WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden and director Eva Longoria welcomed hundreds to the White House lawn Thursday to screen the new movie, “Flamin’ Hot,” a feel-good story about how a Mexican American janitor working at Frito-Lay sold his superiors on his idea to spice up the crunchy snack’s cheesy coating.
They held out the tale of one-time janitor Richard Montañez, which is based on his memoir, as an inspirational account of how one man reached for a dream and overcame the odds — gliding past indications that Montañez’ account is dubious.
Biden told the crowd: “When I think about tonight’s movie, I think about courage. So many of you, your ancestors left behind all that they knew to start a new life in the United States.”
Longoria said Montañez' story inspired her because she has been told “no” during her career, that ideas don’t come from people like her, that she couldn’t do certain jobs because she is a woman. She said she and her team worked hard “to produce this authentic film steeped in inclusion.”
First lady Jill Biden said Montañez helped change the way companies think about Latino customers, adding: “This film isn’t just about Richard. It’s about everyone who has been overlooked or underestimated.”
But The Los Angeles Times has published allegations that Montañez fabricated his role in the snack’s creation. And Frito-Lay says he “was not involved.”
A White House official defended the decision to screen the film, saying it is not a documentary and was shown to give Americans from different backgrounds a chance to see themselves reflected in film and celebrated by the president, as was done with other movie screenings this year. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.
In the film, actor Jesse Garcia stars as Montañez, a one-time Frito-Lay floor-sweeper in southern California who persuaded his bosses to make a snack that celebrates the flavors of Mexico.
The Bidens and Longoria stressed what they said was the movie's broader message of inclusion.
“Richard Montañez disrupted the food industry in the ‘90s by channeling his Mexican American heritage to help turn Flamin’ Hot Cheetos into a multibillion-dollar brand today and a cultural phenomenon,” Longoria said. “We are telling a story that celebrates the American entrepreneurial dream without sidestepping the fact that the dream isn't available in the same way for everyone."
Biden said it was the first White House screening of a film focused on Hispanic characters.
The film marks Longoria's debut as a film director. The former “Desperate Housewives” actor is also very active Democratic politics. She spoke at the party's past three national political conventions and has helped raise money for Biden, former President Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates.
Biden, a Democrat, announced in April that he is running for reelection in 2024 and Hispanic Americans are a core part of the Democratic Party base.
Hundreds of people, including cast members, Latino community leaders, members of Congress, state legislators and others gathered on the lawn on blankets, wooden benches or folding chairs while munching on tortilla chips and salsa or Flamin' Hot Cheetos and sipping cool drinks. A mariachi band on the Blue Room balcony warmed up the crowd.
Biden has screened other films this year, each time eschewing the small, 42-seat White House movie theater for the much larger East Room or the sprawling lawn.
For Black History Month in February, the president hosted a screening of “ Till,” a drama about the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, who was brutally killed after a white woman said the Black 14-year-old had made improper advances toward her.
Biden marked Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month last month with a screening of the streaming series “ American Born Chinese.”
“Flamin' Hot” was released June 9 for streaming on Hulu and Disney+.