Thursday, March 23rd, 2023

Pedro Zamora Bio-pic


Directed by Nick Oceano

Written by Dustin Lance Black

Released April 01, 2009
93 min.


Review by Stephen O. Murray

July 09, 2009.

Back in 1994, when AIDS educator Pedro Zamora made a big splash on MTV’s Real World: San Francisco, I read about him but did not have cable tv. Before yesterday [8 July 2009], I had not seen a single episode of any season of Real World.

PedroI got the DVD Pedro (2008) as much to see the real Pedro Zamora on three episodes of Real World: San Francisco (including the “him-[the extremely obnoxious Puck]-or-me” climax and Pedro’s wedding to San Francisco African American AIDS educator Sean Sasser) and in his lengthy audition video as to see the biopic in which Alex Loynaz (hairier and with less of an accent, like with none at all) plays Pedro Zamora.

It is definitely odd to see actors playing people who performed, presumably as themselves, on a pioneering reality tv series. Having watched the three 1994 episodes of Real World immediately before watching Pedro, I could see that Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for his screenplay about another gay martyr, Harvey Milk, last year) took lines directly from Real World. Also, the movie is like reality tv series in having participants reflect (talking heads) about events. I will not go off into the question of how much those performing themselves in reality tv are acting, but there is something strange about the post-mortems delivered by actors about restaged scenes.

One could easily suspect that MTV was promoting itself in making Pedro’s involvement with Real World central to the biopic. Although Pedro Zamora was only 22 when he died, he had testified to a Congressional committee and was recognized as an eloquent voice for preventing HIV transmission in Miami schools. Still, what made him a celebrity and got the attention of the Clinton White House was living as an openly gay, openly HIV Latino on national television.

The Real World Cast
Real World San Francisco cast. Zamora is second from right.

And I don’t think that the biopic needed more about growing up poor as the youngest of seven children (only one was female) in Cuba. The three youngest children and their parents left Cuba in the Mariel boat lift when Pedro was eight. By the time he was 14, living in Hialeah, Florida, he was sexually active. And when he was 17, he tested positive for HIV.

The movie shows Pedro’s close relationship to his mother (who died before he was a teenager) and his sister [played by Justina Machado, the only face that was familiar to me–from Six Feet Under, where she played Federico’s wife. More recently, she played the mother in One Day at a Time.] It shows the family trying to block Sean after Pedro returned to Miami to die—and relenting. And while Pedro was dying, the tv series was airing. (He died the night the last episode aired).

Because Pedro lived on tv for much of his last year, there is a lot more now-historical footage of his everyday life than there is of Harvey Milk, the charismatic organizer/leader of Black’s other script produced to great acclaim last year.

Pedro Zamora had some rare and insidious opportunistic disease that affected the brain, which killed him faster than the wasting away that was common before protease inhibitors became available in 1996, so Loynaz did not have to look like he was reduced to a skeleton.

As the super-abrasive bike messenger Puck, Matt Barr is less obnoxious that the original. I think that if he had been as obnoxious as the Real Puck, viewers who had not seen the tv series might think the Pedro Puck was exaggerated. Hale Appleman and Jenn Liu are very good as the San Francisco housemates closest to Pedro, Judd and Pam, and DaJuan Johnson could pass as Sean Sasser—that is, he looks and acts like the man Pedro wanted to spend the rest of his life with. And Justina Machado is formidable as the older sister committed to protecting and nursing her dying younger brother.

Overall, I think that Alex Loynaz did a very good job. The Pedro of the bonus features is sweeter; Loyanz looks sadder…and sicker! Looking again at the Real World wedding footage that is included under the credits of Pedro, he looks more tired than I noticed when I’d watched the episode.

A lot of tv movies focus on disease (of the week) and everyone coming together for the sake of the stricken. Often these are “based on a true story.” Pedro is very much in this tradition, though with fidelity to the historical model more directly assessable than usual.

Black’s screenplay for Milk introduced many viewers too young to remember Harvey Milk to his advocacy for gay equality. I think that Pedro does the same for those like me who never saw Real World: San Francisco including many who have grown up since Zamora’s death. I am very glad that so much of the real Pedro Zamora was included on the DVD disc with the made-for-MTV movie.

The prevention message Pedro Zamora devoted his brief life to delivering is enhanced by the movie, which comes with a preface by Bill Clinton. I presume Clinton provided his voice for the telephone call from the president in the movie.

I hope the MTV will now release the whole Real World: San Francisco season on DVD. Shorn of ads, I’d definitely watch it.

©9 July 2009, Stephen O. Murray

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About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.