It’s always exciting when a film promises to offer intimacy with a world you’ve always been curious about or fascinated by. But when the film is centered on the cultural experiences of people of color, one must always remain a bit skeptical. Hollywood, after all, has a tendency to disappoint in the rendering of such stories. I’d hoped that Lowriders, being a somewhat under-the-radar film, and one starring and penned by all people of color would avoid some familiar trappings and—most importantly—introduce moviegoers to the Mexican-American art world of lowrider and vintage car customization, but such was not the case. In spite of some compelling performances and a strong premise, Lowriders falls short of greatness.
Let’s begin with an issue I’d hoped to not write about again so soon, after witnessing the unnecessary centering of the white gaze in HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Lowriders certainly doesn’t make such an egregious error, as the story is firmly centered on Mexican-American protagonist Danny (played by Gabriel Chavarria) a talented graffiti artist whose father (Demián Bichir) runs a car shop that specializes in high-end, lowrider detailing. Complications in the family arise when Danny’s older brother (Ghost, played by a fairly captivating Theo Rossi) is released from prison and old, long-festering wounds reveal themselves.
Lowriders is ultimately a father/son(s) drama, and even the appearance of the white gaze can’t take away from that—but its appearance remains infuriating. As Danny sides with his brother and embraces the lowrider world through the work they start doing together (work that will put them in direct competition against their father), he falls in love with a hipster-ish white girl (Melissa Benoist as Lorelai), who also happens to be a photographer … which means we get the distinct displeasure of seeing his world through her lens, literally. The scenes that focus on the creation of these cars, and Danny’s incredible talent as a muralist are beautiful—the colors and energy of the work and its display in the streets and parking lots of LA captured well by director Ricardo de Montreuil. That so many of them are shown through the eyes of the white love interest is completely unnecessary and disappointing.
Unless of course, the intent was to challenge the white gaze itself, which is precisely what Lowriders pretends to do, during one of its most fascinating scenes. Lorelai introduces Danny to an even more hipster-ish, white local gallery owner, who is equally, annoyingly taken with the artwork. And Danny is rightfully offended when she tries to describe his work as representative of his family’s struggles as immigrants; Danny isn’t making political art, but his white girlfriend assumes that the only way to “sell” him to this white man is to politicize his work and attempt to badly deconstruct a social critique that isn’t actually there. It’s a brilliant moment that perfectly captures the violence of the white intellectual gaze, and it makes you wonder if that was the very purpose of Lorelai’s existence. It would have made for a great storyline, if Danny had seen Lorelai for her pimp-ish, exploitative ways and gone on about his business—perhaps in search of a lovely girl from his actual neighborhood who wouldn’t be so wide-eyed and impressed with his lifestyle—but Hollywood seems to be having an interracial relationship moment, so what do I know?
Unfortunately, Lowriders only briefly critiques Lorelai’s white gaze, and it’s a critique that does not last or hold. Danny and Lorelai argue about what she’s done, and Lorelai insists that she only wants to help—that she wants Danny to push himself to get his work seen (though she never admits that her definition of “push yourself” includes offering up stereotypes to entice white men who won’t feature his work otherwise). Indeed, it is a relief that after her performance for the white gallery owner, her romance with Danny is not rekindled. But when he sends her a magazine spread featuring his work—proof of his accomplishments—at the end of the movie, he includes a post-it note that reads, “You were right.” It’s an infuriating and unearned redemption for a white character who was never necessary to begin with. While it’s true that Lorelai was right to encourage him to put his work out there, she was also absolutely racist to try to pimp out his culture, heritage, history and struggle while doing so. And since he never fully calls her on this, and she never fully acknowledges her behavior, there’s no real point to her existence in this film (other than the fact that Hollywood loves a pretty white face—even, if not especially, in a movie that has nothing to do with white people).
As annoying and unnecessary as Lorelai’s role is, it’s made more so by the underutilized presence of a far more fascinating woman of color whose story (only hinted at in a few scenes) could have worked in an exciting way alongside Danny’s. His Latina friend Claudia (Yvette Monreal) hails from the same neighborhood as he does and has been accepted to Columbia, but towards the film’s end reveals second thoughts about going. Had we gotten to watch her grapple with such a decision and the weight of being the first person in her family to attend an Ivy League school, while watching Danny struggle to embrace his own artistic abilities, we might have been presented with not only a worthy, non-white scene partner, but also the only female character with a strong presence in the movie.
Which leads us to another thing that keeps Lowriders from greatness—the simultaneous exaltation and marginalization of “Woman.” Now I’ve never met a woman who knew how to repair and customize vintage cars, but Eva Longoria plays one such woman here (the father’s new-ish girlfriend), and I was devastated by how little she had to actually do in this film, considering what a great character hers could have been. As much as the script tries to stress her knowledge of the world we’re in, it also stresses that she’s a woman, therefore in almost every scene where she’s waxing poetic on the creation of these cars, she’s also doing the dishes and/or the laundry. She’s Miguel’s support system, and little else since she’s given no narrative arc of her own. The defense will be, of course, that this is a movie about fathers and sons, but the strangeness of the plot is that much of the tension between the men stems from the loss of the matriarch—the deceased mother—and the life they all had when she was alive. “Woman” (represented by the memory of the mother and the artwork and love she inspires among the men) is presented as everything in the movie, but the actual women characters are the supportive and trope-ish girlfriends and wives for which I’ve no use in film anymore.
But I’m writing about Lowriders not only because I was disappointed in certain aspects of the film, but also because I saw so many glimmers of greatness. Chief among them, a short vignette-like scene that takes us back to the early history of lowriding culture, where it becomes clear that what so many people might see as mere car shows or even parking lot pimpin’ is actually a kind of language that you can’t speak if you’re not from the neighborhood. Embedded in that language is everything from pride in culture, to celebration of women, to dedications to lost loved ones, and even anti-police rhetoric, where even the mechanics of a car are meant to evade the racist LA cops who found a way to criminalize their very existence. Lowriders could have been a powerful father/son tale that set itself firmly in its own world, translating what was necessary and also refusing to translate certain aspects of the culture—offering us, instead, a glimpse through strong plot and well-developed characters (both male and female). It’s important that such a story was given space on the big screen, and I can only hope that this isn’t the last time it happens—but I also hope that, in future films about lowriding (and other distinctively non-white spaces), we’ll be spared of the overwritten Beckys, and the underwritten women of color who do little else than inspire their men to greatness.
Shannon M. Houston is a staff writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.