Hollywood absolutely adores drug lord films. From City of God to Scarface, casting Latinx actors as ruthless, materialistic, villainous killing machines determined to maintain multibillion dollar narcotic empires remains an age-old favorite of mainstream television and film writers, leaving their characters devoid of multifaceted human complexity. According to Caitlin Cruz at Fusion, that’s precisely the problem.
More pointedly, Cruz takes issue with Narcos, a Netflix crime-drama series that follows the rise and fall of infamous cocaine trafficker, Pablo Escobar. “Narcos follows a long tradition of Latinx actors and actresses being cast as drug lords, users, mules, sicarios, lieutenants, and every other role required to have a moderately functional drug empire,” she explains. “Just to give you an idea: There’s Mr. Robot, Weeds, Breaking Bad, Sicario, Escobar: Paradise Lost, Blow, Bad Boyz II, Queen of the South, The Infiltrator, Suicide Squad, White Girl, Traffic, Savages, every iteration of the Law & Order franchise, Veronica Mars, Jennifer Lopez’s yet-to-be-named TV movie about the “Cocaine Godmother” of Colombia, and Univision’s own El Chapo.”
Instead of the story being narrated by Escobar, the story is mainly told through the character of Steve Murphy, a DEA agent who infiltrated and brought down the Medellin cartel in the 1980s. “Murphy is one of the few white people in the show, and yet he’s still the one guiding us through the cocaine-streaked and bloody battle for Colombia’s soul—at least, that’s how Murphy describes the hunt for Escobar. Twenty episodes in, Murphy has guided us into battle, berated Colombians for not speaking English, and posed for pictures with Escobar’s bleeding corpse. Narcos, for all its effort, is about a white man’s journey through one of the deadliest portions of Colombian history,” Cruz continues.
While Narcos provides a window of opportunity for its writers to dissect the politics of the international drug trafficking in Colombia as well as the effect the trade had on Indigenous and African communities in South America, it instead casts Latinx actors as props, and centers white perspectives. “Murphy, played with jaded tough-guy sincerity by Boyd Holbrook, shares [an insight] in Season 1, about how Colombia is a ‘country where dreams and reality are conflated.’ A generous viewer might dismiss this reductive condescension as meta-commentary on the irredeemable whiteness of his character. But Narcos goes out of its way to endorse Murphy’s sneering gringo sensibilities as its own,” adds New Republic writer Steven Cohen.
Season 2 of Narcos also proves to be extremely problematic in its portrayal of Afro-Latinx and female characters. “Colombia’s drug war has profound racial dimensions, but the sole black character of note on Season 2 (Julián Díaz) is a hit man literally named ‘Blackie’ ,” Cohen continues. “The extent of his backstory is a pregnant girlfriend who appears in two scenes before being murdered.” While the show aims to provide more depth to Latinx women than before in Season 1, other than strictly relegating their roles for sexual objectification, the new roles, are as Cohen puts it, “shallow in their conception and secondary in their importance.”
Narcos is but a reminder of the film industry’s refusal to cast Latinx actors and actresses in varied roles and their obsession with creating apolitical, shallow characters. Hollywood is rife with white writers who are content not challenging themselves to write more compelling content that captures the different aspects of the Latinx community; thereby, casting actors such as Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, and Aaron Zebede in drug lord films becomes crushingly de rigueur.
Cruz notes that at this point, the fallback to the Latinx drug lord role in Hollywood, is stagnating the imagination of the audience. “At this point, it’s just lazy, both intellectually and culturally. It’s boring. And we are rewarding boring… a larger examination of television and movies shows that over and over again, the Latinx stories being greenlighted, funded, written, and shot are about the drug trade. It’s easy to forget that when you don’t spend every season scouring cast lists and production names for someone who looks like you. Even in an age where Gina Rodriguez wins a Golden Globe for the titular role in Jane The Virgin, a show that includes varied and multifaceted Latinx characters, white creators are still obsessed with telling drug king’s stories.”
While Cruz remains adamant that Latinx writers must find avenues to tell their own stories, she also remains critical of the role that white people play in divulging stories to Hollywood.
“How about this? White people are no longer allowed to make media about Latinx people for the foreseeable future. Sorry, I didn’t want to have to make the rules, but you’ve pushed me to the breaking point. Until morale improves, I’m revoking your privileges. Please send scripts to me for approval. They’ll be discussed at the next meeting.”