In 1972 Miguel Piñero was a
25-year-old Puerto Rican-born New Yorker serving a jail
second-degree robbery. Two years later, he was catapulted to
literary fame with the production of his first play,
"Short Eyes," a graphic portrayal of life, love and
death among prison inmates. It won the New York Drama Critics
Circle Award and was subsequently made into a film. A poet as
well as a playwright, Piñero helped create the Nuyorican
Poets Cafe in an East Village storefront. His influence as a
pioneering voice for Latino artistic expression ran parallel
to his unrepentant relish for narcotics, impulsive crime,
transgressive sex and other forms of bad behavior. By 1988 he
was dead, of cirrhosis of the liver.
Now this short, fiery life
blazes again on-screen in "Piñero," which opens in
New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 14. The movie was written and
directed by Leon Ichaso, the 52-year-old Cuban-born filmmaker
best known for features chronicling Latino culture ("El
Super," "Crossover Dreams") and television
biographies of counterculture icons ("Hendrix,"
"Ali: An American Hero"). The title role is played
by Benjamin Bratt in a startling performance that will
undoubtedly inspire a major revision of his current public
image as Detective Rey Curtis on "Law and Order" and
Julia Roberts's ex-boyfriend.
In the theater world, Miguel
Piñero's reputation rests on "Short Eyes," which
portrays a white middle-class child molester thrown into
contact with black and Latino inmates awaiting trial. The
script, which originated in a prison writing workshop, got
rave reviews. "This is a play that kicks and hurts,"
Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times. When the theater
impresario Joseph Papp (Mandy Patinkin in the movie) saw the
play at Riverside Church, he decided to move it to the Public
Theater and then to Broadway, where it received six Tony Award
While his subsequent plays
were produced at the Public and Theater for a New City,
Piñero also won acclaim for the kind of incantatory
streetwise versifying later popularized in poetry slams and by
truth- telling rappers like Public Enemy and Tupac Shakur.
Tracing his career, "Piñero" captures a cultural
landscape unlike that of today, when successful writers are
more likely to emerge from M.F.A. programs than from the
street and even voices from marginal cultures are snapped up,
admired to death and absorbed into corporate blandness with
Mr. Ichaso first got the idea
for a movie about Piñero in 1993, when he was shooting
"Sugar Hill," a film about a Harlem heroin dealer
played by Wesley Snipes. At dinner, cast and crew members
would trade stories about Piñero, who was nothing if not a
memorable character. "Everyone you meet who knew Piñero
got pleasantly ripped off or hustled or enchanted or taught a
lesson about the street," Mr. Ichaso recalled recently in
a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he's filming an
episode of the PBS series "American Family."
To do preliminary research
about Piñero, the director met with Miguel Algarin, the only
surviving member of the original Nuyorican Poets Cafe — the
others were murdered or died in jail or of AIDS — and began
to collect colorful stories. (Mr. Algarin, played in the film
by Giancarlo Esposito, also appears briefly as a speaker at
Piñero's memorial service.)
Mr. Ichaso soon became
obsessed with the unusual content and quality of Piñero's
writing. "I became very interested in the forgotten work;
I knew he was going to fall through the cracks," he said.
"Piñero was definitely influenced by the Beat poets,
Kerouac, Amiri Baraka and the precursors of today`s rappers:
the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Felipe Luciano. A lot of his
work was built around the conditions of the ghetto and the
sociopolitical atmosphere that blacks and Latinos absorbed in
jail. Remember, he was fighting the incredible wave of
mediocrity that the 70's were. He didn't have a little chain
around his neck with a coke spoon. He wasn't dancing at Studio
54. He was doing poetry and theater, spoken word. If he would
have just done it a little later, today every tooth in his
mouth would be gold, and he'd be best friends with Puffy
Writing the screenplay, Mr.
Ichaso grafted passages from the plays and the poetry onto
scenes from Piñero's life, moving back and forth in time. He
wrote some scenes to be shot in black and white, to create a
disjointed, disordered aesthetic and to suggest subliminally
the Beat period of jazz poetry readings at San Francisco's
City Lights Bookstore. During the actual filming, though, he
wound up shooting many scenes in both black-and-white film and
color digital video. "A very unusual structure developed
that suited a very unusual guy without a structure," he
Early in the development of
the project, Mr. Ichaso said, he had a meeting with the writer
and performer John Leguizamo about his taking the leading
role. "I mentioned Piñero, and he dropped the fork from
his hand," Mr. Ichaso recalled. "He said: `That's
mine! I want that!' " "Piñero was one of my writing
idols," Mr. Leguizamo said in an interview in New York,
where he is appearing on Broadway in his solo performance
"Sexaholix . . . A Love Story." "He took Latin
street culture and put it into poetry. He documented our
spirit. The whole era of Nuyorican poets was an inspiration to
me when I was 19 and 20. We're in a pop era now. Everything is
fast, easy, downloadable. Back then they took the time to dig
in and find great words to say deep things."
Mr. Leguizamo became an
executive producer on the film, spending a year and a half
helping Mr. Ichaso develop the script and get financing.
Ultimately, though, he walked away from acting in the movie.
