Reviewed by Ken Fox

Nuyorican playwright, poet and actor Miguel Piñero exploded onto the New York City theater scene in 1974 when his controversial play Short Eyes, a gruelingly realistic depiction of prison life, made its debut at Joseph Papp's Public Theater. The play, based on Piñero's own experiences in the state pen (where he served time for drugs and petty theft), established Piñero as an exciting new talent in the long tradition of the outlaw poet; a fiercely talented artist who introduced the harsh language of the streets to bourgeois society, but was unable to live by its rules. Cuban-American director Leon Ichaso's (CROSSOVER DREAMS, BITTER SUGAR) appropriately rough-and-tumble film offers a highly impressionistic portrait of this self-described "junkie Christ," played with riveting intensity by Benjamin Bratt. Shot in a variety of media ranging from 16mm B&W film stock to color digital video, the film pieces together Piñero's meteoric rise and tragic fall. He goes from a prison inmate who literally writes his way out of Sing Sing to a theatrical sensation, before winding up a heroin-addicted street raconteur, living out of a friend's van only blocks away from the Public Theater — the scene of his greatest triumph. Along the way, Piñero develops a relationship with Sugar (Talisa Soto), an admirer and part-time prostitute/actress; fosters a protégé in Cuba and His Teddy Bear playwright Reinaldo Povod (Michael Irby); and, together with his own mentor, Rutgers professor Miguel Algarin (Giancarlo Esposito), founds the Nuyorican Poets Café, an enduring cultural landmark that had a dramatic impact on the development of spoken-word poetry and contemporary hip-hop culture. He also managed to burn most of his bridges — including the one linking him to early champion Joseph Papp (Mandy Patinkin) — and eventually lost himself to the streets and shooting galleries of New York City's Lower East Side. None of this happens in chronological order: Ichaso tells Piñero's story through a sometimes disorienting series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, fracturing the time frame to suit the film's internal rhythms, rather than any coherent time line. Ichaso also uses snatches of Piñero's dialogue to dramatize the events of his life, a strategy that may not serve the purposes of straightforward biography but does demonstrate how, in many respects, Piñero's art was his life.