Angel Manuel Soto is the director of Charm City Kings, this year’s Sundance winner for U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting. The film, a coming-of-age story set in the world of Baltimore dirt biking, comes to HBO Max October 8. Below, Angel shares his experience becoming a filmmaker—and his hopes for aspiring artists in his native Puerto Rico.
I was born in Santurce, a neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I then grew up in Caguas, which is in the center of the island, and when I got older, I went back to Santurce, which has always been the creative epicenter of the island. It’s where I spent the rest of my years in Puerto Rico until I moved to L.A. about five years ago.
Growing up in Puerto Rico is hard, but it’s beautiful. I was lucky enough to have a very loving family. Care was never missing. But a lot of growing up was trying to keep yourself out of trouble. Lucky for me, I’ve always been a movie nerd. When I saw Indiana Jones in theaters for the first time or Star Wars on TV when my parents got cable, that’s when my love for cinema started. I’d rather spend most of my time watching movies as opposed to spending time outside—even though I did like to play soccer.
As I grew up, my love for cinema just kept getting stronger and stronger. And in Puerto Rico, we don’t have great education. You have to leave the island in order to pursue a career, and that was something my family couldn’t afford at the time. So I spent a lot of time reading everything at my disposal, practicing with friends who had cameras, and being curious about every shoot that was going on on the island: commercials, music videos, and whatnot.
That’s how I ended up getting the opportunity to be a PA and work my way up while I was still experimenting with my friends. I started making short films and commercials, and that eventually led me to write my first film in 2012, La Granja. It took me about four years to finish it, before it premiered at Fantastic Fest, which was about the same time that I moved to L.A. I’d been working on VR too until I got the script for Charm City Kings.
With that, I was able to really focus on the one thing I’ve always wanted to do as a kid, which was to make a movie here in the “Hollywood system.” If my younger self were to see this now, I don’t think he would believe it.
A lot of movies go to Puerto Rico to shoot. Back in the day, there was government incentive to develop a film industry. But after 2012, all those opportunities for locals to create stuff were diminished. Eliminated. Everything had to go towards paying the debt to the shareholders or the bondholders. And usually, arts and culture are the first things that get squashed when trying to dismantle a country.
I feel like, now, with me doing something like this, there’s more hope to give kids the opportunity to develop their talents in Puerto Rico, to not have to leave the island in order to pursue their dreams. I hope that moving forward, kids don’t have to go through what I had to go through in order to achieve their dreams. It should be accessible.
One of the things that resonated with me [about Charm City Kings] was the character of Mouse. The things that Mouse goes through, the way he hangs out with his friends, his innocence and ignorance and teenage angst—it’s something that I feel is very universal. The circumstances and the obstacles that disenfranchised youth and marginalized communities face … I felt that there was not that much difference between Baltimore and Puerto Rico on the screen. Friends of mine back home who have watched the film were like, “Dude, this could have easily been Puerto Rico.” The only thing that changes is the language, the architecture. But the way people relate, the way people react, the circumstances are very much the same.
I spent a couple months [in Baltimore] prior to shooting the film since I want to bring authenticity and immersion to the stuff that I do. The deeper I got in with Baltimore, the more I realized that we are very much connected because of our struggles. Both the city of Baltimore and Puerto Rico have similar names. Charm City is like La Ciudad del Encanto. And Puerto Rico is La Isla del Encanto, the Island of Charm.
We have different music, we talk differently, we might have different flavors to our food. But the way we treat each other with the same love, happiness, and the same violence, it’s something that was very unique. Growing up in Puerto Rico, in a neighborhood very similar to the one that we shot, I felt like I was shooting a movie about me growing up.
I hated when people fake movies about Puerto Rico in Puerto Rico and they don’t care about what Puerto Ricans are. It’s not necessarily getting the accent right. That is important, but it’s more like that’s not how we behave or that is not how we say things or that is a very simplistic way of showing anything about us. With Charm City Kings, we made sure that as much of the crew as possible was native to Baltimore. The producers are from Baltimore. Chino and Queen [who play riders in the movie] are both riders from Baltimore. All the bike riders from the Midnight Clique are from Baltimore. And all of them appear in 12 O’Clock Boys, the documentary that inspired the movie. They were on set almost every day and they always kept us in check in terms of how they would say things or the accent and everything between.
So we were able to really hone in on the community, keep them involved, and let them know, “This is your story and we want to make it as authentic as possible.” But also realizing that this is not a documentary, this is a film inspired by life. If it wasn’t for Wheelie Wayne, who’s like a godfather of the whole bike life in Baltimore, we wouldn’t have been able to shoot this movie in Baltimore. He was able to get the riders. He was able to let us know how things go. And he was always present, making sure we represented the culture as much as we could.
Usually, I’m geared towards a more contained or introspective story. Here, it was my first time ever being able to develop and strategize a chase sequence with cars and bikes and all the big toys. And when you realize that you have those toys at your disposal, that really starts affecting, in a positive way, how I want to tackle my stories going forward. Now I feel like, “Okay, maybe I can work in a space that requires action sequences, and if I pull that off, maybe that means that I can work on sci-fi sequences.” The whole process has broken my colonial mindset that I’m too little to do big things or that without the help of somebody I can’t do anything.
It just allows me to own my story and think bigger. Not just for me as a creator, but also as a motivation for my people in Puerto Rico and other colonized communities around the world and Latin America. We can dream bigger. We don’t have to dream the way we’ve been told to dream. That has definitely been a very blossoming experience for me because, in this pandemic, I’ve found myself developing stories that are outside my comfort zone and they keep getting exciting, and they keep branching out—like a sci-fi rom-com or a high-concept heist movie or even a space saga, for example. Humanity will always be the driving force of the stuff that I do. Being able to tell the stories about where I come from, whether it is in Baltimore or it is in space or underground or in a dystopian postapocalyptic future.
Four years ago I wouldn’t have dared to tap into these types of stories because of the situation I was supposed to be in. Breaking free of that really opened up doors for me. And the goal would be dream big from the comfort of home, from Puerto Rico, and inspire people to think the same way.
If Puerto Rico is a territory of the U.S. as the U.S. says it is, then why are our opportunities being treated as if we were a foreign county outside of any jurisdiction? The problem is that, right now, we can’t do either one. We don’t have the structure or the economy to compete with Hollywood, nor do we have the actors to branch out into the world and collaborate with other countries. I want to see companies that are willing to bridge the gap and provide mentorships or workshops to foster creative vision in Puerto Ricans in order to give them the opportunity that somebody like me had when I got here—without having to move here.
The same way that people want to become artists or doctors or baseball players … What if they want to be writers? What if they want to be directors, actors, DPs? All those are opportunities that have never been presented to them as a realistic way out.
Our perspective is very unique. And our humanity is quite unique as well. Bridging that gap is definitely a starting point because there’s nothing worse than motivating somebody to do something and, at the end, saying, “Well, great effort. There’s nothing we can do now.” That's the part that I want to change.