Netflix’s hit show “Narcos” pretends to be culturally sensitive and historically accurate, but it is actually the opposite, and worse.
From the moment it debuted on August 28, Netflix hit show Narcos seemed to be different than other popular interpretations of the rise and fall of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. In hallways, Facebook posts, small talk during coffee, and other informal settings, many smart and otherwise culturally sensitive and well-educated friends in the United States praised the show for its entertainment and even pedagogical value. They learned a lot about Colombia and had fun in the process, isn’t that wonderful?
Netflix shared their enthusiasm. By September 3, the show had been renewed for a second season.
However, I could not share their excitement. References and stories about Escobar are not new in the United States, and more contemporary renditions of his trials and tribulations abound in mass media (former InSight Crime writer Christopher Looft does a good summary of the more relevant ones in the LA Review of Books).
I have watched and read my share, out of professional and personal interest. I remember when Escobar blew up a commercial airplane, as well as exploded several bombs in public places, as a perverse way of protesting the Colombian government’s extradition policy.
I watched on television as he was “jailed” in a prison of his own making. And like millions of Colombians, I held my breath in front of the TV as my family and I watched news anchors confirm that he had been “neutralized,” as they like to say about the faceless enemies in American cop shows.
I was 13 years old, and I remember asking my father why some celebrated Escobar’s death while others cried, as if they had lost a loved hero. “No one is always bad with everyone,” he told me.
It was a coming of age moment for me. I realized I lived in a deeply divided country, and that reality — especially when it comes to violent conflicts — is made up of many different layers and stories.
However, Narcos has very little of the nuance and complexity that the real story of Escobar has. And when it was first made available, every time I tried to watch it, I was either too bored or too angry to continue. Eventually, I sat through it.
The problematic nature of Narcos is encapsulated in the narrative arch that frames the first episode. The show begins with a declaration: “This television series is inspired by real events.” (The trailer, watch below, also proclaims, it’s, “Based on a true story.”)
Then a quote in block letters emerges that reads, “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” (As Jimmy Johnson noted in his blog post, “For Love of Cocaine and Empire: Narcos Season 1,” the definition of magical realism that opens the show is a direct — and unaccredited — quote from Matthew Strecher, taken from the second paragraph of Wikipedia’s explanation of the genre.)
Most of the phrase fades to black, but the white letters of “too strange to believe” turn red, and the sentence is left floating on the screen against the backdrop of mist-covered mountains and — what I assume is meant to sound as — exotic music. Then, also in red, the caption “there is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia” appears.
This introduction to Colombia colors the narrative and highlights the contradiction that permeates the show as a whole: despite being assured that we are about to witness “real events,” i.e., a historic account of the life and death of Escobar, we are also told that it is a narrative imbued in “magic,” filled with things “too strange to believe,” or understand.
Caught between exoticism and a moral rhetoric that upholds the war on drugs as legitimate, Narcos provides its intended audience with a seductive and entertaining — albeit highly manipulated — version of Colombia’s recent history.
In this sense, it is productive to think about Narcos as a fusion of marketing slogans. While “magical realism” was an established brand, as Alejandro Herrera-Olaizola notes, it was only in the 1990s that major publishing houses made “narco” a powerful marketing pre-fix. Nowadays this phenomena expands to include works that use Colombia as a historically rooted — yet highly stereotyped — signifier from where to tell stories about drugs, violent men, and voluptuous women for considerable profit.
This form of storytelling, Herrera-Olaizola argues, “Perpetuates the commercialization of the margins and promotes the exotization of a ‘raw’ Latin American reality geared for an audience that is more attentive and instructed in Latin American socio-political matters, and that is eager to read something new, something light, but with a certain ‘cultural weight.’”
Enter Narcos, a show whose Wikipedia understanding of magical realism mobilizes cultural difference in a way that is both profitable and convenient. On the one hand, it highlights its insensitive (and lazy) cultural appropriation techniques. On the other hand, it shows how its appeal to historical verisimilitude is primarily a marketing technique and an effort to capitalize on the aura of cultural weight that its educated, yet uniformed audiences demand. The result is often sensationalist imagery, cultural platitudes, and a racialized sense of entitlement that translates into what Jimmy Johnson aptly called the show’s “condescending racism.”
The show’s faux cultural weight can be seen in some of the aspects that have been praised the most by US audiences as evidence of cultural sensitivity and accuracy. For example, many note that, unlike most programming made in the United States, Narcos uses Spanish — and therefore subtitles — extensively. Many of the scenes were also filmed in Colombia allowing viewers to see the country’s large cities and not only its remote jungles. However, these places are used more as props than essential elements of the story, and it’s clear from their disposable nature that a realistic depiction of the historical, political, and cultural background of the narcos is superfluous to the larger story and will only serve to reinforce preconceived notions about them.
