Al Madrigal is half Latino, half white. Al Madrigal gets heat from whites for being too Latino and Latinos for being too white. Al Madrigal is called a “pocho,” a derogatory term for Americanized Mexicans. Al Madrigal cannot pronounce his own name in Spanish.
Madrigal, The Daily Show Senior Latino Correspondent, wanders a familiar territory: the cultural border between his ethnic heritage and his American identity. Nearly all ethnic groups experience similar tension between tradition and assimilation. Madrigal, a comedian in addition to being a “half,” tackles his own struggle with humor in his one-hour documentary special Half Like Me. Although the special succeeds in starting a conversation, Madrigal leaves a lot of the discussion and humor on the table.
Appropriately, Half Like Me airs on Fusion, a new millennial-targeted cable station owned by ABC and Univision. Fusion was originally billed as a Latino channel, but backed off for many of the reasons Madrigal discusses: Young Latinos do not necessarily share the same cultural background. Now Fusion houses Paul F. Tompkins’ No, YOU Shut Up! alongside AMERICA With Jorge Ramos, the so-called Walter Cronkite of Hispanic media.
Taking a cue from first-person documentarians Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, Madrigal stitches together large scenes with simple explanations and rhetorical questions while posed against a stark white background. It feels like a remnant of an old Lonely Planet video, which contrasts sharply with Madrigal’s often pointed and subversive humor. He has difficulty landing an appropriate tone in this tricky topic and format: There’s a way to segue from saying, “The place is riddled with old street whores” to “I want to be comfortable being myself,” but Madrigal doesn’t find it here.
That does not mean the content isn’t solid or thought-provoking—it is. The special includes a lot of authentic talk about cultural identity: University Of California professor Dr. Vicki Ruiz offers a nuanced and powerful discussion of the history of the particular cultural challenges of the Latino experience. Her interpretation of the Mexican “crab mentality” allegory (people pulling each other down even though they are all in the same boat) places a hard and important truth at the center of the film, which Madrigal refers back to multiple times.
Half Like Me surveys many different angles of the Latino experience in America, like punks in Compton who can’t speak Spanish or Jorge Ramos lecturing Madrigal on how to pronounce his own name. Unfortunately, much of the discussion remains only surface level as Madrigal tries to cover far too much ground in only an hour. He journeys to 10 different places, which provides a welcome pastiche of characters, but does not allow for enough emotional depth. There’s a reason NPR’s This American Life typically tells only three or four stories per episode.
Madrigal is, primarily, a comedian (and self-proclaimed “fake journalist”) and Half Like Me is as funny as a sociological exploration about cultural identity can be. Given his resume, Madrigal is unsurprisingly best when cornering a foil who, in their own ignorance, makes the point for him. His interview with Jim Gilchrist—founder of the self-appointed, independent border patrollers known as the Minuteman Project—is Daily Show 101, and Madrigal nails it.
While the special, wisely, is more than Daily Show-type segments, it’s unfortunate that Madrigal doesn’t play closer to his strengths. Jokes about having a “superleg” while playing around with a soccer star lack the punch of Gilchrist saying, “I’m gonna go home and have a margarita and pet my three Mexican chihuahuas.” The special is a missed opportunity to marry Madrigal’s own interesting background with his skills as a correspondent.
There’s a need for content like Half Like Me, as the questions it raises are thought-provoking and personal. Madrigal nails the concept, but doesn’t stick the landing. More humor and depth would take Half Like Me from a decent conversation-starter to a must-see.