The Sun Always Shines for the Cool

The Short 'Happy' Life of Miguel Pi?ero

By Ernesto S. Martinez
Published on LatinoLA: December 13, 2001

The Sun Always Shines for the Cool

Leon Ichaso's new biopic, Pi?ero, released by Miramax, is a frenetic and texturally convoluted film about Puerto Rican born poet and playwright, Miguel Pi?ero.

Ichaso's portrayal of Pi?ero's (played with passion and charisma by Benjamin Bratt in an inspiring, if risky, career move) presages a certain hip hop, and slam poetry aesthetic sensibility developed in the 70s, and blossoming in the 80s/90s as a central mode of art expression among Latinos and African Americans.

Nuyorican history and culture is generally not well known here in Chicanolandia (Califaztl?n for some). It is easy to become slightly insular and thus unaware of the vibrant history and culture of Latinos from Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican descent since Mexican American cultureand art production here focuses on the incessant erasure and misrepresentation by the dominant culture industry.

On this accounting alone then, the film by Ichaso (El super, Crossover Dreams, Sugar Hill, Bitter Sugar) is a welcome expression that turns the focus on 70s and 80s Nuyorican memory and art through this representation of an artist's experience. The film, of course, exceeds this simple accounting. It's a rarity that enters Latino history and art into the popular imagination of U.S. audiences, if only through limited release.

Miguel Pi?ero became well known in the 70s as a result of a play he began writing while in jail, titled Short Eyes (short eyes is slang for child molester in jail culture). Pi?ero's play was eventually produced by Joseph Papp (played by Mandy Pantinkin) and had a run on Broadway, receiving six Tony award nominations.

The film dynamically describes Pi?ero's cultural landscape through a temporal and formal structure that describes how Pi?ero's art was intricately related to the socio-political air in the ghetto and jail culture that he lived in and drew from to create his art.

It portrays Pi?ero as deeply scarred, and at the same time, deeply touched by his life experiences, including his relationships to his absent father, his mother (played by Rita Moreno), his lover (Talisa Soto), and his friend and fellow poet Miguel Algarin (Giancarlo Esposito).

Since the film is centered on Pi?ero, the rest of the cast feels like part of the "mis-en-scene" rather than as part of the human complexity we come to see in the central character. This is a typical deficiency in biopics about artists, since what is at stake is a certain rendering of the artist's many complex layers that leads to the production of art.

The film's formal and narrative structure enmeshes Pi?ero's art with his life, if ultimately painting a rather prosaic linearity of events and consequences for Pi?ero's psychology. Father abandonment and molestation, for example, are linked to later sexual and drug transgressions and dysfunctional relationships.

Ichaso uses black and white scenes, color scenes, and grainy shots, along with digital hand held shots, together with a non-linear time scheme. The film begins during the year of Pi?ero's death, 1988, and weaves back and forth temporally.

More importantly, Ichaso threads scenes of Pi?ero's life seamlessly with scenes of presentations of Pi?ero's plays and poetry.

This provocative aesthetic move expresses how art is firmly tied to place and thus inextricably tied to questions of race, class and politics.

There is a scene towards the beginning of the film in which the doctor and the patient, Pi?ero, discus the results of a medical examination. The doctor delivers the ominous news to Pi?ero; the degeneration of his liver will end his life in a matter of months at the age of 40.

Pi?ero's response is to tell a poignant, and seemingly deflective, story to the doctor about how a friend was found dead inside his own van just two days ago. Pi?ero, returning to the present, then states to his doctor, with a fierce resolve: "I guess I should consider myself lucky."

Lucky? To know you're dying?

By way of an anecdote, the retelling of a friend's demise, the character, Miguel Pi?ero, turns what is the horrific banality of the imminence and absoluteness of death into a resource.

This representation of Miguel Pi?ero, poet, playwright, thief and junkie, draws on this resource in order to make the sun always shine during a destructive, turbulent and meteoric life. In this simple yet deeply reflexive scene emerges the central motif of Pi?ero, the film, and Pi?ero, the man.

Benjamin Bratt's performance as a Nuyorican poet/playwright/beat is noteworthy. Bratt's interpretation of this enigmatic, conflicted, and destructive individual is startling and inspired. Bratt has mentioned that he wasn't interested in learning how to mimic Pi?ero but that he wanted to interpret Pi?ero by understanding his passions and desires.

In short, what drove Pi?ero's addictions, be they drugs, art, or his relationships. Bratt's interpretation and his career choice are to be commended.

Leon Ichaso is slowly but steadily refining the dance of working on things you love to do and working on things you need to do to live in order to make the things you love to do.

About Ernesto S. Martinez:
Ernesto S. Mart?nez is a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA in Film, Television and Digital media. He can be reached at

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