Nationality: American. Born: 10 April 1949. Education: Attended UCLA Film School. Family: Married Anna Thomas (a writer and filmmaker); two children. Awards: Chicago Film Festival prize for Best First Feature, for The Confessions of Amans, 1976; San Sebastián International Film Festival OCIC Award, for My Family/Mi Familia, 1995; ALMA Award, for Outstanding Latino Director of a Feature Film, for Why Do Fools Fall in Love, 1998. Agent: International Creative Management, 8942 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211.
Films as Director:
The Confessions of Amans (+ ph, co-sc, ed, co-pr)
El Norte (+ co-sc)
A Time of Destiny (+ co-sc)
My Family/Mi Familia (+ co-sc)
Selena (+ co-sc)
Why Do Fools Fall in Love? (+ co-pr)
In the Melting Pot (doc; for TV).
By NAVA: articles—
West, Dennis, "Filming the Chicano Family Saga: Interview with Director Gregory Nava," in Cineaste, Fall 1995.
"Gregory Nava on Selena," interview with Henri Béhar, in FilmScouts, http://www.filmscouts.com/intervws/gre-nav.asp, July 2000.
On NAVA: articles—
Simon, J., "Crowd Pleasers," in National Review, 21 April 1997.
Williams, David, "A Life of Color and Light: Filming Selena," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1997.
Voss, Karen, "Replacing L.A.: Mi Familia, Devil in a Blue Dress, and Screening the Other Los Angeles," in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), no. 3, 1998.
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Anyone looking for the latest work of Latino filmmakers, particularly documentaries and shorter works in alternative styles, will most likely find it in festivals sponsored by universities, cinemateques, or film collectives, and not at the nearest multiplex, where films about the lives of Americans of Hispanic descent are extremely rare. A handful of commercial films have had wide distribution, including the works of several Chicanos: Luis Valdez (La Bamba), James Edward Olmos (American Me), "Cheech" Marin (Born in East L.A), and, far from least, Gregory Nava, who has managed on several occasions to overcome reluctance in Hollywood to produce films about Latino families. Nava has claimed to be first and foremost a filmmaker, not an "ethnic" or "niche" filmmaker, so that, for example, his saga My Family/Mi Familia should be meaningful to any American who has known the immigrant experience, or indeed who has been part of a close-knit family. Still, his career to date exemplifies the difficulty of getting films—other than crime dramas and broad comedies—about particular ethnic or social groups made and distributed to a wide audience.
Nava's first major film, and arguably still his best, is El Norte, which takes as its subject a pair of Guatemalan refugees, brother and sister, their father brutally slain for his resistance to the ruling class, their mother taken away by soldiers. The film tells of their trip north, through Mexico and across the border to Los Angeles, where they find El Norte is hardly a welcoming haven. Telling its tragic story of the underprivileged with simplicity but not condescension, the film might best be compared to classics of Italian Neorealism in its direct, sometimes brutal, always emotionally powerful presentation and deeply affecting performances. To be sure, it differs in certain conspicuous ways from those black-and-white dramas of post-War Italian life, notably in the gorgeous colors of the Guatemala scenes (actually filmed in adjoining Mexican provinces), including the campesino textiles, brightly painted houses with deep red interior walls, and surrounding greenery. An occasional shot may seem framed as "picturesque"—e.g., three girls in their bright shawls with water jugs on their heads—but the clothing is authentic and the constant beauty is ironic and heartbreaking in the context of violence and exile. Another difference from the Italian films is the occasional touch of Latin American magic realism, or perhaps folk tradition, as in omens of Maria's death. The film has moments of humor—a running gag about Mexican swearing, and a dauntingly complicated washing machine in a wealthy woman's house—that leaven the mainly somber drama. There are also unexpected moments of elation, such as the burst of Mahler's Fourth Symphony (quite a contrast to the Guatemalan folk and Mexican popular music accompanying other scenes) that sounds when the exiles have their first glimpse of what they think will be the promised land.