In the case of language, as it has been extensively noted, the mismatch of Spanish accents — and the poor efforts to mimic the local dialect and style strongly associated with the narcos by Spanish-speaking audiences — only provide a sense of realism for those who either do not speak Spanish or are not familiar with its Latin American variations.
In a way, it reminds me of the word “barbarian,” which comes from the Greek word which means “babbler.” The Greeks used it to refer to all those who lived beyond their borders, and whose languages and cultures they could not differentiate, much less understand. To the Greeks, it all sounded like the same, unintelligible chatter. In Narcos, the stark differences between Mexican, Puerto Rican, Peninsular, Colombian, and even Portuguese accents, vocabulary, and rhythm seem inaudible for the producers and are conflated into the speak of the violent, modern-day barbarians, the narcos.
Furthermore, the fact that Escobar himself is played by Wagner Moura, a Brazilian actor who, despite his best efforts cannot smoothen his thick Portuguese accent, further points to the show’s orientalist approach and almost complete disregard for cultural nuance. After all, could one imagine a movie about Sherlock Holmes played by an actor with a thick French accent? Would the same creative team cast actors with British, Australian, and Scottish accents to perform as cowboys in a film about the Far West?
But in the world of Narcos, this is not a problem since it is assumed that the majority of the audience will not notice the incongruity. On the contrary, the mere task of reading subtitles provides its audience a false sense of cultural accuracy. Jimmy Johnson summarizes the strategic deployment of the Spanish language with no regard for actual linguistic accuracy when he says that “the cumulative effect [of the shows linguistic quilt] is not so much a bilingual program as an American English one with a preponderance of Spanish(es) in it.”
The way in which Narcos treats geography and location is similar to its use of language: it clings to an element that is easily recognizable as authentic by foreign yet only slightly informed audiences (in this case actual shots of Medellin and Bogota), and uses it to create its own reality.
For example, when the protagonist Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and his wife Connie (Joanna Christie) are on the plane on their way to Colombia, they look out the window and Murphy explains in a voiceover: “We should be over the Amazon by now. From 10,000 feet, Colombia was a paradise of untouched rainforest. But things were different on the ground.”
Anyone with a minimum sense of geography would notice that there is no need to fly over the Amazon (in the south of the country) to arrive to Bogota (nestled up in the Andes in the center of the country) from Miami (even further to the North…). But for Narcos this is irrelevant. Colombian geography is reinvented to delineate the contours of what media critic Omar Rincón has aptly referred to as NarColombia.
Like many before them, first world travelers envision themselves arriving to an untamed, deceptive, and dangerous land with a mission to bring civilization and justice. Furthermore, because of the strangeness (magic?) that is said to define this territory, navigating it requires — as in the scene in the airplane over the “jungle” — the white, male, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) voice of the protagonist to act as cultural and historical mediator.
The image of Colombia’s dual and threatening reality is the leitmotif that justifies the show’s outdated overreliance on voiceover. The camera production crew went to Colombia (or at least they flew over it), but this does not translate into a real proximity with the site. Despite its many shots of Bogota and Medellin, the show remains firmly anchored in the perspective of a protagonist who does not bother to learn the language of a place he has supposedly inhabited for several years, does not seem to have any local acquaintances or friends, and not once is shown having a non-narco interaction. The protagonist and his wife remain entitled and isolated foreigners fighting for justice (for the United States) in an unwelcoming (and undeserving) land.
This is why, when towards the end of the first season Murphy refuses to leave the country calling it his new “home,” the announcement is both surprising and terrifying. Murphy has not settled in Colombia. On the contrary, this is Murphy going “Apocalypse Now” on us: His “colombianization” is an embracing of this dark and violent side, his shocking realization that war is a dirty affair.
The viewer is invited to share this experience. More than settling in Colombia, s/he flies over it, making strategic stops in jungles and cities but never quite getting to know either. It is perhaps no coincidence that the introductory sequence to Colombia is an aerial view of Bogota. This seems to be the perspective from where Narcos sees the country: a bird’s-eye-view that glozes over large areas without much attention to detail, and from where depth is lost to the flatness of a colorful and varied landscape.
Instead of bringing us closer to Colombian culture and its history, the use of Colombian historic and cultural elements conforms to what George Yudice calls the “cultural maquila.” Yudice notes that nowadays, “cultural production has turned into a maquila,” where production is controlled from abroad, proceeds go to the international conglomerates that own the means of production, and local elements are used in as far as they generate value to a (cultural) product designed for a particular, geographically removed, audience. While traditional maquilas produce clothes and other cheap goods, Yudice says the most valuable outcome of the cultural maquila is a marketable version of cultural difference: “The transnational market needs to generate local differences in such a way that they are profitable outside their territorial borders.”