"Leon told the real exact story of Piñero, but it was a
little too real for me," Mr. Leguizamo said. "I'd
like to play him as a Latin hero, but he'd have to be a little
less disgusting. I can't forgive him for some of the things he
What Mr. Leguizamo objected
to was the depiction of sex between adults and minors. The
movie includes a scene in which it may seem that a pubescent
Piñero is being sexually exploited by an older man in a movie
theater. But Mr. Ichaso suggests that in reality it was the
other way around. "Mikey and his friends started hustling
when they were 13 or 14, at the movie theaters on 42nd Street
that cost 50 cents," he said. "That was the place to
make a buck. Later on he had a taste for street kids who were
very much the way he'd been. He got into trouble once for
picking the wrong boy, an Italian teenager who wanted to
emulate the outlaw picture Piñero presented. Somebody put a
contract out on him, and Joe Papp had to put him on a train to
Philadelphia to get him out of town."
In addition to portraying the
artist as outlaw poet and drug-crazed sybarite, "Piñero"
is a subversive portrait of Latino male sexuality, portraying
the subject's fluid sexual identity with unusual candor. In
the film, Piñero lives with a woman, dates a transvestite and
has a steamy relationship with his protégé Reinaldo Povod,
the young playwright whose 1986 play, "Cuba and His Teddy
Bear," starred Robert De Niro. Mr. Ichaso said:
"What fascinated me about Piñero was if you called him
gay, he'd kill you. For Latino men, the stigma around
homosexuality is horrible. We're loaded with a front to live
up to. Most of all, if you're a badass, it makes it harder to
turn around and kiss a man."
After Mr. Leguizamo bowed out
of the film, Mr. Ichaso sent the script to a number of actors,
including Benicio Del Toro, Marc Anthony and Johnny Depp. When
Benjamin Bratt's name came up, the director said, "I
thought he'd be totally wrong for the job."
"He was too clean, too
pretty, too West Coast," Mr. Ichaso said. "But he
was the first one to say, `I'm not your man.' Which
immediately brought out a curiosity: who is this guy? I looked
at a film he'd done called `Follow Me Home,' directed by his
brother, Peter, where he portrayed a down-and-out mural
painter in East L.A. He had false teeth, shaved head, tattoos
— I caught a glimpse of where he could go."
Mr. Bratt, speaking by phone
from San Francisco, said: "There were a couple of reasons
I knew I wasn't the right guy: the cover page of the script
was a Xeroxed photo of the man, who was probably a foot
shorter than I am. He was an East Coast Puerto Rican, and I'm
West Coast, of Peruvian descent. There was also some level of
fear. Much as actors seek out roles that are challenging, I
was afraid that if I failed, the failure would be eternal.
Film is different from theater that way.
"But I couldn't let it
go," he continued. "The musicality of the language,
the sheer volume of these words — I wanted to say those
For an actor accustomed to
Hollywood features and television shows, the five-week
shooting schedule and $1.2 million budget for "Piñero"
was a challenge. "Running and gunning, grabbing shots
when they're not necessarily planned, shooting on digital
video — I knew it would be a down- and-dirty process,"
Mr. Bratt said. "I thrived on that."
Mr. Ichaso is no stranger to
the world of low-budget cinema. He made his first film,
"El Super" (directed with his brother-in-law, the
documentary filmmaker Orlando Leal), for less than $10,000.
The story of Cuban exiles in New York was very familiar to
him. "I was born in Havana," he said. "My
father was a well-known Cuban poet, Justo Rodriguez Santos,
who died in 1999. He belonged to a very important group of
poets, including Lezama Lima, who was a character in `Before
Night Falls.' He stayed in Cuba till the revolution kicked his
ass, when he became a nonperson and his poetry was banned. I
moved to Miami with my mother in 1963, when I was 14. I came
to New York, where I worked as a busboy at Max's Kansas City
and left high school in 1967. I do time in L.A., but I still
keep my rent- controlled apartment."
After "El Super,"
he worked on "Saturday Night Live" and developed
"Crossover Dreams," which starred the
Panamanian-born music star Ruben Blades. Like "Piñero,"
the film offers a savvy portrait of the Nuyorican experience
in the 1970's. In 1996, Mr. Ichaso made his third feature as
writer and director, another film about Cuba called "Azucar
Amarga (Bitter Sugar)," about a young couple, an
underemployed psychiatrist and a man with AIDS all chafing
under the restrictions of the Castro regime. He was able to
shoot part of the film in Havana, he said, by pretending to do
a documentary about Caribbean architecture.
Mr. Ichaso clearly identified
with Miguel Piñero as an artist, as a Latino with a very
specific cultural heritage and as a connoisseur of life
experience. As Benjamin Bratt observed about the director:
"He had a clear understanding of the subject matter.
Nothing about it was foreign for him." And certainly he
shares with his subject a knack for doing what it takes to get
To subsidize his taste for
making stylish, highly personal films, Mr. Ichaso has spent
many years directing TV series ("Miami Vice,"
"Crime Story," "The Equalizer"),
television adaptations of stage plays ("Zooman,"
"Execution of Justice") and formulaic features
("Sugar Hill," "Free of Eden"). He called
this balancing act "the John Cassavetes way: you do this
one for money and live in purgatory while you're planning your
next film for yourself, the one you have some feelings
for." He doesn't seem to resent the trade-off. "It's
healthy," he said. "You get a lot of work done that
New York Times, December 2,