Why you should care
Ben Hernandez Bray drew from his brother’s tragedy in an ode to Los Angeles barrio culture.
In 2006, Ben Hernandez Bray’s brother, Craig, overdosed at the age of 29 after getting out of prison for gang-related activity. He got caught up in the street life, doing a lot of crazy stuff unbeknownst to his family, including the older brother who helped raise Craig in a fatherless Mexican-American household in the rough San Fernando Valley.
Ben’s mom and grandmother had done everything they could to keep their kids away from gangs, but here they were at the San Fernando Mission burying their youngest son. “You feel like a statistic,” Ben Bray says. “To see my mom cradle and hug that coffin as it’s going down into the ground was just tremendously painful.”
Ben, 50, never fell prey to the streets, but his little brother’s story stayed with him as he forged a career as a Hollywood stuntman, and Craig inspired the plot of El Chicano, Bray’s feature directorial debut, which premieres in theaters today.
Billed as the first Latino superhero movie, it’s an action-packed thriller with an all-Latino cast. The story follows twin brothers — one who dies suspiciously after prison and one who works as a detective — seemingly reconciled through the mysterious El Chicano. Juxtaposing gangster, noir, mystery and vigilante elements, it’s a Mexican Batman, complete with a barrio batcave. It’s an ode to Los Angeles Latino culture that doesn’t glorify gangs and violence or exploit people of color. The characters are often drawn from Bray’s own life, such as the LAPD cop of Mexican and Italian heritage who used to bust him every time he skipped school.
“To see someone from a similar background rise in this industry and direct his own feature is a true inspiration,” says Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez, co-author of Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories From Behind Bars. “To tell a story that Latinos can relate to is so important right now — with everything going on with Trump and families being separated, or just the negativity, from gang violence to drugs. When you see a familiar face on the screen, it gives you hope that you can be your own hero.”
At age 21, Bray was training as a boxer in Van Nuys, trying to figure out what he was going to do in life, when film director Nigel Dick walked in, witnessed Bray’s boxing skills and asked him to audition for a part in Dead Connection, a forgettable 1994 film starring boxing champion Gary Stretch.
“They were looking for someone who really knew how to fight and move around, and not just a regular stuntman,” Bray says. “That’s how I got cast. It was crazy. It was all on accident.” On set, Bray clicked with the stuntmen, who informed him that there weren’t a lot of “brown guys” in the industry. They started teaching him the business, from sliding on cars to fire burns to high falls to wire work. Veteran stuntman Ron Stein took Bray under his wing, leading to a career in acting, stunt coordinating, second unit work (the team that shoots supplementary footage) and episodic directing.
“The first couple years in this business, I was tripping out at what everybody did on set — from lighting to DP [director of photography] to directing,” Bray says. “I started falling in love with storytelling because I really began paying attention to movies.” With Stein egging him on to learn all aspects of the business, Bray figured, “This is part of me doing my homework.”
Over two decades, he earned credits in big-budget features like Iron Man, Star Trek, The Fighter, The A-Team, American Hustle, Argo, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Jack Reacher. And he choreographed stunts for big names like Bradley Cooper, Jon Favreau, Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams while doubling for actors like Emilio Rivera, Esai Morales and Lou Diamond Phillips. Bray was developing the skills and forming the relationships that would lead to El Chicano.
Bray started sketching out his film with veteran producer-writer-director Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team, The Grey), who by then had become Bray’s best friend. Then in 2015, tragedy struck again: Bray’s wife, with whom he has two young sons, lost their unborn daughter to a miscarriage. Carnahan suggested Bray dedicate the script to his lost brother and daughter. “Once I took care of my family, I went to New York and wrote 185 pages,” Bray says. Adds Carnahan: “It was a unique joy working with someone who has been like my brother these last 20 years. It was my pleasure and privilege to help him bring this very personal story to the big screen.”
Caucasian kids around the world have Batman, Spider-Man and Iron Man, and children of African descent have the Black Panther, but Mexicans and Latinos have never really had a superhero of their own. (The animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, released in December, centered around the Afro-Latino character Miles Morales; DC is developing Blue Beetle into a film with a Mexican-American protagonist.)
In the past, the argument against such films was that they wouldn’t appeal to a big enough audience to be financially viable. Far from a major studio project, El Chicano was backed by Canadian investors with a slim $8 million budget, distributed by upstart Briarcliff Entertainment, and is coming out in the record-shattering shadow of Avengers: Endgame.
“My hope is that the Hollywood system doesn’t do what it always does and whitewash another brown person’s brilliance,” says Corey Asraf, the Moroccan-American writer/director of Let Me Make You a Martyr. “I want to see that movie, the uninhibited superhero film that will truly speak to that kid who needs a role model. In time, I think we’ll get there.”
The key for Bray is that his characters come from the same barrio world that he did, as he strives “to be visceral and not sugarcoat [or exploit] things.” For example, Bray sees the movie as a metaphor about not having a father, because if his dad were around, Bray believes, things could have been different for his brother.
Bray wanted to explore the origin story and mystique of El Chicano more in the film — opening with a Los Angeles history montage including the Battle of Chavez Ravine, the Zoot Suit and Watts riots and the Chicano Moratorium — but he was held back by budget constraints. Still, if Latino crowds flock to the film as African-Americans did to Black Panther, the door will be opened for El Chicano sequels, comic books and even more.
The film, which infuses Aztec imagery, Mexican history, barrio myths and prison culture, is really a love letter to the Latino community. “It’s about never forgetting where you come from,” Bray says, “no matter how big things get.”
Read more: She’s taking on ‘wigging’ and whitewashing in Hollywood stunts.