Film critic brings judge's eye to Portland Film Festival
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Whether it's from her seat as an appellate court judge, or from her local movie theater, Darleen Ortega listens to the arguments, and renders her decision.
Ortega, 59, has served on the Oregon Court of Appeals since 2003, but her true passion is with her pen, as a Portland-area film critic. This month, Ortega will bring her eye for film criticism to Pamplin Media Group, serving as the Portland Tribune's movie critic with weekly reviews for the 2021 Portland Film Festival, which starts online Oct. 6.
"I was a voracious reader as a child," said Ortega, who grew up in Banks. "In rural Oregon, I didn't have a movie theater near me. As soon as I got a driver's license, I would go to the movies in Forest Grove or at Washington Square. I would drive to the 'big city' to go to the theater."
Ortega comes from a diverse family. The daughter of a Mexican American mother and a white father, she has two adopted Black brothers. She said her mom grew up speaking Spanish in an immigrant household but didn't see any value in her own children learning the language growing up in rural, mostly white Washington County.
"The only people I saw who looked like me growing up were farmworkers. There wasn't as much value surrounding culture and language back when I was young, like there is now," Ortega said.
Diversity is something Ortega values in films. Much of her film criticism comes at looking at films through a lens many other critics don't, she said.
"Like any other field, the field of film criticism is dominated by white men. When I go and read other reviews, I very frequently find my point of view is not represented in the dominant culture media," Ortega said. "I have things to say that are really good things to add to the conversation. Those of us from outside the dominant culture have different voices to add."
Ortega has always loved movies, and film criticism has become an artistic outlet beyond legal writing.
In the mid-1990s, Ortega started curating rankings and reviews and sharing them with friends over email which turned into her blog, OpinionatedJudge.blogspot.com. She has also written reviews for the Portland Observer.
Her 2016 review of Leonardo DiCaprio-starring film "The Revenant" drew some attention. Most reviews of the film, made by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, overlooked vital Indigenous themes, she said..
"I'm really interested in other people's stories," Ortega remarked. "I think other people's stories are really helpful to pull you out of your experience or help you make sense of your experience."
As Ortega sees it, the courtroom and the theater can both benefit from new perspective.
Ortega, who was born in Montebello, California, and graduated from Banks High in 1980, practiced civil litigation at the trial and appellate levels for 14 years prior to joining the Oregon Court of Appeals.
"I went to law school because I cared about justice," Ortega said. "And then in law school was when I started to develop language for what it feels like to be part of the heritage of Mexican American people, which is really complicated."
The Oregon State Bar has listed Ortega as a possible replacement for Jack Landau on the Oregon Supreme Court. Gov. Kate Brown is expected to make the nomination soon.
Ortega joined the Court of Appeals in 2003 as its first woman of color and is the only Latina to serve as an appellate judge in Oregon. She was appointed by then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski, and won consecutive elections in 2004, 2010 and 2016 for six-year terms.
Previously, she graduated from George Fox University and University of Michigan Law School. She credits movie theaters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for opening her eyes to the power of narrative.
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