San Antonio’s Shea Serrano is one of the best-known and beloved pop culture writers on the Internet (and has a huge online following to match). He’s written two New York Times best-selling books: 2015’s The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed, and Basketball (and Other Things), published in 2017. His latest book, out this week, takes on film.
Like his past books, Movies (And Other Things) is a collaboration between Serrano and the Dallas-based illustrator Arturo Torres. Each chapter opens with a burning question he has about movies and memorable characters within them—ranging from “Who’s the better tough guy movie dog owner?” to “When did Michael B. Jordan break your heart into the most pieces?” and beyond. Serrano then answers them with an accompanying essay that’s often poignant and hilarious. Texas Monthly spoke with Serrano over the phone about the late Selena Quintanilla, formative films he saw growing up in Texas, and Friday Night Lights.
Texas Monthly: Let’s talk about the Selena chapter. As you put it in one turn of phrase, Mexicans were “allowed to exist uninterrupted” in the movie. I would love to hear more about that, and about how the movie impacted you.
Shea Serrano: That’s one of my favorite movies to talk about, because depending on who you’re speaking with, the conversation is 100% totally different. Like you’re in Texas right now, and I would assume that since you’ve spent a chunk of your life in Texas, you and I will have a very different conversation about Selena than somebody who was from Maine or even New York. She was such a big figure down here that there’s no need for me to be like, “Oh, she was a Tejano singer who was headed toward global stardom and then this crazy thing … ” She was our version of Beyoncé, and it was just this unbelievably powerful person in culture. And when she was murdered, it was just this catastrophic event. That’s one of the earliest pop culture moments I can remember experiencing that was a totally heartbreaking thing, when she got killed. Everybody was like, “What the fuck happened? Who could have done this to this person that was just otherwise totally beloved?”
So I remember [thinking]: “Well I’m writing a movie book, what are the movies I absolutely know I have to spend time on?” Either because I haven’t seen them covered elsewhere, or because I want to make sure everybody understands how big of a part of my life this was? Selena is first or second on that list.
TM: One thing I loved about that chapter is how you highlighted the joy of it. Like even when talking about the racist dress scene, it’s still about the joy of the people who love her.
SS: And that’s one of the things a few times where, as a Mexican-American, you turn a movie on and so often you…almost have your guard up a little bit, because you’re used to being made to be the joke in a movie. But when this movie is on, you don’t feel like that at all. There’s no threat of that because even when a joke does get made—like the part where Edward James Olmos is explaining what it’s like to be a Mexican-American and Selena and her brother, or the actor Jacob Vargas and Jennifer Lopez, are giving him a hard time about it—feels very much like daughter and son giving dad a hard time in a very loving way. And it just makes you feel good. You feel comforted knowing you can turn this movie on, and you can watch it and not have to worry that somebody’s going to turn it around and make the Mexican joke, or do the Mexican accent or fucking put a sombrero on.
TM: What is the most formative movie you included in the book?
SS: If we’re talking about movies that were formative for me as a human being, then it’s probably something like Blood In Blood Out. The main character in that, Miklo, is half white, half Mexican-American and he’s trying to figure out how he can be accepted by the Mexicans. He basically turns his back on the white side of his family, and he just wants to be with the Mexicans but everybody’s telling him same as they were telling Edward James Olmos [in Selena]: That you’re too Mexican to be white, and too white to be Mexican. And he’s just sort of reconciling that. Watching somebody do that after you have grown up in Texas…and have gone through school and had those exact same conversations and those exact same accusations levied against you, and seeing how he dealt with it and how it shaped him? That’s a big thing for anybody, I would imagine.
But if we’re talking about formative as far as a pop culture existence, then that’s probably Friday. That was the first movie that, to me, I knew about before I’ve even seen a trailer, before I’d even seen a poster. It was just like one day at school, everybody started talking in this new way: “You just got knocked the fuck out,” and “You got to be a stupid motherfucker to get fired on your day off.” And everybody was saying the same six or seven quotes from the movie and you’re like, “What is this that everybody’s talking about right now?
TM: For me, that movie was Mean Girls—everyone saw it when we were in the eighth grade, and it completely changed the lexicon of how we all talk to each other. I wanted to ask you about the chapter on Regina George, and who would be in her ultimate circle of friends. That chapter also has my favorite Texas mention in the whole book: Friday Night Lights’s Julie Taylor. Of course Julie Taylor—who was stone-cold—would fit in in that Mean Girls popular crew.
SS: [Julie] would fit in so perfect in there. That’s a character I’ve seen before a bunch of times in real life, and then on TV here she is. When you watch the show, there are parts where you’re just so mad at her, and other parts where you just totally understand what she’s talking about and feeling. Same with Regina George, which is why I devoted the whole chapter to her. It’s such great writing…these characters are going to live on forever, and the reason that they do is because they’re compelling in a bunch of different ways.
The more time you spend with that stuff, the more nuanced you start to realize that those movies were. When you watch a movie like Mean Girls or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Never Back Down for the first time you’re like, “Oh cool, I get it.” But then you go back and you re-watch it and you re-watch and re-watch, and you pick up on all the little stuff. And then that’s when it really starts to become interesting, and then you can have those conversations: “How would this character get along with this character?” Because you feel at this point that you’ve spent enough time with them that they’re basically friends that you know. And it’s the same as you do in real life when you’re like, “Oh we’re going to go out but I don’t want to invite this person, because he doesn’t get along with her, and it’s going to be sucky if they’re both there.”
Those are just fun conversations to have. But then also you’re trying to do something in a smart way. Same with The Rock chapter, that’s supposed to be a commentary on how he figured out how to become a global movie star in an era where that doesn’t really happen anymore. He was just like, “Fuck it. I’m going to be in everything for a four-year stretch and everybody’s just going to see my face.” Let’s put him in even more movies and see what happens. And it’s the same thing with the high school thing: You’re trying to be smart without beating somebody over the head with it, you know?
TM: When I was reading The Rock chapter, I realized Dwayne Johnson is having the career that Will Smith could have had if he, post-Independence Day, had just chosen to keep doing a bunch of those movies and been a global superstar instead of aiming for Oscars. But with The Rock, he essentially bashed us over the head with, “I will be a star.”
SS: Because he’s not that great of an actor. He’s certainly gotten better, but if we’re talking about Will Smith—did you see San Andreas?
TM: Yes, I watched San Andreas when I was in San Francisco and then became completely fearful that the city was going to fall out from under me.
SS: So there’s this scene in San Andreas when The Rock and his ex-wife are in the helicopter, and they’re talking about their daughter who died and how he couldn’t save her. That’s supposed to be a very powerful, tearful moment. But with The Rock doing it, there’s nothing there. It’s like if I’m talking to you about a fucking candy bar is what it feels like. There’s nothing! She’s doing everything she can. She’s teeing it all up for him…and he can’t hit the ball.
TM: This book made me remember so many movies I haven’t thought about in ages. I considered the mention of Draft Day and Vontae Mack as a personal Easter egg.
SS: There’s something comforting in Kevin Costner’s general existence that just brings you in. Doesn’t matter what movie he’s in, it just feels like, “Oh, I wish you were my dad.” And watching him in that moment, it’s just fun. Little stuff like that, stuff where probably ten people are going to get this joke? Those are always my favorite things to do.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.