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Film / Zoot Suit

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Zoot Suit is a 1981 musical drama film written and directed by Luis Valdez and adapted from his own 1979 play, which was in turn Based on a True Story account of the infamous 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder and trial in Los Angeles, also touching on the following year's Zoot Suit riots.

Henry Reyna (Daniel Valdez) is a young Chicano from the barrio, who has run with street gangs in the past but is straightening his life out. He has a girlfriend, Della (Rose Portillo), and has joined up to serve in the U.S. Navy in World War II—in fact, as the story opens, he's due to ship out the very next day. He and Della go out dancing along with Henry's friends and fellow members of the 38th Street gang. They have a hostile encounter at the dance club with a rival gang from Downey, but Henry's better instincts prevail and he and his friends leave without serious incident.

Henry takes Della out to the "Sleepy Lagoon" reservoir. Unfortunately, some guys from the Downey gang show up and give Henry a beating. Henry gathers the 38th Street boys together and they return to Sleepy Lagoon looking for payback. Tragedy ensues, and soon Henry and his friends find themselves on trial for murder, trapped in the clutches of a viciously racist California justice system.

A singing, dancing Edward James Olmos stars as "El Pachuco" ("the gangster"), a sort of Greek chorus who is also Henry's inner voice; none of the other characters can see him. Tyne Daly appears as Alice Bloomfield, a union activist who organizes a defense group for the 38th Street boys. Kurtwood Smith has a small part as Sgt. Smith; Robert Beltran made his film debut as Lowrider.

Luis Valdez adapted his own hit play; several of the actors, including Daniel Valdez and Olmos (but not Daly) were reprising their roles from the stage production. The movie is essentially a filmed theater performance, shot entirely on a theatrical stage, with relatively few cinematic touches aside from some Stop Tricks and quicker cutting than would be possible on stage.


  • Anachronic Order: Much of the play bounces back and forth between Henry's arrest and trial and the earlier events that led up to the murder at Sleepy Lagoon.
  • Based on a True Story: The film opens with the title card "The following film is based on a true incident," with the same words at the bottom of the screen in Spanish.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: When Henry is putting on his zoot suit to go out dancing, his mom Dolores says "I almost wish you were going back to jail."
  • Call-Back: When the reporter says "Los Angeles", El Pachuco rattles off the old Spanish name for the town, "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula", which startles the reporter (this is one of the few times anyone other than Henry can see him). Much later in the film El Pachuco does this again, but changes it, saying "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Pachuco."
  • Fan Disservice: Near the end, Henry's little brother Rudy is shown naked—after he's been beaten and stripped by rampaging Anglo sailors during the Zoot Suit Riots.
  • Greek Chorus: El Pachuco, who addresses the audience and comments on the action and talks to Henry but is invisible to any of the other characters (except for briefly near the end).
  • Kangaroo Court: The trial is a joke, presided over by a Hanging Judge who refuses to let the defendants get haircuts or change into nice clothes, and allows testimony about how Chicanos are affected by their descent from the "bloodthirsty Aztecs."
  • Logo Joke: The movie opens with an old-timey 1940s black-and-white version of the Universal logo.
  • Make-Out Point: What Sleepy Lagoon obviously is. Henry takes Della there after the dance and they start necking. She's perfectly willing for him to take her virginity, but he hesitates, mainly because she's only 17.
  • Medium Awareness: Within the play, El Pachuco is aware that he's in a play, saying "Ladies and gentlemen, the mono you're about to see is a construction of fact and fantasy. But relax, weigh the facts, and enjoy the pretense." Later, when Henry pulls a knife on his rival Rafas, El Pachuco says "Well that's exactly what the show needs right now, ese, two Mexicans killing each other." Still later El Pachuco tells Henry "Everybody's looking at you," which is the one time Henry notices the audience. El Pachuco can also snap his fingers and freeze the action, which he does several times.
  • Multiple Endings: The end has Henry and the other defendants triumphantly greeting their families after their release from prison. El Pachuco says that sure, that could be the Happy Ending—but no, Henry eventually went back to prison and wasted his life with alcohol and drugs. Another character says, no, Henry served in the Korean War and was killed in 1952, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. Another character says that, no, Henry married Della, settled down, and had five children.note 
  • The Musical: Musical numbers are sprinkled throughout, starting with the opening song "Zoot Suit". Another number called "Handball" is about the gang playing handball in jail.
  • Rhymes on a Dime: A creative newspaper headline warns the public of the "ZOOT SUITED GOONS OF SLEEPY LAGOON."
  • Sinister Switchblade: The weapon of choice for Chicano gangbangers. Notably, Henry has good instincts and leaves his switchblade behind before going out, only for El Pachuco to give him another one.
  • Spinning Paper: An old-style spinning paper effect (one of the few cinematic touches) sets the date as summer 1942. Later another spinning paper dates the Sleepy Lagoon trial to 1943.
  • Title Drop: El Pacheco sings a song called "Zoot Suit" that establishes the culture the story is set in.
  • Vanity License Plate: A random gag has someone arriving to see the play in a car with a license plate that says "ZOOTER".
  • Visual Title Drop: The marquee for the Zoot Suit play is seen outside the theater.
  • White Gangbangers: Tommy, who hangs out with the Chicanos despite being a blond-haired Anglo. He even tells Alice "I'm pachuco too, you see!". One throwaway line indicates why he might be hanging out with Chicanos, when he identifies as an "Okie", one of the Grapes of Wrath poor people who emigrated from the Dust Bowl to California in the 1930s.