Whether it’s Coca-Cola, Yeezy Boost or Beyoncé, it appears that the world can’t quite quench its thirst for American culture. Not surprising, really – American products can be pretty great. But, as products can be also vehicles for the transmission of values, it’s always good to look beneath the veil and know what we’re consuming. Right?
Narcos, the full-immersion Netflix product that tells the story of Pablo Escobar – the “Michael Jordan of criminals” – is exactly that: A product that is crammed full of ideology. What starts out as a narrated, documentary-style attempt to show the rise and fall of the Colombian cocaine kingpin, boils down to a show which manages to rob Colombians of their own history; the history becomes a mere plot device, cut down to fine, shredded pieces for American audiences to digest without having to gnaw on the bones.
These days, instead of fights over territory, for example, cultural imperialism works on an ideological level; basically, it’s the imposition of hegemonic values on foreign societies. It is a subtle form of cultural takeover – one that is alive and well with Narcos. And although it’s easy to dismiss such anxieties over dramatic representation as trivial, or argue that audiences are competent enough to know fact from fiction, or to criticize the critics for being “too PC,” the imperialism debate also needs to be understood in the context of history – part of which is Hollywood’s frequently clumsy and bigoted view of the “other” Americas.
So, for those of us currently digesting Narcos Season 2, here are the parts that rather reek of cultural imperialism – the bits that we didn’t love quite as much as the rest of the show…
A Condescending Voiceover
Firstly, there’s That Voiceover. The show couldn’t have been made without it, because otherwise the action scenes would’ve been too dense with commentary. However, Narcos’ voiceover went too far in explaining emotional states that should’ve been depicted. It was a massive momentum killer, constantly underlining things we could figure out for ourselves.
What’s more, Steve Murphy’s most important (and most effective) role on the show was his role as the omniscient, “above it all” narrator, our entré into the morally and politically complicated world of Colombian drug trafficking and the protracted hunt for Escobar. He was our eyes and our ears. He was dominant. Put bluntly, Murphy’s voiceover sounded like Ray Liotta’s Goodfellas voiceover if it had instead been narrated by one of the cops, deeply dedicated to the hegemonic narrative.
Guys like Carrillo and Gaviria and certainly Escobar himself were too immersed in their specific roles to comment on the larger picture, so Murphy was our eye in the sky. And there we have it: the white, foreign hero. A blond, American man working as a DEA agent, who always knows best.
Murphy, who narrated each episode, was sad about the cocaine epidemic that hit Miami in the early ’80s. He figured out that cocaine was coming from Colombia, and felt a patriotic, humanistic duty to go “down there” and save Colombians from themselves. In Colombia, Murphy and his American partners were heroes, no matter what. Even when they tortured people for interrogation and stole a Colombian baby.
In fact, the first ever episode of Narcos used the club shootout that killed Poison as an example of the imperfect and often unsavory nature of pursuing justice in Escobar’s Colombia, and the hunt for a prostitute/informant in the next episode gets into uglier territory still. But the show since backed off the idea that Murphy could be pulled into all that muck. The righteousness of his methods has never come into question.
At one point, Steve even comments that Colombia is a “country where dreams and reality are conflated.” A generous viewer might have dismissed this reductive condescension as meta-commentary on the irredeemable whiteness of his character. But Narcos goes out of its way to endorse Murphy’s patronizing gringo sensibilities as its own.
With a one-sided (and very patronizing) voiceover coming from an all-American hero, serving the purpose of guiding viewers about what to think during Escobar’s rise and fall, it seems as though Narcos was only really ever meant for American audiences. Which brings us onto our next point…
Faux Colombian Authenticity
The series is certainly not intended for bilingual Colombians who can catch the kind of common language mistakes that are found throughout. We saw errors in translation and accents that just didn’t fly – all symptoms of production not intended for Colombians or Spanish speakers. In fact, many Colombians were having their teeth set on edge by listening to Moura banging on with a conspicuous Brazilian twang. It’s like having someone with a freakishly strong Texan drawl play James Bond, I guess.
So, why do it in Spanish in the first place? Why film in Colombia at all? Perhaps that has something to do with showrunner Jose Padilha’s interest in subsidies handed out to shows made in the country, or just the desire for “authenticity.”
