Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo

A man can change

Danny Trejo is an unlikely screen hero. Often cast as a violent ‘tough guy’ – he would be the first to admit he was often typecast, having lived what is often seen onscreen and then some.

Brett Harvey’s documentary presents an honest account and personal journey. For Trejo, there’s never really been an escape from his persona but there has been an escape from the self-destruction he reminds us of as we listen to him recount his violent past. It’s one of the most honest accounts you will have seen in a long time as we spend some time in his company — that unforgettable face, the chest tattoo, those scars — every line and craggy detail telling its own story. He was a heroin addict by the age of 12, selling sugar as crack on the streets; his crimes were numerous leading to armed robbery and physical violence where he spent the late 1950s and majority of the 1960s in and out of prison including Folsom and San Quentin where, in the latter, he became a boxing champion. 

Trejo disarms you from the offset. The wayward teenager sparks to life every so often as he tells his stories and laughs it off with his infectious personality — even when he tells you some of the most heinous acts — briefly pausing, you then see the recognition… the Catholic guilt perhaps. When he discusses his time in San Quentin, he paints a very clear picture, ‘Imagine standing next to an angry man. Times that by 4000 and that’s the rage, the tension in San Quentin. They may be laughing and joking one minute but one little spark and everyone’s back to being the incredible hulk without being green. Madness. four inches of steel. 45 pounds of pressure. You’re done.’

Trejo is a survivor. Some of his hustle and muscle stories may be difficult to swallow, ‘I had pretty good guys, crime partners behind me, double murders’, but as with any good story, there is an incredible arc to his life. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that Trejo has put back into society in his attempt to make amends for the past 50 years. Some of us may not ever feel he will have made up for what he took — I don’t even think he does — but, my God, if this doesn’t show you how an individual can change, given the chance, then nothing will. He refers to the analogy that he would ‘rather shoot for the moon and miss than hit the gutter’. Some people choose to stay there or are just so beaten they become a part of the system, there is no light at the end of the tunnel but Trejo is there to prove otherwise because he was one of them.

As with any inmate, he built a protection ring inside — the only way any prisoner survives. His stories detail violent acts he committed that all lead to a life-turning event that set him on a completely different path away from the death penalty. A radio DJ asks, ‘You never went to acting school?’ to which he retorts, ‘Well, actually, I went to San Quentin drama arts,’ once again laughing it off. He is one charming bastard of a man who takes full advantage of what he has been through to help others who may have taken or are about to take a similar path.

With over 300 film credits, Trejo’s film career is certainly loaded. Harvey captures that love and enthusiasm and if there is only one criticism, I would have loved to know more of the other avenues and interests outside of this. He isn’t just a man with a chequered past but also quite the entrepreneur; involved in the restaurant business, plus there’s Trejo’s Donuts and the brands of beer and coffee he’s also involved in.

If you appreciate an insight into a world outside of the law and appreciate that people deserve a second chance in life then this is the documentary to watch.

#1: The Rise of Danny Trejo is released on VoD from June 22nd


Updated: Jun 17, 2020

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