In the moments before Eva Longoria’s feature directing debut, the 20th Century Fox fanfare plays, but the traditional score is changed to sound like a mariachi band is playing it. That’s the first sign that Flamin’ Hot is going to bring strong, fun Latin flavor to the screen. What comes next is a two hours tall tale, far from the true story of the origin of the famous Frito-Lay snack, but which is a true and often joyful celebration of Latin culture and family life.
In the Flamin’ Hot press notes, the film is said to be “the inspiring true story of Richard Montañez, who as a Frito-Lay janitor disrupted the food industry by channeling his Mexican-American heritage to turn Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from a snack into an iconic global pop culture Phenomenon.” That’s not an entirely untrue quote. Montañez, who was raised in a migrant labor camp outside LA, did rise from being a janitor at the Rancho Cucamonga Frito-Lay factory to become VP of multicultural sales and community promotions for Frito-Lay parent company PepsiCo. He had a huge impact of the marketing to Latinx communities around the country. His accomplishments should be lauded and he deserves to be a hero to the Latin community. However, years after the first time Montañez told the story on which the movie Flamin’ Hot is based, a Los Angeles Times article disputed his claim, based on an internal investigation at Frito-Lay. In a statement, they said, “None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market.”
In fact, it was junior employee Lynne Greenfield who was assigned to develop the brand in 1989. PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico, who figures prominently in Montañez’s account, didn’t take over control of the company until 1991, almost 6 months after Flamin’ Hots were already out in the test market.
All of this shouldn’t deter you from Longoria’s Flamin’ Hot, because it’s really about Montañez (played beautifully in Flamin’ Hot by Jesse Garcia), his wife and life partner Judy (Annie Gonzalez), and their determination to overcome adversity and racial bigotry in reaching for the American dream.
What is a bit surprising is that Longoria, a female filmmaker, and co-screenwriter Linda Yvette Chávez (who created and wrote on the great show Gentified) would disregard the fact that a number of people have affirmed that it was a woman responsible for the naming and popularization of the brand. It’s certainly true that historically both women and folks from disenfranchised communities have been denied credit for their work, so that’s nothing new. It’s a matter of how much one weighs the facts against the value of good storytelling.
Be advised the film is produced by DeVon Franklin and his company Franklin Entertainment, known for their releases Miracles from Heaven and The Star. As such, there is a decided Christian bent to Flamin’ Hot, meaning you’ll see a fair amount of praying and “Jesus take the wheel” kind of talk. Since statistically 76% of Hispanic and Latino Americans are Christian, it seems a good fit, but it can be jarring for atheists or those less committed to religion as part of their daily life.
What makes it worth overlooking the film’s disputed facts and any other reticence is the lead’s charisma and the performances of the cast, (including Tony Shalhoub as Roger Enrico and Dennis Haysbert, who plays a mentor to Montañez), and the positive, multi-dimensional portrayal of a Latin family, which is all too rare in studio releases. There is a sense of achievement and pride radiating from Flamin’ Hot, which streams on both Hulu and Disney+ starting June 9th, that will be inspirational to anyone whose goal setting, and keeping, is in need of a little optimism.
3 out of 5 stars.