[Documentary Review] INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Everyone loves a story of the deceptively frightening figure that ends up being a gentle soul (think Ferdinand the Bull). In INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO, we see that classic sort of story play out with a twist. Danny Trejo, a household name and Hollywood tough guy, is known for his kindness and community involvement. What the documentary shows us is that every wonderful thing that he is today, was born out of triumph over struggle and the personal decision to live a better life. It’s a deeply compelling story, told beautifully through Trejo’s own words.

INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO documents the remarkable life of an unlikely Hollywood hero, Danny Trejo. Audiences are introduced to Trejo’s beginnings as a young child seduced by an early life of drugs, armed robbery, and time in prison. We are taken through Danny Trejo’s personal account of the decision he made that took him from hard time to the big time, but also formed him into an activist helping troubled youths and addicts. It is a sobering and inspiring film and a truly remarkable story of redemption and resilience.

Danny Trejo is joined by friends, co-stars, and family in this remarkable film by Brett Harvey. Notable appearances include filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, Michelle Rodriguez, and Cheech Martin. The documentary has been enjoyed as an official selection of the 2019 Raindance Film Festival, Calgary International Film Festival 2019, and others.

[Documentary Review] INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO
Courtesy of Universal
The heartbeat of INMATE #1 rests in the notion of becoming something “more.” Danny Trejo describes his very simple upbringing in the comfortable monotony of his hometown. To a young man, monotony began to feel like a dead-end and Trejo would eventually yearn for something greater. In his youth that translated into money and a feeling of power, which would lead him to early experiences with drugs and crime.

During his time in prison, a close brush with death reshaped his sense of greatness into the ambition of creating a life with meaning. It was this decision to live life one day at a time and make the most of each moment, as it is presented, that would pave the way to truly achieving greatness. Trejo illustrates the epitome of “the higher self.” He is relentlessly authentic to his roots, honest about who he is and where he has come from, and in pursuit of bringing that experience to serving others.

When viewing INMATE #1, one can’t help but think of Trejo’s story in the context of a larger culture. Prisons are built around the philosophy of correction and debts owed, but it’s rare for prisons to take on a humanist role of rehabilitation despite society’s best efforts and ideals. Danny Trejo manages to craft for himself a rehabilitation. Repaying his debt to society, as he calls it, did not begin and end with a prison sentence. It became a daily decision and a promise to himself and his loved ones.

Courtesy of Universal

Further, as a young Latino man that begins his life wrapped up in crime, it is easy to see how the world could brush off someone like Danny Trejo. What makes his ascension even more remarkable is that he defeats the weighted odds of being an ex-criminal simply by dedicating himself to doing right by those around him. Trejo never conceals or shies away from who he is.

A subject of some interest in INMATE #1 is Trejo’s Hollywood persona of the tough guy, the titular Inmate #1. In a current culture that encourages minority performers to reject and move beyond stereotype and typecasting, Trejo finds strength in playing the role that he understands better than anyone else. He plays a great tough guy, because he is a tough guy. He plays a hard inmate or gangster, because he’s walked that path before. He plays a warm family man, because he is a man who loves his family and community. Trejo is not limited by his “type” but reclaims it and takes fierce ownership of it. The limitations that would hold others back are Trejo’s ticket to success.

INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO is a raw and intimate portrait of a beautiful soul. The film is uplifting and empowering. Trejo is a figure to rally behind, as someone whose story touches so many important matters that are still discussed widely. Danny Trejo’s experience speaks to the dream of Hollywood but, more importantly, the possibilities that come with strength of character and a heart geared towards service. It’s a privilege to see him tell his story.

INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO is now available digitally and on-demand on July 7, 2020.

Caitlin Kennedy
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