If you’re a Gen Y, Gen Z, or Gen Zygote you have likely seen 1988’s Stand and Deliver at school. If you’re a bit older, you maybe caught it on a lazy Sunday afternoon on cable or streaming and, if you haven’t, you should. Directed and co-written by Ramón Menéndez, it takes its place near the top of the inspirational-high-school-teacher subgenre that began with Goodbye, Mr. Chips and has never quite gone away. Compared with 1967’s To Sir With Love, or 1989’s Dead Poets Society, it has a low-gloss, down-to-earth feel while being less apocalyptic than, say, 1955’s juvenile-delinquent heavy The Blackboard Jungle. Its depiction of East Los Angeles – a real place where real people live and work mostly in an entirely legal manner – was and still is groundbreaking.
Stand and Deliver is largely a vehicle for eternally gruff but magnetic Edward James Olmos who, despite Blade Runner and the original Miami Vice TV series, hadn’t yet found a role to rank with his breakthrough as El Pachuco in Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit. If his performance as the mythic narrator of the semi-musical play and film was aggressively theatrical, he brought things back down to earth as the charismatic but decidedly unglamorous educator, Jaime Escalante. A Bolivian immigrant sporting a comb-over and an unfashionable cap, by most accounts Mr. Escalante helped save Garfield High School’s accreditation and transformed its math program – most famously by taking the kind of students usually ignored by high school teachers and helping them to pass the rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) test for calculus.
While Mr. Escalante was a real person and, thanks to the movie, probably the most famous high school teacher in American history, the story has been streamlined to the point of near fiction with several groups of students being concentrated into one. Fortunately, director Menéndez and his co-writer and producer, Tom Musca, put together an engaging ensemble of professional and non-professional performers led by movie heart-throb to be Lou Diamond Phillips as a rebellious cholo who has worked hard to conceal his intelligence. Equally crucial to the film’s themes, Vanessa Marquez (ER) plays an intelligent and shy – you might even say nerdy – young woman saddled with a deeply selfish, deeply sexist, restaurant owner dad (James Victor) who assumes she’s meant only for working in his business, getting married, and chucking-out babies.
In many respects, Stand and Deliver is a fairly standard kind of urban-based 1980s indie flick update of a time-tested movie template, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Director Menéndez lets a solid screenplay, a strong ensemble, and Olmos provide the fireworks. The star worked closely with the real Jaime Escalante. Like his model, the actor plays it with earnest intensity while visibly enjoying the limelight; Olmos, who was nominated for an Oscar and won an Independent Spirit award, carefully add just a wafer-thin slice of jamon for a nearly ideal performance.
I’m not sure I’ve seen any other drama that captures the tension of having to work extra hard to achieve something even when you’re not getting a lot of support from family or friends. And, that, I think, helps to make Stand and Deliver something special.
Now, at last, the cocktail. I wanted to come up with something powerful yet not-quite prescription strength. That means caffeine and a lot of it. This drink also features a distinctive base spirit, a sort of Bolivian brandy with a cinematic provenance. And also chocolate…you know, for the kids!
It’s something like a supercharged, more flavorful Black Russian. If we wanted to can the movie reference, you could call this a black Bolivian. Or, add cream, shake it, and call it a Lebowski Achiever…which I just might do some time.
Stand and Deliver – TCM Salute #2
2 ounces singani (probably Singani 63, see below)
1-ounce coffee liqueur (probably from Mexico)
½ ounce crème de cacao/chocolate liqueur
¼ ounce concentrated coffee
2-3 dashes chocolate bitters
Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with lots of ice and stir vigorously strain into a well-chilled cocktail or small wide-brimmed glass. Garnish with an Adderall (just kidding).
Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with lots of ice and stir. Garnish with an Adderall (just kidding).
Since the late Mr. Escalante originally hailed from Bolivia, I started by seeing if the South American nation had a national spirit. I was in luck. Singani is an un-aged brandy (eau de vie) derived from white Muscat grapes. It is always made in the Andes at a minimum altitude of 5,250 feet and has only recently become available in the USA. Oddly enough, we have gringo filmmaker extraordinaire Steven Soderbergh to thank.
The story goes that the brilliant and muy prolifico director behind an astonishing number of great films, developed an affinity for singani in 2007 while shooting the second section of his massive, unconventional two-part Che Guevara biopic. Like Butch and Sundance before him, Che came to a bad end in Bolivia: death at the point of a gun delivered by a drunken sergeant who had volunteered for the job. I can neither confirm nor deny that the willing executioner was drinking singani.
Fortunately, Soderbergh’s Bolivian adventure ended a great deal better than Che’s, even if the movie wasn’t a hit. Singani 63 – named for Mr. Soderbergh’s birth year – is the only singani game in town for we yanquis and I quite like the stuff. It’s fruity, about as sweet as American whiskey, and a tad bit boozy-hot. I declare it good and I definitely like the way it provided a solid base for the Stand and Deliver cocktail. I plan on buying another bottle after I finish this one if I don’t get a free one first.
My Mexican coffee liqueurs included Kahlua, an excellent choice for those who want some sweetness, while those who want a bit more strength might love bargain-priced but shockingly good Café Dulce. There are countless other good-to-outstanding coffee liqueurs, mostly from Mexico, and most will probably work.
I used a fairly generic brand of concentrated cold-brew coffee I got from Aldi. I’d suggest using whatever brand you might prefer or already have on hand. Another option is that it’s not excessively difficult to brew your own triple-strength coffee fresh and keep it refrigerated in an airtight container for a short period of maybe less than a week. If you use regular-strength coffee use maybe 3/4 of an ounce and be prepared for it to water out the flavor slightly.
I tried a few different chocolate liqueurs including Tempus Fugit’s top-of-the-line crème de cacao, Gionelli’s perfectly decent bottom-line product, and good ol’ cheapie DeKuyper. All were fine, though I suppose Tempus Fugit lent a note of additional depth and balance…but who cares when you’re cramming for an AP test?