An early exploration of Latino gang life in East LA, made before images of that particular subculture became familiar to mainstream audiences, the straightforward morality tale Boulevard Nights is not particularly audacious in content or execution, but the plain-faced style helps ease viewers into a rich world. Richard Yniguez, who deservedly caught some notice for the suspenseful telefilm The Deadly Tower (1976), is strong as Raymond Avila, an auto mechanic who escaped the gang lifestyle that infests his East LA neighborhood. He earns a decent living, enjoys the respect of his peers, and entertains dreams of opening his own shop some day. He’s also involved in longtime relationship with Shady (Marta DuBois), who has gone further than Raymond in escaping the barrio; she works in an office downtown even though she still lives in the ’hood.
The only big impediment to their relationship is Raymond’s prolonged adolescence, because he loves to spend his weekends cruising the neighborhood boulevard, showing off the hydraulics in his souped-up lowrider—the only big impediment, that is, except for Raymond’s little brother, Chuco (Danny De La Paz), who’s so deep into the gang life that tragedy seems inevitable. As the story unfolds, Raymond tries to balance the joys of building a life with Shady and the trials of keeping Chuco out of trouble, a challenge exacerbated by Chuco’s drug problems and emotional issues; the younger Avila is so wired that he lets a scuffle with a rival gang snowball into a blood feud.
Directed by journeyman Michael Pressman, written by Desmond Nakano, and produced by Tony Bill (who later made an equally sensitive story about life on the streets, 1980’s My Bodyguard), Boulevard Nights has the by-the-numbers professionalism of a good TV movie, and except for a healthy smattering of F-bombs, there’s little here that screams “major theatrical feature.” Nonetheless, the sincerity of the effort put forth by those behind and in front of the camera carry the day, making Boulevard Nights into an anguished statement that steers clear of bleeding-heart histrionics; instead of speeches about the terrors of gang life, the story presents everyday realities about life in a minority enclave that’s almost hermetically sealed from the outside world, with codes and values defined by factors including drugs, poverty, and racism.
What makes the picture distinctive, aside from across-the-board good performances, is the lack of a white character functioning as an observer (or, shudder “voice of reason”). With very little fuss, the picture immerses viewers in a world that feels credible, though undoubtedly jacked up for dramatic purposes, thereby earning the emotional hit at the end of the story. Boulevard Nights isn’t a great film, but as one of the first mainstream productions to explore its subject matter, it’s admirably groundbreaking. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
Boulevard Nights: GROOVY