"Zoot Suit" is a 1981 musical film directed by Luis Valdez from his play of the same name. The film stars Daniel Valdez as Henry Reyna, a Mexican-American man who is imprisoned for a murder he may not have committed. Edward James Olmos plays El Pachuco, a symbolic representation of Reyna's subconscious who also serves as the narrator of the film. "Zoot Suit" is loosely based on the actual events of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial in Los Angeles in 1942. "Pachucos" were young Mexican-American men who took up the "zoot suit" fashion and lifestyle.
"Zoot Suit" was originally performed as a musical by the Center Theatre Group and later on Broadway by the Shubert Organization. The motion picture retains the original theatrical style and was filmed entirely at the Center Theatre Group's Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood. Olmos' character El Pachuco serves as the narrator, Henry Reyna's conscience and the archetypal "zoot-suiter." The film uses nonlinear storytelling by presenting the plot elements in flashback, song and symbolism.
"Zoot Suit" begins by introducing the zoot suit culture, which many minorities embraced in the '40s. It opens in a club with the dance number "Zoot Suit Boogie" and the character of Henry Reyna is introduced. Henry's parents are hard-working immigrants but Henry and his siblings are more interested in having a good time, going out to clubs and dancing. Henry is ready to join the Navy to fight in World War II but has one last night on the town.
The audience learns that Henry and members of his gang have been arrested for the murder of a man in the Sleepy Lagoon area of Los Angeles. The film flashes back to the night of the murder, when Henry and his girlfriend Della (Rose Portillo) show up at a dance club, which leads into another large dance production number.
Henry and his gang are put on trial, which introduces the character of Alice Bloomfield (Tyne Daly), as an advocate for the accused. The trial is filled with bias and prejudice, including racist statements about the violence of Mexicans' tribal ancestry. During the trial scene, the film flashes back to Henry and Della's date, as they head down to the Sleepy Lagoon area for a romantic encounter. A gang fight breaks out and witnesses at the trial say they saw a Mexican (portrayed by El Pachuco) beating a man with a large stick. After the cross-examination, the defendants are found guilty.
While Henry and his gang are in San Quentin, their lawyer and Alice Bloomfield try to get the conviction overturned. Henry confesses to Alice that he has fallen in love with her but she does not reciprocate his feelings. El Pachuco appears to Henry to announce that war has broken out in the streets of L.A., referring to riots between the authorities and Mexican-Americans living in the barrios. This leads to a scene in a dance club in which Henry's brother Rudy gets into an altercation with a group of sailors, which reveals that Rudy was attacked the night of the Sleepy Lagoon murder shortly after Henry had left him.
Della comes to San Quentin to visit Henry, telling him that she has been released early for good behavior. Alice's work comes to fruition on November 8, 1944, when the Sleepy Lagoon defendants are granted their freedom and released from prison. The time line parallels the United States' involvement in World War II.
In the final scene of "Zoot Suit," Henry reconnects with the El Pachuco persona. The scene takes place in the dance club, where Henry Reyna is examined as a historical figure from several different perspectives: by the authorities as a criminal, by his brother as a hero and by Alice Bloomfield as a man devoted to his family and culture.
- Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images