But in its portrayal of that country, Narcos certainly isn’t authentic. If you ask the majority of people what they think Colombia looks like, we’d guess that they would imagine mountainous regions, rivers and valleys. Somehow the fact that some of the largest cities in Latin America predated the existence of major cities in the U.S. by decades seems to escape people. But we digress…
It’s Colombia’s misrepresented history that’s the most scary. Narcos pretends that the CIA’s involvement began after Escobar escaped from La Catedral. Actually, the CIA, which had a massive presence in Colombia, was already overseeing the creation of military intelligence “killer networks” in 1991, the year Escobar surrendered to the government.
Narcos also pretends the upstarts from Cali did not rise to power until after the Escobar trade had fallen. Actually, the Cali organization had been a pioneer in the drug trade since Escobar was still stealing cars and running small-time pot shipments in the 1970s.
There are many, many historical inaccuracies played out in the Netflix show.
Narcos is at least keen on exposing the history behind the U.S.’s controversial decision to subtly violate Colombian sovereignty and intervene in the country’s affairs. Right from the very first episode, DEA agent Steve reveals the primary motivation behind the U.S. involvement in Columbia was not the drug-related murders but rather Ronald Reagan’s administration’s concerns over the health of Miami’s economy in the face of billions of dollars leaving the U.S. annually.
Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of Narcos’ countless other revisions to real history – at a time when communism is no longer seen as logic for intervention – subtly justify the U.S. government’s involvement in Colombia. Narcos gets facts wrong, and rolls with it. “What the heck, it makes for good TV,” is what it feels like Padilha’s going for.
The worrisome thing is how Narcos very much has the potential of becoming yet another example of “cross cultural pseudo-knowledge” in which U.S. Americans think they “know Colombia.” Narcos is able to pass the banality of its politics off as an unflinching historical critique, but only because of how much of the history it’s dramatizing has already been doctored to legitimize U.S. foreign policy. It’s not propaganda in the strict sense, but Narcos may be more effective for it.
This pseudo history is not just harmful to history and politics, it is also an insult to the memories of those who lost their lives. In Narcos, Colombia is portrayed as impossibly backwards, and most of the people who die there are anonymous, agentless, and poor – or in some other way deserving.
Adhering to Character Stereotypes
And then there’s the largely one-dimensional portrayal of our villain, Pablo.
Narcos never really showed us Escobar’s populist side. Yes, he’s a murderer. And no, he’s probably not someone you’d want to share a beer with. But, in reality, his legacy is surprisingly mixed. To many in his home city of Medellin, he was seen as a Robin Hood type figure, spending money on social projects at a time when the Colombian government was seen as not to be doing enough to help its own people. Narcos had a hard time going from a good show to a great show, mostly because there was little ambiguity about whether Escobar was doing something noble, like there was with Walter White, Tony Soprano and Don Draper.
Instead Narcos uses the horrendous things that happened during the height of Pablo’s power as a way to shock and to entertain us, the viewers; real footage of the murder of Colombians is shown on screen without a proper context of how and why it happened. And there’s little attempt to help the audience understand any political or social intricacy outside of the realm of Steve Murphy’s conscience. Modest assertions of Colombian prerogatives are met with more condescension and arrogance by the DEA agents and good old Steve, our narrator. When Colombia temporarily suspends one kind of U.S. surveillance in Colombia, he declares, “We sat on the sidelines, hands tied by bureaucracy.” Pfft.
Padilha – whose movies include Elite Squad, centering around a different bunch of Latin American drug dealers – himself criticized the War on Drugs and said that he wanted to show its real victims (that is to say, the number of dead in Colombia). But, for us, it seems almost contradictory to speak of concern for the real victims of the war on drugs and at the same time make a series which is – more than anything – a gangster movie. If Padilha’s intentions are good, then they’re perhaps not quite as good as his sense for making money
Really – after 20 hours of pseudo-documentary exploration – shootouts and celebrations of masculinity defying the laws and American dominance seems to be most of what Narcos has to say about the life and death of Pablo Escobar. And the worst thing? Narcos believes that it is saying so much more. This is a TV show that, in the grand scheme of TV things, questions nothing. It changes nothing.
And, yet, there’s a clear sovereignty in Narcos: A “we” and a “they.” A “civilization” and a “wilderness” underlining the incompatible differences between colonizers and colonized people. There’s a casual disrespect, in that most U.S. viewers will not finish Season 2 of the Netflix show and know any more about the real Colombia, or the way Padilha and his crew portray the country’s historical credentials.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
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