Before Scared Straight there was Short Eyes, Miguel Piñero’s play about an alleged child rapist brought to justice by his fellow inmates in the now-defunct “Tombs” prison. Piñero transformed his own jail-time memories of Sing-Sing (he was incarcerated for petty theft and drug-dealing) into Off-Broadway fame. His raw, unflinching worldview was that of the displaced Latino male forced to find country and family in the streets of New York. He was the co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café, an ancestor of rap and the spiritual guide for a community of Latino actors trying to carve a niche for themselves in a Hollywood far from color-blind. After landing minor roles in film (Fort Apache the Bronx) and television (Miami Vice), Piñero succumbed to the very hell he courted throughout his life. Piñero died of AIDS complications on June 18, 1988 after a lifelong battle with heroin addiction.
Cuban-born Leon Ichaso’s melancholic Piñero is as uncompromising as the life it heralds. The film’s aesthetic pitch-perfectly recreates the musicality and temporal rhythm of Piñero’s poetry slamming. There’s probably too much Piñero to cover in a mere 94 minutes but Ichaso, director of the haunting Bitter Sugar, gives the spectator enough to go on. The film’s unconventional groove is sure to alienate, especially for those unfamiliar with the Nuyorican sound Piñero helped define. Actor Benjamin Bratt first came in contact with Piñero’s work as a teenager, when Showtime aired Robert M. Young’s film version of Short Eyes. Bratt’s turn as a misogynistic druggie in his brother Peter Bratt’s Follow Me Home convinced Ichaso that the actor (then starring on NBC’s “Law & Order”) had what it took to channel Piñero’s lifeblood. Indeed, Bratt is electrifying as the poet, unrecognizable below the authentic grit and heartbreaking pathos he brings to the role. Here’s hoping Oscar is better to Bratt than it was to Javier Bardem last year.
Slant Magazine spoke with Bratt and Ichaso about the life and times of the famous Nuyorican poet and the challenge of bringing the project to the screen. Miramax opens Piñero on December 14 in limited release.
Was it difficult bringing Miguel Piñero’s life to the screen?
Leon Ichaso: It’s always challenging and difficult when you have a Latino hero and, in this case, not only a Latino hero but a man who is carrying dark baggage and isn’t around anymore and not many people know. When I started introducing people to Piñero they started getting interested and everybody remembered. People started coming forward. The validation of Piñero began to happen in the process of selling him as a project. I think this guy is so interesting and his work is so contrasting to his deeds and to what you hear of him. It was important to do this movie; it was a little bit of a mission. I had to resuscitate Piñero. I always felt that when Bruce Weber made Let’s Get Lost, Chet Baker was introduced to the world. I knew he existed but he became a bigger thing and I always hoped that Piñero would enjoy that sort of “life after death” or that his work have some sort of revival.
Did you ever meet Piñero?
LI: I met Piñero in 1981, in Central Park. I was there with a fellow actor named Manny Santiago, smoking a joint. This character crawled out from under a bush, scratching: “I just fell asleep on an anthill.” He kept directing to my friend, who obviously knew him. He had bug bites all over and he held a little pad in his left hand. I remember Manny passed him the joint and then he passed it to me and I cleaned it with my shirt. He kept talking and scratching and he wore this little Polyester shirt and baby blue bellbottoms when no one wore bellbottoms. He looked horrendous and then he said, “I gotta go to the Public.” I said [lowering his voice], “Well, maybe the public bathroom, to take a shower or maybe the welfare department.” And then he walked away. He meant the Public Theater. My friend said, “That was Miguel Piñero.” That was my brief encounter.
You directed episodes of Miami Vice. Did you ever encounter Piñero on the set?
LI: When I worked on “Vice” I remember odd things would happen, a whole brouhaha or something. “Piñero got into the wardrobe department last night. 100 pairs of shoes have disappeared.” You always heard those kinds of stories. I remember the poetry slams but I didn’t know his work as much as I got to know it once I decided to make the movie.
Ben, how did you research the role of Piñero?
Benjamin Bratt: My primary concern was to not do an impersonation of the man. I wanted to capture the essence of who he was. The first thing I did was pour over everything he had ever written, everything I could get my hands on. His poetry and the plays are so fraught with the things that aggravated and influenced him and ultimately made his life successful. He took this form and infused it with an urban, Latin lifeblood that had never been used in poetry before. He was remarkable as a writer in terms of never really self-editing himself or censoring himself. He wrote about all the taboos the typical American society widely avoids: incest, sexual abuse, poverty, incarceration, drug addiction. The next thing, of course, was to talk to his surviving family members and his best friend Miguel Algarin. He gave me tremendous personal insight in terms of how to approach [Piñero]. He said, “Do me a favor. It would be so easy to portray Miguel Piñero as a kind of chucking and jiving urban street urchin, jazzy poet. Don’t do it. He had a remarkable feminine side he was in touch with. In fact, Mikey was an elegant intellectual.”
Can you talk about Piñero’s relationship to Algarin?
BB: [Algarin] said to me that they were like a married couple without the sex. It was extremely important for us to get his blessing in terms of my participation in the project. One of my first meetings with him was to go with Ichaso to his apartment—which he still has in the Lower East Side—and chat with him a little bit and feel him out and, rather than ask him directly, just wait for him to offer it up. We were there for about 45 minutes. At one point he went to the bookshelf, from which he took an old rusty coffee can and set it down on the counter. As he began to peel the top back he started a Yuruba poem, an incantation of song. He said: “Now it’s time to meet Mikey.” He pulled the top off and in the can were Mikey’s ashes. He took from the can a pinch of the ashes and took my palms and put the ashes in my palms, closed my hands and said very referentially, “Yes, you have my blessing. But if you fuck this up I will kill you.” The tone of that whole experience—the reverence bounced with the frankness of the street—gave true coloration to how this guy operated.