I make the joke that Danny Trejo is everyone’s tío. Half of it is rooted in his role as Uncle Machete in Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids and the other half is based on how caring and open he is, even now that he’s reached stardom. Trejo is a household name, not just for Mexican-American fans, but for everyone. Despite his many interviews about his past, the documentary, Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo, directed by Brett Harvey, still manages to showcase his story and brings in every emotional element it can in a unique way.
Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo reveals the extraordinary life journey of Hollywood’s most unlikely hero. Through interviews with his relatives, friends, and co-stars like Cheech Marin and Michelle Rodriguez, we get an intimate look at Trejo’s extraordinary life and learn about the dangerous circumstances he overcame to become one of Chicano cinema’s icons. From an early life of drugs, armed robbery, and hard prison time, to the red carpets of Hollywood blockbusters and helping troubled addicts, Trejo gives a firsthand account of one of the greatest transformations of a human character ever put to film. Additionally, the documentary shares never-before-seen footage and personal testimony to help audiences witness the birth of a Hollywood icon who became a symbol of hope.
Having spent 71 years starring in a personal expedition that outshines any Hollywood fiction, Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo is a story made for the movies both in scope and triumph. The film explores Trejo’s old stomping ground and allows the audience the privilege to see Trejo like those who love him do. This is the documentary’s strength. Through the words of those close to Trejo and his own, audiences get to experience the love, the sadness, the struggle, and the success in a way that hits harder than a simple interview. By using photos from his youth, Harvey is able to tell Trejo’s story in an authentic way and it never once feels exploitive of his trauma or of his identity.
The film opens by breaking down Trejo’s childhood and the only two roads available to him because of his Chicano identity: laborer or criminal. It’s here that we learn to understand his choices, his options, and see his past as something just as meaningful to his identity as his present. This is done in a way that doesn’t shame Trejo for his past addiction, his family’s involvement in gangs, or even his identity as one of the most feared men in the prison system. Never once does this documentary turn into a critique against his life. Instead, it offers reasons for it and works to use Trejo’s journey as an example that it is never too late to reach beyond the stereotypes that society holds young Mexican-Americans to.
For Trejo, his path away from his past involved not only Hollywood but giving back to his communities in Los Angeles working as a drug counselor. Through his own sobriety, he began reaching out to help those in his community of all ages who are or were in situations similar to his own. And while he continues this work today after 46 years of sobriety, his path to being a celebrity came from the inspiration he found in both John Wayne’s films and, most importantly, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez. One of the first Latinos in Hollywood, Gonzalez was the face that showed a future that Trejo didn’t know was possible for brown men. It was this influence that eventually led him to Hollywood where he would work as a consultant and actor, staring first as “Inmate #1” and beginning a journey that would lead him to his own top-billed feature film along with other roles that have put him at the center of pop culture.
The power of Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo is ultimately in hearing Trejo describe his life and his choices. The most notable of which is his choice to continually be type-cast. While other actors of color push away the roles that seem to restrict them to one stereotypical portrayal, Trejo embraced it. When he was asked about this, he responds that he is the gang member, he is the guy who would beat you up in high school, he is the criminal. But what Trejo shows is that he and others can be that one thing and also contain so much more. He can be the dramatic actor, the eccentric uncle, and more importantly, the hero. His push to showcase all sides of himself while not pushing away his casting as a bad guy is something that separates him from others and is what keeps Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo from falling into the trap of infantilizing or shaming its subject or communities.
In addition to Trejo’s journey, the film also takes time to explain who Trejo is now and how he has made it his personal mission and debt to society to give back to Chicano communities in Los Angeles. We learn that he does this through his volunteer work donating food via his iconic Los Angeles based restaurants, buying toys for local children, motivational speaking in prisons, working with animal shelters, and being a source of consistent support for those in the neighborhood he was raised in.
There is so much to love and admire about Danny Trejo, and Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo emotionally touches on it all. This documentary offers an emotional look at a man who has not only become one of the most recognizable Chicano film icons but who has become a pillar of strength and wisdom in his communities. I laughed, I cried, and I hope that Danny knows we see him as our tío.
Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo is available digitally to rent and buy on July 7, 2020.
Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo
- Rating - 10/1010/10
There is so much to love and admire about Danny Trejo, and Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo emotionally touches on it all. This documentary offers an emotional look at a man who has not only become one of the most recognizable Chicano film icons but who has become a pillar of strength and wisdom in his communities.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.