Smashing barriers: ‘The Long Game’ screened for Brownsville students

Cinematographer and Brownsville native Andrew Barrera, from left, and author of “Mustang Miracle” Humberto G. Garcia are seen inside Cinemark in Brownsville during an exclusive premiere for high school students on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)The events depicted in the film “The Long Game” took place in the border town of Del Rio, though the movie’s message is strikes a chord far beyond South Texas.

Screened for 900 Brownsville Independent School District high school students on Tuesday at Cinemark Sunrise Mall, “The Long Game,” which opened in theaters nationwide April 12, tells the story of five Mexican-American students at San Felipe High School in the 1950s who work as golf caddies at the town’s all-white country club, but are barred from golfing there because of the color of their skin.

Determined to learn the game, the five build their own course in the desert and practice using obsolete equipment. With the help of Coach J.B. Pena (played by Jay Hernandez) and golf pro Frank Mitchell (Dennis Quaid), the students become skilled at the game, surmounting steep racial barriers to compete — as the San Felipe Mustangs golf team — against deep-pocketed, all-white teams and even win the 1957 Texas State High School Golf Championship.

Seventeen BISD school buses waited in the Sunrise Mall parking lot while six auditoriums full of students on their best behavior took in staggered screenings of the film, followed by question-and-answer sessions with Humberto G. Garcia, who wrote “Mustang Miracle,” the novel the movie is based on, and Andrew Barrera, a Brownsville native who worked as second unit director of photography on the film.

Garcia, a native of Del Rio and San Felipe High School alumnus who lives in San Antonio and works as an attorney when not writing, said he opted to self-publish the book in 2010 rather then spending a lot of time searching for a literary agent and publisher who would believe in the story.

“The people I wrote about were all in their late 60s early 70s,” he said. “I didn’t have the benefit of time. Fortunately I had the resources to be able to just go to a publisher and say I want to do this.”

When Hollywood took note, the publisher decided to play a more active role and began marketing the book, Garcia said. Getting “Mustang Miracle” made into a movie was a bumpy road, however, with the first production company to bid on it backing out after losing investors thanks to an earlier film’s flop, he said. Somebody else came along a couple years later, bought an 18-month option on the book, and did nothing with it.

Then Javier Chapa, San Manuel native and co-founder of Hollywood-based Mucho Mas Media, a finance and production company specializing in “film and TV with a Latinx focus for global audiences,” approached Garcia about “Mustang Miracle.” Chapa, whose company had produced “Blue Miracle” (2021) starring Quaid, was ready to move as soon as the option expired, the end of June 2017, Garcia said.

Shooting was to begin in early 2020 when COVID hit and investors pulled out, he said, though things picked up again in late 2021. Filming began in May 2022, in Smithville near Austin and in Colombia, taking two months plus to complete. Garcia, who has a minor role as “Police Chief Reyes,” said the rough cut director Julio Quintana sent him had he and his wife crying their eyes out half way into it. The theatrical version was screened last year at SXSW, where it picked up an Audience Award.

Author of “Mustang Miracle” Humberto G. Garcia speaks to high school students about the new film “The Long Game” during a premiere showing at Cinemark in Brownsville on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

Garcia said the movie captures the essence of his novel.

“There’s a lot of details that are shown in the film that are not in the book, but that’s understandable,” he said. “That’s Hollywood. Hollywood needs to take the story and transform it into a film that is going to appeal to a general audience.”

Garcia, who as a toddler when the San Felipe Mustangs broke down racial barriers and paved the way for future Latino PGA players, said it’s important for young people — like the 900 BISD kids filling six theater auditoriums that day — to see the film because “they need to be able to be free to dream big, and not let anyone tell them that they can’t.”

All ages should see it, in fact, not only to be entertained (Cheech Marin stars as “Pollo”) and moved by a good story, but also to learn something about the Hispanic experience, Garcia said.

“There’s a history of our people, a certain segment, that didn’t accept ‘no’ when they were told they couldn’t do certain things, and that’s one of the lessons the film I think presents. … These guys wanted to play golf, and they didn’t accept ‘no.’ They were able to overcome that,” he said.

Barrera, a 2001 Saint Joseph Academy graduate who resides in Austin and has worked behind the camera for going on two decades, said he enjoyed working on “The Long Game” in part because it was a chance to spotlight South Texas.

“I think it’s something that the rest of the country doesn’t really understand,” he said. “It’s definitely a bubble down here, but it’s such rich culture. The cool thing about this film is that you’re kind of getting to showcase that to other people across the country. It’s not always about the border crisis. Living down here was such a privilege.”

He said it’s important young people here and elsewhere see the film also because it shows that a kid from Brownsville or San Manuel can grow up to make movies — which offer plenty of career opportunities.

“Everybody wants to be a director,” Barrera said. “Everybody wants to be a producer. But there are a 100 other jobs positions that you can do. If you want to be an electrician or a plumber, you can work on a movie set.”

Author of “Mustang Miracle” Humberto G. Garcia speaks to high school students about the new film “The Long Game” during a premiere showing at Cinemark in Brownsville on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

As for his job, Barrera said he’s “responsible for getting all the fun stuff that’s in the movie.”

“Usually it’s like a splinter crew, so I’ll go out and shoot things that the main unit can’t film at that time, just to save us a day,” he said. “All the montage scenes, all the fun camera angles. That’s usually my stuff.”

Hilda Ledezma, founder and CEO of Revival of Cultural Arts (ROCA), which helped organize the screening, wants to see more big-screen movies by and about Hispanics, and that this film’s message is particularly important for young people to hear.

“It’s not only a movie about resiliency and dedication and commitment and pursuing your dreams,” she said. “It’s also being able to connect with the people who have gone before us and created that pathway.”

The screening was made possible by help from the city of Brownsville, City Commissioner Tino Villarreal, and a $20,000 grant from the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, Ledezma said. The grant not only covered the screening expenses but will also allow ROCA to offer its FAME (film, acting, music, entrepreneurship) summer program of master classes for kids, she said.

“It’s a fantastic way of continuing the partnership,” Ledezma said. “We maximized the grant to be able to have money to continue to invest in our summer program for our kids.”

Rita Hernandez, a retired BISD teacher, principal and assistant superintendent, who also helped organize the screening, said the border region has incredibly talented young people and rich stories to tell.

“As a former educator I led some pretty amazing schools and kids who overcame incredible obstacles and still did great things,” she said. “We can’t tell those stories unless we support one another to get them on the screen, and this is an example of that.”

Hernandez added that it’s good to see Hispanics in film roles other than narcos, maids, murder victims and so on.

“They’re heroes and they’re mentors, and they’re teachers and they’re veterans,” she said.

Young Latino actors, from Texas and elsewhere, need moviegoers’ support, Hernandez said, adding that the producer Chapa took a big risk making “The Long Game” a theatrical release — the company’s first — and that she’ll do everything possible to make sure it’s successful, so other stories can be told.

“You know what? Maybe the next movie we do is going to be about Brownsville soccer,” Hernandez said.

Smashing barriers: ‘The Long Game’ screened for Brownsville students