceañera, also populate the fast-paced plot.

In centuries past, la leyenda negra (black legend) — a concept brought into the story via the somewhat controversial documentary “Crossing Borders: The Journey of Carlos Fuentes” — referred to Spanish conquistadors and their imperialist brutality, but for Aleteia the term applies to the rampant white supremacy and xenophobia in American society. In “La Leyenda Negra,” a Latino-centric project with queer notes and major topical value, her fight (and that of those she represents) is communicated thunderously.

‘La Leyenda Negra’

In English and Spanish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Playing: Available on HBO, HBO Latino and HBO Max