At a screening for New York critics earlier this year, Joseph B. Vasquez stormed in to offer what will surely be the most memorable movie introduction of the year. ”Ladies and gentlemen,” he snapped, ”I’ve been f—ed tonight, but not in the pleasurable sense.”
Eyes widened. Vasquez’s Hangin’ With the Homeboys, a comedy about four South Bronx friends on a wild nightlong odyssey into and out of Manhattan, had recently won its writer-director honors at the Sundance Film Festival; now, as his shadow loomed across the empty screen, people actually flinched. In his black jacket, bandanna, and Bluto beard, the 28-year-old Bronx native cuts an imposing figure, and on this night he was roaring mad: He’d just been arrested. After describing with unprintable disgust how four policemen had thrown him into a car (it was a case of mistaken identity), Vasquez tossed his shredded summons away and stalked off. ”Enjoy the movie,” he muttered to the stunned room as the lights dimmed and scene one, a menacing subway fight, unspooled.
Anyone who expects Hangin’ With the Homeboys to be a cinematic vision of inner-city rage may be surprised: The subway clash in Homeboys is a joke, and the film is a gentle, funny, semiautobiographical coming-of-age story that depicts the South Bronx as a neighborhood, not a nightmare. Vasquez isn’t habitually outraged either. Days later, when a doorman mistakes him for a bicycle messenger, he reacts with rueful humor rather than anger. He’s growing accustomed to misconceptions — about being a ”street” filmmaker (although he was briefly in a gang, his gravest misdemeanor was sneaking into movies), about Homeboys’ influences (Diner and American Graffiti, so please don’t compare it to Do the Right Thing or House Party), even about his tougher-than-leather appearance. Last year Vasquez was slashed by a homeless man seeking a subway token; the attack left a scar from hairline to nostril. ”I grew this beard to hide behind,” he says, sighing. ”If you could see what I really look like…it just kills me.”
Vasquez began shooting Super-8 movies when he was 12; he finished high school only because he discovered he could study filmmaking in college. Shortly after graduating from City College of New York in 1983, he made the $30,000 Street Story, a barely released tale of two brothers (”I was writer, director, cinematographer, editor, sound editor, gaffer, negative cutter, music editor…”). Then he began knocking on doors. ”That was when I was like Willie (in Homeboys),” he says. ”I’m half black and half Puerto Rican, so whenever I couldn’t get a movie job, I’d say, ‘It’s ‘cause I’m black, right?’ Nobody had any idea I was black.” Vasquez’s second film, Bronx War, about gang life in the borough, was eventually financed for $360,000 and caught the attention of New Line Cinema.
Vasquez wrote Homeboys in three days, but New Line, which was footing the bill, demanded extensive revisions: ”I resented it, but they wanted more of a structure, and they were right.” He shot the film for $2 million, a pittance by Hollywood measures. ”Sometimes I’d think, this is so big it’s not even my movie anymore — it’s getting away from me,” he says. But during long nights on location, Vasquez was in full control.
”It got sticky when we shot on the street at 4 a.m.,” recalls Nestor Serrano, who plays Vinny, the most cynical of the homeboys. ”We were sitting ducks. I’d say, ‘Joe, why can’t we just act like we’re in the South Bronx?’ But he knew what he wanted.”
Homeboys has so far opened only in New York City, but one important audience is already pleased: New Line recently signed Vasquez to direct two more films. One possibility is Hangin’ With the Homegirls, a semi-sequel that would unfold on the same night as Homeboys. Another is Writing on the Wall, a drama about three teenagers — one black, one Hispanic, one Jewish — embroiled in a murder. ”It’s very dark, and a lot of racist feelings come to the surface,” says Vasquez, who hopes to shoot that film this summer. ”New Line had problems with some of the language in Homeboys, so I don’t know what they’ll make of this.”