Released last year in theaters (didn’t see one ad for it, but…), Cellmates is the story of a KKK Grand Dragon named Leroy Lowe who gets thrown in jail by the US government and eventually has to bunk with a Mexican immigrant Emilio. The real story, though, is not how these two manage to get along, but how Leroy falls in love with another Mexican, the warden’s office cleaner (derogatorily referred to as “the maid”). Leroy and the cleaning lady begin passing notes back and forth to each other without the warden catching on. Eventually, as expected, Leroy turns his back on his former life and racist views and, like a puppy, follows after his new love Madalena.
The official website has the tagline: “A Heartwarming Buddy Comedy With Something To Offend Everyone.” …This film is not offensive. It’s very sweet and I think that tagline was a mistake in promoting the film. I suppose some people may be offended initially by the depiction of a KKK leader, but even that is so toned down that I can’t imagine there being an objection. For instance, I don’t remember hearing any racial slurs thrown about by Leroy Lowe, not one. He gave his politics about Mexicans staying in their own country, that’s about as dirty as it got. Dare I say, with the exception of maybe a couple of swear words, this is a family film. There isn’t even so much as a kiss shown when Leroy and Madalena are left alone for the first time.
The sweetness is in the transformation of Leroy Lowe from stubborn white guy to soft-hearted American championing the rights of others because of his friendship to Emilio (falsely arrested because of a labor dispute) and his love for Madalena, hard working cleaning lady who wants to start her own restaurant. There really isn’t much more to the story except the direction is very light-hearted and offbeat. We’re always waiting to see what happens next with the letter passing. The letter where Leroy tells Madalena that Mexicans should stay in their own country is pretty hilarious as her eyes get real wide reading it and then the subsequent lover’s spat in the form of broom sweeping.
Hector Jimenez plays Emilio with the same quirky feel of his other character Esqueleto in Nacho Libre. He has American dreams and strangely enough wants to look like a TV doctor named Ben Casey so he has to figure out how to tame his wild hair (I did find this little subplot kind of weird since it ironically is a rejection of ethnicity even though it’s played for laughs).
You might think that Cellmates is a liberal white man’s fantasy about friending someone of another race and falling in love with a beautiful Mexican woman–which may be true–but I noticed Hector’s credits were listed as an executive producer. He obviously believed enough in the film’s premise to back it and overall it is a relevant story even though the time of the story takes place in the late seventies. There has been so much racism in the last decade about Mexicans taking American jobs and sucking the healthcare system dry it’s hard to imagine we’ve made progress. Sure, Mexican music can be annoying (yes, I said it!), but Mexicans are just the next wave of immigration and they are integrating with our society even as they change our society–it’s called diversity and it can be uncomfortable for the existing population. AND it’s happened before with the Irish, Swedes, Norwegians, Chinese, Germans, etc. Get used to it, bigots. If you were stuck in poverty surrounded by druglords (caused by an American black market) and American run sweatshops, you’d be running for the border too.
Ultimately, the lesson of how to get rid of bigotry is one we know works, because it’s hormonal and natural. A white bigoted man meets an attractive, caring Mexican woman and he’s going to retain his hatred for Mexicans? I don’t think so. Cellmates won’t make you laugh out loud too much, but you will be smiling by the end of it. It’s a feelgood movie.