This story is based in fact. The year is 1942 in Los Angeles and although the Second World War is raging abroad, the news headlines of America are seized by the grip of the so-called Zoot Suit riots, bursts of violence involving the Mexican-Americans, known in the press as "Pachucos". One cause celebre of the era was the killing of one man in such a skirmish, and the miscarriage of justice that resulted from it when four men, three of them Mexicans, were put on trial for the murder in spite of flimsy evidence. We follow the story of one of the men, Henry Reyna (Daniel Valdez) who finds himself torn between the U.S.A. and Mexico in the process...
Zoot Suit was adapted by director Luis Valdez from his stage play, a success in America that naturally was translated to the big screen. However, he might have employed various cinematic tricks in this version, but the work still remained resolutely stagebound. This was intentional, and the stylised nature of the production, which was a musical of sorts, helped to make the more theatrical elements more palatable for this medium. Holding it all together was a remarkable, star-making turn from Edward James Olmos as El Pachuco, at once our hostile narrator, a commentator on the action and a symbol of nineteen-forties Mexican pride.
El Pachuco has a great suspicion of the white Americans who he believes, and is proven right in some cases, are treating the immigrants from south of the border as second-class citizens. Valdez the writer is careful to set up Henry's home life with his parents, brother and sister in an early scene, either to strike a chord with those who had similar upbringings or to flesh out his characters and the culture they arose from. Daniel Valdez, the director's brother, acquits himself well as a young man whose identity is in conflict: is he simply a chap out for a good time, or is he the criminal that the law has painted him as?
There's no doubt whose side the film is on, and once Henry and his friends are arrested, they have to endure a trial where the judge (John Anderson) is hopelessly ignorant, never mind unthinkingly racist with his orders for the accused to stand up whenever they hear their names so the jury can identify which is which, among other things. There are more objections from the lawyer here than in a month of court cases. And to add to the indignity, they are convicted on the slimmest of proof - we know that this is a farce, and fortunately others do too, but the only ones who can help them now are a white legal team.
El Pachuco, kind of Henry's conscience here (he is the only one who can see him), feels that he and his friends are being patronised by these liberals, but Henry proves a happy medium can exist. All the way through Olmos makes the film his own as far as performances go, although Valdez's Henry and Tyne Daly's protest worker Alice also make a good impression. But Olmos struts a strking figure in his black zoot suit, singing and dancing and always aggressive and commanding, filled with righteous and sneering anger - he's terrific and makes the film worth seeing. Elsewhere, the musical numbers use the tunes of the day to fine effect, with accompanying moves that are only interrupted when racial tensions erupt. It's injustice which fuels Zoot Suit, and even though it's artificial-looking, it has a genuine indignation that has it standing out among most musicals of its era.