“Tradition, or change?” These are the words that end La Leyenda Negra, leaving us with a rather direct and open question to chew on. Aleteia (Monica Betancourt) is a high school senior living with her stepfather (Juan Gabriel Reynoso). She is a quiet, incendiary force with no qualms about pointing out the paradoxical rules that govern her life as she muddles through her last semester of high school. Hoping to head to UCLA, Aleteia’s biggest obstacle is her Temporary Protected Status, allowing her to remain in the United States. Navigating the world of patchwork politics and social complications surrounding her, she finds solace in low-scale political activism and a budding romance.
At the beginning of La Leyenda Negra, Aleteia calls out her history teacher in the middle of a lesson for perpetuating the pervasive anti-Hispanic cultural sentiment known as “The Black Legend.” A quiet volcano of knowledge and rage on the verge of eruption, Aleteia is razor-sharp yet flippant about the potential consequences of her actions. Her sense of justice intact and her judgment skewed, she lets off steam, tagging buildings with the anarchy symbol in black spray paint. While dangerous, it’s this outsider behavior that catches the eye of the pretty classmate Rosarito (Kailei Lopez). Rosarito volunteers to team up with Aleteia on a class project. Her lifelong bestie Monica (Irlanda Moreno) becomes consumed with jealousy, leading their circle of friends in catty rumors and cruelty. As Rosarito and Aleteia grow closer, feelings develop that go beyond mere friendship.
“As Rosarito and Aleteia grow closer, feelings develop that go beyond mere friendship.”
Will Aleteia make it to UCLA before she falls victim to an unjust system? Will she be able to make sense of the feelings she has for Rosarito or be rebuffed? Patricia Vidal Delgado writes and directs the starkly shot, black and white drama with a ragged sincerity that humanizes and advocates for the immigrants in the U.S. facing a convoluted existence both internally and in the world.
While little appears to be happening on the surface, it is the increasing inner turmoil and desire for change that propels the drama. Betancourt’s performance as Aleteia is an engrossing piece of work. At once quiet, strong, and vulnerable, we see a character hardened by her circumstances to the point of near stoicism yet still hopeful. While Kailei Lopez’s Rosarito is quite wonderful, Moreno’s Monica dominates every scene she’s in just like any bully would.
Delgado’s script is keenly aware of the world she is sharing. With the utmost humanity, each frame conveys the lives of those living in limbo, working for the mere hope of something better. Matt Maio’s stark black and white cinematography somehow seems to capture a reality that might be lost in color. Steven Moyer’s editing also maintains the aesthetic, sometimes jumping into the rhythm of a documentary. Delgado herself, though, is to credit for the overall effectiveness of La Leyenda Negra, and it is something worth seeing. It asks us if we are fine with the way things are or if there is a better way. The final scene cuts to black to leave us with our thoughts. What do we want to see when the lights raise?
"…humanizes and advocates for the immigrants in the U.S. facing a convoluted existence..."