J-Lo’s narco drama needs to dig deep to avoid Colombian cocaine stereotypes

Jennifer Lopez is set to star in an HBO biopic of notorious trafficker Griselda Blanco, and joins the ranks of US productions that tend to oversimplify events

The news that Jennifer Lopez will executive-produce and star in a new HBO film about Colombian drug-trafficking legend Griselda Blanco both excites and troubles me.

It is the latest in a line of high-end US productions of all things narco. Netflixs Narcos, the show about the rise and fall of Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, and American Made, the soon to be released story of Barry Seal a pilot who worked both for the CIA and the Medelln cartel in the 1980s, starring Tom Cruise typify this trend.

These shows present Colombians as the bearers of a cocaine-filled Trojan horse and obscure the global dynamics that create and uphold the international drug trade. They divert attention away from much needed analysis of how US domestic and foreign policies in the past four decades have been in great part responsible for the violence these shows decry.

So far, documentaries about Blanco, aka the Cocaine Godmother, conform to this standard; routinely using racial and gender stereotypes, and littering unchecked facts that reproduce the mythology surrounding her life. They play out like this: she committed her first murder when she was 11 years old, she owned jewelry that once belonged to Eva Pern, she was fond of cocaine-fueled orgies with both men and women, and she was inherently ruthless. This last trait has been heralded as her trademark; controversial investigative journalist Gerald Posner took it to the extreme by saying that Blanco did not have DNA for sympathy.

By overly focusing on dubious personal anecdotes with little or no corroboration, the vital details of the story get lost. Audiences are presented with a de-historicized and titillating version of events that seduces viewers and appeases their ethical anxieties by placing responsibility in the hands of racialized others.

This approach is even more worrying because of the implications that it has in the context of the ongoing war on drugs, and the current political climate. Shows like Narcos have helped promote the idea that the presence of cocaine in the streets of Miami and the violence related to it constitutes an invasion perpetrated by foreign and evil agents.

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in Narcos. Photograph: Netflix

With subtitles and a purported adherence to historical rigor, Narcos lured audiences eager for a sense of cultural weight. But instead of promoting understanding and cultural nuance, these shows change facts to suit their North American audiences and focus on making them feel good about themselves. The cinematography and the music are cool; they think theyre learning about foreign cultures; the women are sexy; and they get to be both the victims and the heroes of the story.

In the current political climate, this is particularly pernicious. The notion that the complicated challenges that the US is facing have been brought to the homeland by dangerous and irrational others is being skillfully mobilized by politicians.

The stories of Escobar and Blanco present an opportunity. Like Pablo Escobar, Griselda Blancos story has much to say about issues relevant to the US today, such as the unintended consequences of foreign policy for national security, the dramatic effects of racial and income inequality in the rise of violence and crime, and lessons about how the inability or unwillingness of the system to deal with addiction as a disease rather a crime has led to the overpopulation of prisons, while consumption rates continue to soar.

If thoughtfully addressed, Blancos story could also provide great insight about how the criminalization and persecution of specific substances and communities, fueled by racism and xenophobia, tends to engender worse evils that the ones it seeks to eradicate.

This approach is not just a pipe-dream. An accomplished Latina actor will not only play Blancos role but also will be the executive director of the film. Female characters tend to conform to one of two tropes associated with Latino women in popular culture and mass media: the innocent victim in need of salvation by a male protagonist, or the seductive and violent temptress, the narco femme-fatale. This is further ironic because many of these stories claim to denounce the machismo of Latino drug lords while remaining unaware of, or unbothered by, their own structural sexism.

Hopefully, under Lopezs leadership the film will avoid this and other common pitfalls of narco-storytelling, providing relief from another vicious circle: that of a society that one the hand declares a war on those who supply a product for which it is the main market, and on the other hand turns this violence into profitable and easily digestible cultural commodities that like cocaine are eagerly consumed with little or no regard for the ethical quandaries embedded in the political economy of its production.

Juliana Martnez is an assistant professor of world languages and cultures at American University, Washington DC

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/aug/16/jennifer-lopez-narco-drama-griselda-blanco-colombia-stereotypes

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