Joe Carnahan ’95 (Film Studies) has written and directed several movies that feature high-octane action sequences designed to get your heart pumping and adrenaline running. But he doesn’t consider himself an action director.
“I guess that’s what I’m known for, but what makes any film interesting, what makes any genre work, ultimately, is the characters,” said Carnahan, whose credits include Narc, The A-Team, Smokin’ Aces and The Grey. “How much you connect to them and how much you care about them.”
Carnahan hopes that the characters in his latest film, El Chicano, which opened May 3, connect with audiences in a big and very important way. The film is the first superhero movie to feature an all Latino cast, something Carnahan and his co-writer Ben Hernandez Bray, who also serves as the director, hope can address a major problem in Hollywood: the underrepresentation of Latino individuals in movies.
“Ben for years had been saying, ‘I don’t see myself represented. I don’t see brown faces. I don’t see those movies,’” Carnahan said. “The only balm I could supply, as his best friend, was to say, ‘We need to go make this movie now.’”
Carnahan credits much of where he is today to Sacramento State, from which he says he received a “blue collar” film education – one that prioritized hands-on learning over theory – in a diverse environment that exposed him to individuals from all backgrounds.
A native of Vacaville, Carnahan had become involved with creative writing while a teenager, which morphed into an interest in film while attending Solano Community College. At 19, he wrote his first screenplay.
“It was terrible, but it was a good learning process, and so I wrote that and began to write another one, another one, another one, and through attrition and just being stubborn about the process and understanding that I was learning even though it wasn’t stuff I was ever going to do, I just kept slogging forward,” he said.
He continued to take film courses, raised his GPA and transferred to Sacramento State, where he enrolled as an English and film studies double major. Working at a moving company to help pay for college, he also got involved in the local theater and film scene, and staged a one-act play in the Playwrights’ Theatre.
The campus itself even made its mark on Carnahan’s career. The tunnel below Arboretum Drive at the front of campus was used as a filming location for an early version of Narc, which eventually became one of his first commercial films.
Carnahan eventually saw a string of success with several big-budget action films and thrillers, but getting financing for El Chicano proved difficult. He and Hernandez Bray eventually had to go to Canada to secure funding.
The film, based in part on Hernandez Bray’s personal experiences, tells the story of a Los Angeles police detective who discovers that his deceased brother had planned to become a masked vigilante known as El Chicano in an effort to fight the influence of Mexican drug cartels in East Los Angeles, and eventually assumes the mantle of El Chicano himself. Billed as a superhero film, Carnahan says it also touches on issues of identity, including what it means to be both an American and a Mexican American.
El Chicano aims to make a dent in a severe underrepresentation of Latino characters in Hollywood. A 2018 USC study found that just 6.1 percent of speaking roles in films in 2017 went to Latino characters, despite Latino individuals making up nearly 18 percent of the U.S. population. The disparity is even greater when looking at who is spending money at the multiplex: Latino individuals bought 23 percent of all movie tickets in 2016, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Or, to compare apples to apples, El Chicano came out just one week after the highly anticipated Avengers: Endgame, the culminating film of a 21-movie superhero series that featured just one prominent Latino character.
In talking about how to address the issue, Carnahan circles back to what he loves most about making movies: creating characters that can connect with an audience.
“If you watch Black Panther, you don’t say, ‘Well I’m not African American or African so I can’t possibly understand what that story is about.’ It’s absurd,” he said. “Of course you do. It’s a great movie. Great movies transcend.”
The approach Carnahan took with El Chicano – to make the movie, whatever it took – stems from lessons and values he learned at Sacramento State, which were imparted by faculty members who also were working professionals in the film industry.
“I didn’t go to film school. Sacramento State was my film school, and I’m very proud of that,” he said. “It had a blue-collar approach to it. It wasn’t so steeped in film theory. It was, ‘ Get out and do it.’ ”