Joseph Vasquez lead a troubled life from being born the son of two drug-addicted parents to losing his father to heroin and then struggling from the heights of joy to the very depths of depression as an undiagnosed manic-depressive - until 1994. Despite his difficulties, he achieved success with his movies ‘The Bronx War’ (1991) and the acclaimed New Line Cinema production of ‘Hangin’ with the Homeboys’ (Sundance Film Festival Best Screenwriting Award 1991). He died from complications of AIDS on December 16, 1995, but before he passed, he’d written a script that seemed to manifest his deepest desire for the love and comfort of family; The House That Jack Built. His friend, and producer, Michael Lieber, promised Vasquez that he’d complete the work he’d begun, and now that film is making a splash at film festivals around America. (Winner of the Audience Award and Best Director at the Queens World Film Festival 2014)
Lieber, a native New Yorker with more years of experience in the film industry than he’d care to count, met Vasquez after seeing ‘Hangin’ with the Homeboys’. Both lived in Los Angeles at the time, and they hit it off and began working together. “Joe had an idea for a film. This (The House That Jack Built) was the idea, and he shared it with me. I developed it with him, but he wrote it.”
Lieber continues “around the time we were working on The House That Jack Built, he had a real, a real Bi-polar psychotic episode, and with this began the unraveling of his life.”
Both Lieber and Vasquez grew up in the South Bronx so they had that in common. He shares that Vasquez’s father was Puerto Rican and Caucasian and his mother was African-American. “They were both, I gather, real characters. She was like a young Billie Holiday, very alluring. He was this, you know, good-looking Latin stud from the South Bronx. They got together, they got married, they both became junkies.”
After Vasquez’s father died from a heroin overdose, his mother was shunned by her deceased husband’s family out of racial prejudices that surfaced over interracial couples at that time. “Joe grew up with his grandmother…he never did drugs because heroin really took a tremendous toll on his family, and left him without parents, but he had a sense of a really f***d up family, and said to himself ‘I don’t want to be f***d up that way’. This kind of forms the background and fantasy of The House That Jack Built.”
The movie which is so well done that it defies logic that it was shot in 18 days on a budget of $130,000, has an all-Latino cast starring E.J. Bonilla (Guiding Light, The Mortician) as Jack, a young man who owns a bodega that fronts for his marijuana dealing, and Melissa Fumero (Brooklyn 99, Gossip Girl) as his fiancé, Lily.
Jack makes enough money to purchase a brownstone apartment building and moves his whole family in; mom and dad, grandmother, brother, sister, and cousins. His heart is in the right place, but as family inevitably argues, and does their own thing which Jack may not agree with, he finds that he tries to control them all and continually interferes with their lives. As his family begins to fall apart, so does his ‘business’ as another drug dealer moves onto his block causing problem of a potentially deadly nature. His two worlds collide in spectacular fashion that is emotionally gut-wrenching. Jack must learn to let go of those things he cannot change, and to appreciate what he has even if it’s not exactly as he envisioned. In order for him to realize the life of his dreams, that life must first be destroyed before it can be rebuilt upon a stronger foundation of love and understanding, acceptance and trust.
The character of Jack is masterfully portrayed by Bonilla. Despite being a small time drug dealer, he is responsible and loving even if cocky and bullheaded. His intentions are good as he seeks only to protect those he loves. Jack’s greatest difficulty is in letting his fiancé in on all he does because he fears both her censure and losing her. Out of fear, he pushes her away only to realize that he can’t live without her, doesn’t want to lose her.
Some comic relief is found in this emotional film in the form of Jack’s father, Carlos, played by Broadway stage actor John Herrera. Carlos drinks too much, fights with his mother-in-law, and argues with his wife all because he feels that Martha (played by Saundra Santiago) no longer notices him unless he’s drunk. In one scene, Carlos stumbles out of the bathroom in Jack’s apartment – naked – shocking Lily and embarrassing Jack. Lily leaves quickly and as Jack looks at his father with disgust, Carlos slurs “What? She never seen a naked man before?”
The lighter moments are few and far between as this movie takes the audience on a dramatic, emotional roller-coaster ride. It may have taken 19 years for the stars to align, the cast and crew to come together, but it was worth the wait. Directed by Henry Barrial (PIG, True Love, Some Body Some Body), and produced by Michael Lieber, Mark Stolaroff, Hitesh Patel, and Sam Kitt, The House That Jack Built is a must-see.
Upcoming screenings include the Phoenix Film Festival on April 4th, and Hispanicize in Miami also on April 4th, 2014. Check for more screenings here.
Michele Gwynn is a freelance journalist and author living in San Antonio, Texas. All articles are under copyright and may not be reposted in part or whole without consent. Articles may only be referenced by title or subject matter with a direct link to original material otherwise. For permission to repost part or all of an article, please contact Ms. Gwynn at email@example.com.
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