A quick look at the show’s creative team shows exactly how Narcos fits this description. Chris Brancato has written for “The X-files” and “Species II”; and Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro are the writers of “Tintin”, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “National Treasure 3.” José Padilha, the only Latin American of the team, is Brazilian and the show’s director. But Padilha is far from the good-old-“Elite Squad”-days, which was made in Brazil. Since he moved to Hollywood, he’s done a sequel to “Elite Squad” and a remake of “RoboCop.”
Staffing decisions like these reveal the ethos of the show: through the lens of Narcos, Colombian history and culture are not magical realism, but science fiction. What’s more, like in a maquila, the use of on-the-ground sites, cultural elements, and economic reality, is predatory, not benevolent. Even worse, it produces a false sense of cultural competence that is nothing more than a new and profitable type of orientalism.
Through its use of local elements and its reference to magical realism, Narcos also de-historicizes and de-politicizes the war on drugs. It anchors drug trafficking, and the violence related to it, to prefabricated notions of culture and race. Responsibility for the production of drugs and its violence is geographically displaced, and the hope to understand the complex — and global — dynamics that produce it are abandoned. The sad irony is that the producers’ myopic view of that war is much more akin to a magical land where things are “too strange to believe,” than to the “real” Colombia the show purports to show its viewers.
Blaming Colombia for the war on drugs also plays on popular perceptions of foreign audiences and thus serves the show’s interests. As Yudice notes, cultural identities are often manufactured into national brands with concrete entertainment value. Therefore, they should be analyzed taking into account the context in which they acquire such value. Following the model of the designation of origin used to sell wine and other goods to international consumers, local identities are also crafted to meet the demands of foreign audiences while providing a localized sense of originality and quality.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of NarcoCulture
However, in contrast to the production of fine wines, the cultural production around the origins of drug trafficking is nothing more than a façade. Even though it is filmed in Colombia, Narcos is not a Colombian production. As it is with other cultural maquilas, Yudice writes: “The country of origin is important only in the sense that it generates added value, in a context in which the [cultural] differences accelerate the demand for it. However, profits do not stay in the communities. They belong to transnational corporations instead.”
In the case of Narcos the issue is even more problematic. The series not only does not bring profit or value to Colombia, it harms and debases it by reaffirming a geopolitical narrative that places the country on the side of violent and irrational nations that threaten the wellbeing and stability of the developed world.
This geopolitical Manichaeism structures the narrative and is essential to its plot, timeline and character development. More specifically, a demeaning version of the other is essential to the show’s construction of its hero, and here is where Narco’s notable — and much commented — rewriting of Colombian history, and its controversial choice to make the main character and narrative voice a DEA agent, come into play.
Which takes us back to the first episode. That episode ends with the loss of innocence of the protagonist couple. Connie witnesses the death of a pregnant Colombian woman working as a drug mule, and Murphy presents statistics about the rise in homicides in Miami interspersed with pictures of dead bodies. After these events, they decide that drugs are a serious matter, and they see it as their moral duty to defend the United States against this new foreign threat.
The next scene shows the brave, white, young couple holding hands at the airport ready to leave their beloved homeland. Murphy explains their decision: “My dad volunteered to fight in World War II because of Pearl Harbor […] He was a West Virginia farm boy, but these fuckers stepped on our soil, so he laced up his army boots and went to fight. It was his duty. Cocaine in Miami, kilos from Colombia. This was my war. This was my duty. And I was ready to fight it, and my wife was ready to fight it with me too.” (See trailer above)
As sensationalist and historically outrageous as this analogy may be, it is also very telling. It sets the tone for the political ideology that informs the show and explains the historical juggling it performs. By comparing the deliberate military attack of a foreign power on the United States in the context of a world war to drug-related violence in Miami, the show is not only rewriting Colombian history. Through the omission and manipulation of facts, statics, and dates, it also radically alters US history.
The homicide surge in Miami, and the war on drugs more broadly, is framed as a struggle between good guys and bad guys, not as the result of specific domestic and international policies lead by the United States, and the steady growth in the demand for cocaine, also lead by the United States. This convenient geopolitics of the war on drugs allows the US characters — and by extension, Netflix’s core viewers — to be both victims and heroes.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy
After the Pearl Harbor reference, the writers attempt to tone down the statement, finishing Murphy’s monologue with: “One year later, all that patriotic bullshit was out the window.” Perhaps appealing to its more cynical, hipster, audience base, Episode 1 ends with the lure of a Heart-of-Darkness-like journey that its title in Spanish — Descenso — promises.
However, Murphy’s warning that Narcos is not a patriotic show is yet another misdirection. In fact, the show largely upholds the Reagan Era’s teleology on the war of drugs, and imposes a neocolonial perspective that prioritizes the voices, experiences and lives of North Americans over everybody else. According to this narrative, the war on drugs is the inevitable and just — albeit undesirable — consequence of a foreign attack on the social fabric of the United States. In this context, the sometimes violent and morally ambiguous actions of the protagonist as he enters into the Colombian side of the fray — and of the US more broadly — are still perceived as being on the “right side of history.”
