I first heard of the film Flamin’ Hot through its screenwriter, Linda Yvette Chavez, when I interviewed her this past October. The pitch was simple, yet intentional; an inspiring biopic based on the life of Richard Montañez, the man who created Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Going into the film, all I knew were the two things Linda told me; he was Mexican, and he was a janitor at Frito-Lay. The movie premiered this past Friday at the Paramount Theater for SXSW, and I was honored to be in attendance. A majority of the cast and crew were there, including Eva Longoria, longtime actress, and first-time director. I’ve been looking forward to this film since last semester, and let me just tell you, it did not disappoint. I have never in my life seen a biopic more entertaining, hilarious, heartfelt, and emotional, yet somehow all perfectly balanced. Especially not one relating to the simple Frito-Lay product I’d grown accustomed to.
When I tell you this film is outstanding, I mean it. You can tell the cast and crew put their entire soul into every detail. Making a biopic, especially one where we already know the ending can be difficult. It’s a lot of work for the writers to build up tension and keep an audience invested, and they pull it off flawlessly. This is helped by the reality that Richard Montañez’s life wasn’t easy. There was a lot of struggle, and through that came his willingness to persevere and take initiative. This film, and Richard’s story, is inspiring. A biopic about a Mexican success story doesn’t come around often, so there was a lot of pressure on everyone involved to get it right. And they sure did.
Writing isn’t the only aspect of the film that stands out. Flamin’ Hot has its own unique aesthetic. For a movie that handles so much heaviness, there’s a levity to it all. It’s tongue and cheek with its editing, at times even breaking the fourth wall, or going into completely outlandish exaggerations of the tale. It wins you over with its quirkiness but always stays true to Richard’s spirit. The man worked hard. He could have kept to his janitorial duties, but Richard saw opportunity wherever he could. Where people saw walls and limits, he saw nothing. He held an astounding amount of optimism for someone who also didn’t have blind faith. He was scared, and he was well-versed in the discrimination he faced, and the challenges he was navigating as a Brown man. Despite all of that he worked towards his goals. Richard Montañez is a true visionary, an innovator, and that story deserves to be told.
Flamin’ Hot isn’t just Hispanic representation. The film is Mexican through and through. It’s in it’s bones. From the way characters slip in and out of Spanish, to the specific foods they eat, the slang they use, down to the way religion is a constant force in the background. As soon as the iconic Searchlight Pictures theme (previously known as 20th Century Studios) started playing in authentic mariachi, you just knew. An identity that strong doesn’t just happen. It’s intentional. In its blood.
The writer is Mexican. The director is Mexican. Most of the actors are Mexican. Eva Longoria has spoken openly about ensuring the people in front of the camera weren’t just Latine, but those behind the scenes as well. While I’m not Mexican, the specificity didn’t take away from my ability to relate, if anything it added. As Irish novelist James Joyce once said, “In the particular is contained the universal.” There is a level of relatability the more specific a story gets.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Flamin’ Hot is the way it acknowledges the importance of women not just in Hispanic households, but specifically Richards. The film works hard to showcase how life-changing these moments were for Richard and his wife, Judy. This wasn’t just Richards success, this was hers. He quite literally couldn’t have done it without her, and the real Richard Montañez would be the first to admit it. In fact, he was at the Premiere, and when asked to say a few words the first thing that came out of his mouth was “everybody really needs a Judy”. A person to push them, to support them, and to always believe in them, at times even more than they believe in themselves.
I’ll be honest, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a healthy relationship portrayed in media, let alone two People of Color in a healthy relationship. To see the real Judy standing next to Richard, knowing the two had been married for more than 48 years, and especially knowing where they started, was incredibly inspiring. Annie Gonzalez, the actress who plays Judy, expressed what a dream role this was for her, “Being able to portray a woman who understood the power of partnership, and understood the strength, and understood being able to look adversity in the eye and say ‘a la madre!’ It’s been beautiful. I’m grateful and I couldn’t be happier.”
I walked out of that theater ready to go back in. It was that impactful. Usually, biopics bore me, or don’t always resonate. Flamin’ Hot did. It’s rare to see a movie tackle thematically harsh topics with that much grace and humor. I mean, Flamin’ Hot wasn’t just inspiring, it was fun. I laughed a lot and cried even more. It’s refreshing to see a success story centered around a Person of Color, especially one relating to something as iconic as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. No matter who you are, or where you’re from, I highly encourage you to check out Flamin’ Hot when it drops this summer. It will inspire you in ways you couldn’t imagine. Chase after your dreams. Use your creativity. No idea is too small or too silly. As former CEO of PepsiCo Roger Enrico once said, “visionaries can’t be contained”. So don’t try to contain them.
You can check out Flamin’ Hot on Hulu when it drops on June 9, 2023.