Review by Sarah Williams
The opening shot of La Leyenda Negra is probably the highlight of the film. Shot in black and white, it opens out of focus, and then straight in to the rebellion of teenagers simply existing in a place that does not welcome outsiders. Premiering in the NEXT filmmakers showcase category at Sundance, it is a feature that feels as if its ideas have outgrown it. It's not to say that it doesn't tell an important story — it's a film that certainly begs to be seen. However, the way these important ideas are presented is messy, unfocused, and struggles to fully reach the heart of what it wants to portray.
Aleteia (Monica Betancourt) goes through the typical struggles dealing with her Compton classmates. She also happens to be a soon-to-be undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, about to.lose her status due to changing immigration laws. She's spending her senior year in limbo; she could lose her scholarship for college if she loses documentation, but that college is what will get her a student visa so she can stay. It's a fearful experience, one many must learn to empathize with, to not know whether this will be the last day before being reported from your own home. Aleteia's story is a reminder that not every kid has the same background; some work harder to get to the same end goal, and many have to fight just for a seat at the table. There is an alienation that comes from this, the being told you don't belong in your own country, and Aleteia is definitely affected.
The black and white color palette is an interesting choice that may entirely work. It makes the film feel bleak, not ideal in moments meant to lend hope to the characters. It seems like it is trying to go for what Roma had, but set in contemporary America. However, the modern setting provides a strange contrast with the choice to shoot without color. It does look beautiful at times, which certainly should not be discounted. Singular frames can be pulled that look like the kind of dramatic candid photographs that go in museum exhibitions. This may be a nice way to do black and white, but for a film about the hardships of undocumented immigrants it doesn't quite feel gritty enough to approach the subject matter.
Usually films that act as activism premiere in the documentary categories of Sundance. While there is a lot of truth here, the film is an original screenplay. While it may serve a similar purpose in educating on a social issue, it is a narrative work of fiction, and should be discussed as such. While the roles of the characters may be realistic, their motivations and interactions are nonexistent and often stilted, making it feel like the characters only exist to prop up an important message.A successful scene is when a white teacher tries to preach to her class of black and Hispanic students about the greatness of the conquistadores. They laugh in her face, knowing their own history better than this woman who won't even pronounce their names properly ever could. A scene at a quinceañera is also exceptionally well-done, a rare depiction centered on the community instead of the materialism.
Even when the film misses its mark, it certainly has a clear purpose. It's the kind of film that should be readily available on a streaming platform where it will have an audience that it can sway through empathy. It is a film begging to be heard more than it asks to be seen, with the digestible packaging ready to show those needing a face to apply to the immigration debate. Patrícia Vidal Delgado certainly has potential as a director. She does a fantastic job directing non-professional actors, and her characters are viewed very empathetically. While not entirely a success, it's an important story to tell, and a film that should be shown.
La Leyenda Negra debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival which ran January 23 through February 2 in Park City, UT.