The success of El Norte in art-house markets led to Nava (and his collaborator Anna Thomas) working on a Hollywood project with important stars, with somewhat unfortunate results. A Time of Destiny derives its plot from the Spanish play that provided Giuseppe Verdi with a libretto for La Forza del Destino (an aria from which is heard in one scene). A couple attempt to elope; the bride's stern father is accidentally killed while trying to prevent the marriage; her brother swears revenge on the now separated couple, pursuing the groom even across raging battlefields. Nava updates the story to World War II, keeps a Hispanic flavor by making the father a Basque rancher and setting key scenes in a California mission, and eliminates the tragic ending while keeping some of the stark and brooding quality of the original. Some truly suspenseful scenes and superb photography help the drama, but Timothy Hutton and Melissa Leo are only sweet kids, rather than interesting protagonists, and William Hurt is convincingly demented only in his later scenes. Moreover, the battle footage is a bit too flashy with its artillery-shell POVs (though there is a neat borrowing from Eisenstein's October to convey machine gun fire by rapid editing), and the climax in the bell tower owes too much to several Hitchcock films and to Orson Welles' The Stranger. Nava's ambitious next project, again with Thomas, was a multigenerational tale of a family in East Los Angeles, starting with a couple who arrive from Mexico in the late 1920s (joining a relative who has lived there since California was still part of Mexico, and who significantly gets buried in the back yard among some symbolic corn plants) and continuing with their offspring. Historical events, like the illegal deportation of U.S. citizens to Mexico during the Depression, intersect with the family's lives, but the story keeps circling back to the home itself, and to the nearby bridges that link it to the Anglo world. Each of the children seems to represent a possible direction for a Chicano life between the 1930s and the 1980s. One of the daughters has a big wedding and big family, while the other becomes a nun but later marries an ex-priest and works to help Central American refugees. Of the sons, one is a pachuco who scorns his parents' work ethic, gets drawn into a knife fight à la West Side Story, and is slain by the police; one goes to UCLA law school; a third becomes a writer, and is in fact the narrator of the film; and the youngest, who witnesses the police slaying, grows up embittered. The struggles of the young parents take up the first part of the film, while the rest concentrates on the brothers with the most violent lives: in the 1950s the seemingly doomed Chucho (Esai Morales) and in the 1970s the tormented Jimmy (Jimmy Smits), who goes to jail more than once, marries a Salvadoran refugee to save her from deportation and death, and, in the film's extended finale, works to establish a relationship with his own son. Nava compresses this saga into just over two hours' time, relying at times on cliches in the dialogue and voiceover narration, but he finds dramatic unity not only in the theme of family solidarity but in the mise-en-scene (the gradually changing decor of the house) and a series of parallel situatios. Some critics have questioned what could be called the film's politics of nostalgia, but My Family/Mi Familia is still an important achievement, with several powerful performances and vivid set pieces.
More recently Nava has directed two biographies of popular American singers who died young—though the films are altogether different in tone and structure as well as subject. Given his commitment to stories that emphasize family values and the struggle of Latino/as to find a place for themselves in American culture, Nava was a natural choice to direct Selena, the life story of the Tejana singing star killed by a crazed fan at the age of 23. Selena had become astonishingly popular first among Texas Hispanics, then in Mexico (though she was unable to speak or sing in Spanish until her father trained her), and finally, with a crossover album, in America at large. With Selena's family directly involved in the production, it is not surprising that the film is both saint's life and American success story, with the usual "Gotta sing!" story impetus, but Nava does find drama in the impulsiveness, hot temper, and unswerving faith of her father Abraham (James Edward Olmos), a combination of "stage father" and Latin patriarch. Unlike the Old World father in A Time of Destiny, however, Abraham reconciles with his daughter after she elopes with her true love, the band's guitarist with a "bad" reputation. In any case, the film is most successful not as drama but as a document of Selena's musical achievement. Jennifer Lopez (the young peasant mother in My Family) lipsyncs Senena's singing and recreates her stage movements convincingly (as we can see when footage of the real Selena is shown as an epilogue), and conveys a sort of wholesome sensuality. The songs are well integrated into the narrative and Nava's widescreen lensing allows split screen effects, some of them virtually religious triptychs with Selena framed in the center panel. The director's favorite images of full moon and round sun at the horizon, used in all his preceding films, make their appearance, bt with less ominous foreboding than before. Nava elects not to show the murder of Selena onscreen, and gives only glimpses of the family's grief, not just out of tact but because the film is clearly intended to be a celebration of Selena's life and a memorial gift to her fans, with the advantages and drawbacks that such an approach is bound to have.
Why Do Fools Fall In Love? posed a different kind of challenge, that of doing something original with the notoriously rigid formula of the biopic of an artist who succumbs to alcohol or drugs: early stardom, break with less talented "family" of fellow artists in favor of a solo career, love problems, loss of popularity, crazed addiction, partial comeback before fatal overdose. The solution was to center the story of Frankie Lymon around his three alleged widows, each claiming the royalties after his death. The resulting film attempts to be both the Citizen Kane and the Rashomon of doo-wop, with Lymon's life revealed in flashbacks from the viewpoints of those who loved and hated him, but, unlike Citizen Kane, with some directly contradictory testimony, as in two alternative flashbacks of a fight around a swimming pool. Unfortunately, Larenz Tate cannot make Lymon much more than cute in some scenes and abusive in a few others, and the comic and horrific scenes seem to come from different movies. Still, Nava offers a number of pleasures: a fantastic sense of color and 1950s decor, most dazzlingly in a tour-bus-and-diner scene; raucous insult matches among the women, with Little Richard as himself whooping it up; and different editing patterns and photography for each musical number, including an elegant Steadicam shot that takes us from a theatre marquee through the doors, up onto the stage, swirling around the Pretenders in mid-number, following them offstage and Frankie's group onstage, and circling around Frankie as well.
Why Do Fools is Nava's first major work with only incidental connections to Latino life. Since then he has returned to what is clearly his most passionate concern, by making a pilot film for a TV series about an East L.A. family. One can imagine some of Nava's strongest virtues as a filmmaker—unreserved emotional performances from his actors, bold color palate, sensitivity to music, broad humor—working well if given free rein in such a series, as one hopes to find them in feature films to come.