One could argue that the 21st century marks a before and after for Puerto Rico’s filmmaking activity.
I’m not talking about the dozens of films that have used the island as a backdrop, from such high-profile titles as Goldeneye and Fast Five, to such trash as the Mel Gibson-starring, Hurricane María-set abomination Force of Nature.
I’m talking about the emergence of such voices as Raúl Marchand Sánchez (12 Hours, Broche de Oro), Arí Maniel Cruz and Kisha Tikina Burgos (Under My Nails, Antes que cante el gallo), Carla Cavina (Extraterrestres) and Ángel Manuel Soto (La granja), whose films tackle the here and now, from the island’s vibrant—and sometimes dangerous—nightlife, to its corrupt politics and the disruption caused by the migration of professionals to the mainland in search of better opportunities.
Their films have been selected by such major competitive festivals as Cannes, Curaçao, and Rotterdam, and have played at most of this country’s Latino film festivals, including San Diego and Chicago.
Some of these filmmakers, like Cruz and Burgos, are developing original series for streaming services like Netflix, while Soto, after experimenting with virtual reality storytelling, is now testing the waters of franchise filmmaking with a film featuring Blue Beetle, DC’s Latino superhero, and developing a new Transformers film after wowing critics last year at Sundance with Charm City Kings (which went straight to HBO Max because the pandemic shutting down most theaters).
And yet, critics and reporters in the United States—Latino and non-Latino alike—have yet to acknowledge the great work that is coming out of Puerto Rico.
So what does all of the above have to do with Bravas, the eight-part YouTube Originals miniseries that debuted last October?
Not only does the series bring together a who’s who of Puerto Rico’s and the Dominican Republic’s urban music scenes—both Natti Natasha and Wisin are executive producers, as well as music video producer and director Jessy Terrero—but also la crema y nata of the island’s film scene.
Burgos conceived the project alongside Terrero, executive produced the whole series, wrote three of the episodes, and makes her directorial debut in two. Cruz also executive produced the series, wrote three of the episodes, and directed two. Marchand Sánchez co-edited two of the episodes. And Ray Figueroa, who worked alongside Cruz and Burgos as showrunner and writer in the Netflix/Telemundo miniseries Nicky Jam: El Ganador and on two Banco Popular Christmas Specials, wrote two episodes and directed one.
But even though it has averaged more than 2.3 million views per episode since its launch on Natti Natasha’s YouTube page and garnered much media attention in Puerto Rico and select Latin American countries, the miniseries has received little to no coverage in this country’s major Latino markets. And that’s a damn shame, because Bravas is not only a perfect introduction to Puerto Rico’s vibrant filmmaking and urban music scenes, it’s also a powerfully moving, oftentimes joyous and sometimes tragic tale of Latina empowerment.
Bravas is not only the name of the night club where a significant amount of the miniseries’ action takes place, it also relates to the qualities that define the story’s mostly female cast. They are brave and courageous, they can also be angry when the time and moment requires it, and they face whatever life throws at them with determination.
Episode One, “Me dicen Mila“—at 34 minutes, the longest episode of all eight—introduces us to the series’ lead characters: Mila, short for Milagros (rapper Audie Nix, in her acting debut), who leaves her home in Puerto Rico’s countryside for San Juan’s metropolitan area after her twin brother dies during an illegal motorcycle race (in an opening scene that unavoidably brings to mind the Fast and Furious series); Rosa (rapper Nohemy Aguilá, also making her acting debut) is Bravas’ in-house DJ, deeply in love with Tanamá (Liz Dieppa) with whom she is raising a baby boy; and Ashley (Amanda Antonella), a social media influencer who tries to pay the rent as a share car driver. Of the three, Mila is the only one still trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life, even though she is a talented writer (a talent which she puts to good use by the episode’s end).
The series finds its flow in Episode Two and never loses it. The rhythm is still dynamic, fast-paced, but as the plot strands begin to fall in place, directors Terrero, Cruz, Burgos and Figueroa give the story and the relationships between these women and the people they meet and surround themselves with room to breathe. Roja and Tanamá are at odds over the latter’s wishes to move to Orlando. Mila finally finds her voice and, adopting the name of La Milagrosa, records a single with Roja in response to a (now former) boyfriend’s latest single; Roja uploads the video of the recording and it goes viral.
But this is not a conventional rags-to-riches, rise-to-stardom story. It’s a story about how three young women learn to watch out for themselves, survive, and not be taken advantage of—about finding and developing a support system (mostly female) that will look out for you and your best interests. It also tackles issues of gender violence, addiction, and poverty, without hitting you over the head.
Burgos, Terrero and her fellow writers and directors have created a well-defined, complex, vital world around these characters, one that feels true, recognizable, where even such supporting characters as Bravas manager Ray (Wisin delivering a strong, charismatic performance) and Nelson the bar bouncer (Carlos Ferrer) are well-rounded and interesting. Even characters such as Fede, the trio’s eventual manager, defy our expectations: just when you think he’ll conform to the stereotype we have of the opportunistic recording executive, the writing, directing and Alexon Duprey’s performance show that there is much more to this character than meets the eye. They respect their characters: just listen to how mature, how realistic, how adult their conversations sound as they share their ambitions, dreams and the realities of making ends meet, especially in Episode Four, directed by Burgos. That episode also features one of the best edited sequences of the entire series, one that shows the repetitive, cyclical, dispiriting nature of Mila’s new job at a laundromat.
The episodes’ short length makes for easy binge-watching, but they also leave you wanting to know more about these characters’ backgrounds, especially Ashley and Roja. We briefly meet Mila’s family, but we don’t know much about where Ashley and Roja are from, or what made them choose this path. And though the series climax is a bit of a downer, it’s open-ended enough to pave the way for a second season in which, hopefully, we’ll get to know these characters better.
You can stream all of Bravas in Natti Natasha’s YouTube channel.
Featured image: Laura T Magruder