The US, Hollywood-inspired vision of Colombia gets a revamp in the Netflix series Narcos, as Mike Mackenna explains
The new Netflix show Narcos makes it clear from the very beginning that it wants to take a nuanced view of US influence overseas. At the start of the first episode, Steve Murphy, the DEA agent who is supposed to be limited to an advisory role in Colombia, narrates for us how he implicitly ordered the local police to shoot up a crowded Medellin nightclub, killing a Pablo Escobar associate, but leaving inevitable civilian casualties.
This morally ambiguous take on the US role in Colombia is quite a step forward for high-profile depictions of the country. Just the fact that the show was actually shot in Colombia makes it a far cry from the likes of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, maybe the most prominent physical misrepresentation of Colombia. The movie opens with a scene that is supposed to take place in Bogotá; however, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie dance in light clothes not at all suitable to Bogotá’s climate, in some kind of open-air cantina that has no need for the kind of stand-alone heaters often used on the terraces of the capital’s bars. The gross inaccuracy of the scene probably owes something to the fact that it was filmed in Los Angeles.
Besides being based on the lazy idea that all of Colombia is tropical, the scene doesn’t miss a chance to exploit the stereotype of the country as a violent, lawless place. Bogotá, we’re told, is “apocalyptic” and “on fire.”
Narcos, then, is a major improvement on execrable movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but that doesn’t mean it’s free of all the sins of past portrayals of Colombia.
By casting Brazilian actor Warner Moura as Pablo Escobar, Narcos made it clear it was disregarding the importance of Colombian Spanish in its portrayal of the bloody heyday of Colombian narcos. Moura isn’t even a native Spanish speaker, so hearing him try to speak in the distinctive paisa accent is like hearing Arnold Schwarzenegger attempt to imitate Tony Soprano.
Considering he spent just four months in Medellin preparing for the role, and that he’s using his second language, he really doesn’t sound that bad, but his halting Spanish is still glaringly obvious.
For other important roles, they did at least choose native Spanish speakers, though few Colombians. On the Narcos IMDB page, you have to go 12 actors down the list to find one who was born in the country, though the actor in question was raised in Spain, and 16 actors down the list to find one who was born and raised here. No wonder Colombian magazine Arcadia described the series as “implausible”.
Despite the lack of Colombian actors in Narcos, it wouldn’t be entirely fair to say Colombians don’t have a voice in the series. By Hollywood standards, just the fact that the Latino actors speak Spanish to each other is an advance. It’s not like, say, the 2007 movie version of the García Márquez classic Love in the Time of Cholera, in which all the residents of Cartagena inexplicably speak English to each other. Surely a US audience would find it strange to watch Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway converse in Spanish in 1920s New York.
But those are just the actors pretending to be Colombians. What about the actual Colombians? In a postmodern touch, the series had two actors from Colombian narconovelas (Juan Sebastian Calero and Christian Tappa) share scenes with characters they once played. Calero played narco Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha in the series El Mexicano, and Tappa played Escobar’s right-hand man Gonzalo Gaviria in El Patron del Mal. In Narcos, both trade brief dialogue with other actors playing Gacha and Gaviria.
What are we to make of these casting choices? Sly winks by the Narcos creators at the Colombian series? Or a cursory attempt by them to involve local actors? Given how minor a role real Colombians play in the series, it’s hard not to suspect the series of tokenism.
So yes, Narcos is a step forward for the US entertainment industry, since it acknowledges the violence, humiliation, and resentment generated by US intervention in Colombia. However, its improvements are features that we should really take for granted in any production about the country: it was filmed here, with mostly Spanish-speaking actors, and it includes the Colombian perspective on the events in the story. Now that we’ve satisfied those barrel-bottom-scraping standards, can we please have more actual Colombians in the next production?