By the end of the ’70s, soulful actor Robby Benson had played so many variations of the “sensitive teenager” type that he was undoubtedly eager for new challenges. This would appear to be the only possible explanation for Benson’s casting in Walk Proud, a periodically intense drama about a young Los Angeles Latino who wrestles with issues of personal identity when he realizes he might have outgrown his allegiance to a street gang. Yes, you read that right: Latino. Benson, a native Texan of Jewish extraction, is many things, but Hispanic is not one of them. Even with his famously expressive blue eyes hidden behind dark contacts—and, it seems, his skin slathered in some sort of bronzer—Benson looks completely ridiculous in every frame of Walk Proud. The funny thing, however, is that he actually manages to give a somewhat credible performance, perhaps because he’d already gained so much experience singing the song of the anguished adolescent. Anyway, Benson’s casting is so jaw-droppingly wrong that one can easily consume Walk Proud as a campy misfire and get a few laughs out of the experience, especially when the soundtrack explodes with distinctly non-Chicano synthesizer textures during the violent finale. For those willing to suspend disbelief, though, Walk Proud tells a poignant story.
Emilio (Benson) is a high school student who runs with a dangerous crowd called the Aztecs. When Emilio falls for a gringo classmate named Sarah (Sarah Holcomb), who sees more potential in him than he sees in himself, Emilio starts to question his role as an Aztec. This identity crisis is exacerbated when Emilio learns a secret about his lineage and when the Aztecs’ conflict with another gang escalates to lethality. Much of the picture comprises everyday scenes of Latino life, including a quinceañera and an excursion to Mexico, so the respect the filmmakers pay to their subject matter is basically admirable. And if the gang stuff is jacked up a bit for effect, that’s an understandable concession to dramaturgy. (Screenwriter Evan Hunter knew his way around stories of at-risk youth, having penned the 1954 novel The Blackboard Jungle, one of the genre’s bedrock texts.) For the most part, Walk Proud works, in a clumsy sort of way, whenever it sticks to the colorful milieu of Hispanic gang culture. Conversely, the movie wobbles whenever it becomes a typical Benson tearjerker, with Holcomb weakly filling the role usually occupied by regular Benson costar Glynis O’Connor. Alas, the movie doesn’t know when to stop, going so far as to include Benson’s angst-ridden delivery of an anti-violence speech featuring the creaky old line, “Where does it end?” Nonetheless, Walk Proud features a string of effective moments—as well as a few unintentionally campy ones—and it has the advantage of novelty.
Walk Proud: FUNKY