The East Los Angeles Classic is one of the oldest and most recognizable football games in the city of Los Angeles. Throughout it’s 80 plus year history, the homecoming game for Roosevelt and Garfield high schools has constantly reshaped itself, as the communities of Boyle Heights and East LA changed as well.
Filmmaker Billy McMillin has worked to encapture the spirit of the game in his new film The All-Americans, which is screening at the Regency Commerce theater in the City of Commerce through Nov. 21 before getting a wider national release in upcoming weeks.
The documentary chronicles the lives of players and coaches as they play and prepare for their crosstown rivals at the end of the regular season. Boyle Heights Beat talked with McMillin about how the film explores ideas of American identity and illustrates the struggles of two low-income, minority communities.
The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
BHB: How did you first find out about the Classic?
McMillin: I found out when I heard a tiny little news story years back before I started making the film. Embarrassingly, I knew very little about Boyle Heights or East LA by that point, so it was incredibly gratifying once I reached out to both schools to have not only the schools and teams open their arms, but the community as a whole really embraced the process of telling this story.
BHB: Why did you think it was important to make a documentary about these communities and this game?
McMillin: Well, I have been wanting to do a film about American identity and how American identity is changing as the country changes. I was initially just awestruck by the size of the game… not only was it this giant game but it was from this part of town that I knew very little about. It seemed like there was a bigger story here, there was a story about all of the things that I felt were getting overlooked when dealing with issues of immigration, dealing with issues of people getting themselves into the fabric of the country, and we don’t talk about this neighborhood in that way. So I felt it was a way we could look at Boyle Heights and East LA and actually get people to understand it’s not what people think it is.
BHB: The film’s original title was changed. What was the reasoning behind the change?
McMillin: Well, we changed the name of the film from The Classic to The All-Americans, and part of the reasoning is that initially the Classic was the centerpiece of the film, and everything else rested on that, but all along I wanted the Classic to be a vehicle to explore the community and explore the kids, coaches, and families within the community. When it became a bigger thing, I wanted the film to be recognizable to a larger audience that isn’t so familiar with the game. I wanted to put a stamp on the film that represented what I thought about the community and how it was such a quintessentially American community, so we decided to change the name to The All Americans.
BHB: One of the things I really enjoyed about the film was the way it focused on a few specific individuals and dived deeper into these students’ lives. What made you choose these individuals in particular?
McMillin: This is one of the toughest things to do because there are just so many great stories, and I followed about eight kids originally, but the truth is you need to pick the unique stories.I wanted to pick people who had different stories with issues that not everyone is facing. [Garfield defensive linebacker] Joseph Silva was probably the first kid I gravitated towards –he and [Roosevelt wide receiver] Mario Ramírez– but Joseph was particularly interesting because he was incredibly hard to track down. I would wait for Joseph outside of his class and he would not show up. He was very reluctant at the beginning to tell his story.
Ultimately I sort of cornered him and said “Hey, I want to get to know you and understand more about you,” and he finally just unloaded on me. He ended up going on an interview for an hour and a half and he basically told me his whole life story. I really felt that this kid had a lot balled up inside him and for a kid that’s in the 10th grade, to have a one-year-old child that he has to support… [his] parents that have been in and out of jail, a mother that is a drug addict, but Joseph is still a kid that has been constantly striving to better himself and doing so with very little support. The support he did have was a bit from his grandmother and a lot from his football team and his football coach, and those are the things that are adding discipline to his life and giving him some structure. So, he was an incredibly important character to see where he succeeded or where he failed.
Mario Ramirez was a really interesting character because here is a kid who’s a wide receiver with a sparkling GPA and letters from Harvard and Princeton. He wants to get out of LA at the beginning of the film. He really wants to get out and see the world or at least studying somewhere else because he seems himself transcending his neighborhood. What you see throughout the film, as he struggles and goes through these trials with everybody, is how connected he is to his neighborhood. Even though he’s that kid who is from a family where some may fear deportation or even his girlfriend fears deportation, he’s the one who faces a ton of challenges but still strives for greatness.
BHB: A lot of the film takes place inside the classroom. Why did you feel it was important to highlight this aspect of the players’ lives?
McMillin: I think it was important to just see how they were taught. What I found really striking was how much issues of immigration and issues of identity were taught within the classroom. It wasn’t just on select days that I visited. These discussions were held on a daily basis, certainly more so than when I went to high school.There was serious talk about civics and immigration, so hearing those teachers and hearing the positive side of how they were instructing the kids to account for themselves felt like a different but much more helpful way of looking at Boyle Heights and East LA. It also helped in showing these kids somewhere other than a more stereotyped setting.
BHB: Do you still communicate with any of the individuals from the movie and do you still try and interact with the community today?
McMillin: I do. Because I am a working documentary film editor and director, I don’t have the time to continually interact with the community. I still keep up with the kids on a fairly regular basis. I still keep up with the coaches on a fairly regular basis. Coach Hernández, especially given the fact he is still coaching there [at Garfield]. Coach Hernandez was a big source of community engagement for me and I’ve kept up in that way. I’ve also kept up with things like donating to the football teams each year for the Classic and all that stuff. Now that the film is actually being released, this is our time to actually re engage with the community because that’s how we can do something and really activate around the film release.
BHB: The film includes a number of snippets about Donald Trump, but the movie is based on the 2014 season (before Trump’s Presidency). Why did you add those to the movie?
McMillin: The film takes place over the 2014-2015 season, which was basically the beginning of when Trump came onto the stage. I followed the kids for that year and the year after and filmed them basically into the year that Trump started his presidency. Many of the scenes, like when Mario is talking about fearing that his grandmother or his uncles may be deported, were being filmed as times changed.
That’s one of the issues that comes with making documentaries, because times are changing so quickly and especially in this case, given that in the middle of making the film all this bigger political turmoil was happening. I had to keep engaging and changing the story because the story on a national scale kept changing. So you want the film to stay relevant and you want the film to reflect how people’s lives are affected going forward and not make it seem like everything was fine in the past.
What I didn’t want was for Trump to be a centerpiece. You hear a lot of right-wing radio in the film, but I think you hear the word “Trump” one time. I did not want this film to be “Trumpified”. I didn’t want his name to be stamped all over the film, or hear his voice at all in the film. I feel like we get that from so many other places that I wanted the film to be a place where the audience could get a break from that and yet still understand the world they are living within.
BHB: What other work have you been doing since the movie was finished?
McMillin: I just finished a film called Mike Wallace Is Here, that premiered at Sundance this past year and is now going to Hulu next month. It’s all about Mike Wallace and how the role of broadcast journalism has changed throughout the last 80 years. I did a series called Hunting Isis, which is all about volunteer soldiers fighting Isis in Iraq and Syria. Right now, I’m doing a Netflix series that will be out next year that will be all about famous coaches called The Playbook.
All photos courtesy of Abramorama.