At the end of the day, Narcos may profess its path toward moral ambiguity, but it always puts its gringo protagonists on higher moral ground. Murphy often says that in the world of narcos, right and wrong are hard to discern. However, Steve Murphy is no Charles Marlow, Joseph Conrad’s famed alter-ego in his dark, searching novels about colonialism. His actions are not constructed as morally ambiguous for an American audience. And unlike the “Heart of Darkness,” this (supposed) moral ambiguity does not catalyze a process of neocolonial self-criticism and reflection. On the contrary, it reinforces the preconceived notions that consistently place the prosperity and interests of some nations over those of others.
Yes, Murphy violently interrogates a few narcos. Yes, he bullies and disobeys the — female — US ambassador. Yes, he yells at a taxi driver, and yes he takes a Colombian baby without consulting anybody. (It seems that a couple of episodes later a good-willed attorney might have told the writers that this actually constitutes child theft even in Colombia, and therefore the show appeases its viewers by clarifying that the baby is legally being saved from her barbaric land through adoption proceedings.) But all this violence is aimed at Colombian characters for whom the audience feels little or no empathy.
The show’s legitimization of the war on drugs and the sharp empathy gap between American and Colombian characters firmly place Murphy in one of two orientalist narrative tropes: 1) The story of the good white man that is forced to do morally reproachable things in order to achieve a greater good for himself or his country, and 2) the story of the civilized man corrupted by a violent and uncivilized environment. In other words, to survive in that “Amazon” jungle that he and his wife so bravely — and unnecessarily — fly over in the initial episode, Murphy must adapt.
To further reassure its audience, Murphy is repeatedly portrayed performing one of the acts most deeply rooted in the construction of western heroism: saving women and children. He saves a prostitute informant from being raped and killed by the narcos; he provides protection to a female ex-guerrilla combatant that — supposedly — can link Escobar to the famed 1985 insurgent-led attack on the Palace of Justice; and, as close as he came to actually trafficking a child, his action is probably perceived as the generous and valiant act of saving a baby. All of these actions are fictitious and implausible, and serve no purpose in the advancing of Escobar’s story. However, they play a key role in separating good from evil, heroes from villains.
And this is what makes for a palatable cultural product for an international audience that thinks of itself as interested in foreign cultures and histories, but that is sufficiently removed from the events so as not to notice, or care about, the many cultural and historical incongruences. The show has just the right “cultural weight” without the cumbersome ethical concerns that too often pass for good entertainment in the United States.
SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles
Andy Greenwald’s enthusiasm in his article for Grantland captures this perception well: “Narcos is unquestionably the type of show Netflix ought to be investing in: expansively international, splashily violent, able to tap directly into a preexisting fan base. It’s enjoyable even when it’s not particularly inspiring. Like a lot of TV during these boom years, it’ll get you high.”
The cultural maquila, in other words, turns Colombia’s recent violent history into a good-enough product for the entertainment of a “preexisting fan base.” Furthermore, through its use of magical realism and historical revisionism, Narcos displaces responsibility away from the North American consumer who has the luxury of consuming our cocaine and our violence like it were some sort of innocuous party game. The cycle of production and consumption is nearly perfect: on the one hand we have the well-known double standard of the United States that allows it to wage a war on foreign soil in the name of the eradication of a product for which they are the largest market; and, on the other hand, the violence generated by this conflict is then turned into a profitable cultural commodity that, like cocaine, encourages an uncritical mode of consumption that ignores the inconvenient truths embedded in it.
Like Greenwald, too many people describe the experience of watching Narcos like drinking too many Maker’s Marks. Sure, it’s not great, but tell me you didn’t have fun last night. But here’s the thing: despite what the show’s creators may think, Pablo Escobar is not a science fiction character, and Colombia is not a Disney version of Persia. The violence unleashed as a direct result of US polices and its inability — or unwillingness — to curb domestic consumption of drugs is nothing like eating too much chocolate. So if you are in need of a guilty pleasure, or are looking for something not-so-boring to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon, perhaps you should just go for ice cream.
Herrero-Oloizola, Alejandro. “‘Se vende Colombia, un país de delirio’: el Mercado literario global y la narrativa colombiana reciente.” Symposium: A Quaterly Journal in Modern Literatures 61, No. 1 (2007): 43-56. Print.
Yudice, George. “La reconfiguración de políticas culturales y mercados culturales en los noventa y el siglo XXI en América Latina.” Revista iberoamericana 197 (2001): 639-59. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
*Juliana Martinez is an assistant professor in the World Languages and Cultures Department at American University in Washington DC.
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