Film response: John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons

John Leguizamo's one-man Broadway teach-in fails as both history and comedy. It also features Aztec emperor Moctezuma as a prancing, sycophantic fairy, for some reason.

Originally published on Letterboxd with no likes.

I didn’t expect to dislike parts of this so much so I’ll just be blunt upfront: This sucks as history and it sucks even worse as comedy. I laughed, maybe twice, and chuckled a few times, groaned a lot more, and got pissed off royally for several minutes.

I saw Leguizamo live twice in Chicago before he was too famous and he had the audience in stitches both sets. The writing and the performances were smart, incisive, detailed, and sharp.

This Netflix special is embarrassingly sloppy from just about every perspective. Leguizamo’s first mistake is trying to play himself and making that performance the center of the piece. In most of his work, he’s the narrator or observer, and he fills most of the space and time with vividly realized characters whom it’s obvious he loves and considers part of his experiences.


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This show he impersonates himself more than anyone and his lack of discipline and his fear is everywhere apparent. It’s frequently sentimental and goes for easy laughs, although it really didn’t seem like the audience was laughing that much or that hard.

But the whole conception is wrong. So he wants to teach Latinx folks about the depth and richness of their histories. Great. So what does he do? LITERALLY tries to teach. There’s a blackboard and shelves full of books. The stage is a schoolroom.

I mean, this isn’t art; it’s earnest, occasionally amusing, but bumbling didacticism. Maybe he should have given a TED talk?

I’m rambling but let’s get back to those shows I saw. Back in those days, either Leguizamo or his agent or whoever was advising him were actively courting gay audiences. He regularly had lovingly written and performed gay characters — moving characters for whom he had sympathy. He had a couple gay roles in movies. He played venues in gay neighborhoods with large gay audiences.

In this show, there are no Latinx gay characters at all. No gay Latinx heroes.

But there is one Latinx bad guy and that’s Moctezuma II, the Aztec emperor who, according to at least one account but not all, sold out to Hernán Cortés. Inexplicably, Leguizamo plays Moctezuma like some evil, flaming, Disney villain complete with a prancing, lisping book number. This whole characterization felt much more like an ambush of his gay fan than anything Dave Chappelle did in Sticks & Stones.

But it’s much worse. It’s more dishonest than that. In his “research,” Leguizamo might have come across a piece of quasi-historical fiction by José Luis Basulto Ortega called ¡CUILONI! Story of a tear, which posits that the only way to explain Moctezuma’s capitulation to Spain was that he was in love with Cortés. A speculaton like that is either an obvious, face-saving machista fantasy or a subversive, queer detourning. In either case, Leguizamo’s decision to make Moctezuma a fawning fairy is all on him.

Perhaps knowing he couldn’t directly mention such a non-scholarly source, he nevertheless couldn’t resist the characterization. It’s a despicable choice and inexcusable. Have any critics called him on this? Or does he get a pass for his “good intentions” and opposition to Trump?

A few minutes later he falls on his knees, crying out: “Or as they say in Palestine…!” and then follows a string of nonsense words in a weird accent along with a few that were audible such as shawarma and falafel.

Seriously, WTF? It looked and sounded like improv but where the hell did the motivation for that sort of crude caricature come from?

And Hebrew and Arabic are different languages, you moron.

I found this mostly to be a spectacular, sweaty failure and often boring. There are a number of good books to read on the subjects. Enough for a lifetime of study. Leguizamo only mentioned a few of them, before he tossed them away on the dusty stage floor.



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