A while ago I started watching the Netflix show Narcos, depicting the story of the rise and fall of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and the role of the American DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) played in his fall. I did so mostly, because it had such positive reviews, but had to quit after some episodes. I did not immediately dislike the show for its self-perpetuating displays of violence, which are admittedly an inherent part of the story; yet, how can you present drug cartels and the extremely bloody Colombian drug war without owning up to the relentless violence that permeated every sphere of the society at that time?
It was not the phoney accents used by actors who were not native Spanish talkers either, to be honest, that felt kind of nice. Of course, those linguistic acrobatics are a very deliberate effort to attract the Spanish-speaking community towards the distributing company, but even then, I have grown up watching characters that, regardless where they are from, always speak English (even the Martians speak English), so even if Narcos linguistic effort is testimonial, I can still appreciate it.
No, I did not quit the show because of its presentation, but because of the blatant apologism, and sometimes outright ignoring, of US intervention in Latin America and its disastrous consequences. The very first episode praises Pinochet for shutting down the cocaine production in Chile, while failing to mention that on September 11 of 1973 (interesting enough to point out that US collective memory does not hold the grief monopoly on September 11 and that they were instrumental in unleashing the tragedy elsewhere in that very same infamous day 28 years prior) the military junta conducted a coup, with continuous and unwavering US aid. In the almost two decades comprised between the coup and 1990, Pinochet’s Junta managed to produce, what the current estimates amount to at least the assassination of 3,000 individuals and the institutionalized torture of 34,000 more, for women that included systematic rape. But Narcos transmits the message that we can overlook these atrocities because Pinochet did close the cocaine labs, which had an admittedly small impact in Chilean society, but a big one in the North American one. At one point of the show, a secondary character tells our blond US protagonist “You clearly don’t know your country’s history in Latin America”, obviously if the showrunners are more aware of it, they chose to overlook it.
Popular media as a political mouthpiece: entertainment is, indeed political
To be honest I do not quite know why I was so surprised, the spreading of US soft power through its entertainment productions, is as old as TV itself, but one would think that the dominant narrative in the American creative industry is at the point where self-examination is possible, however it does not seem to be so. The most progressive mainstream shows are only capable of admitting slight mistakes, but never contest the overall righteous position of American foreign policies. The most representative example of this is the portrayal of the Vietnam War. Even though, some films are critical of the war, either by following the non-violence narrative already present at the time or by depicting the loss and psychological damage endured by the troops. But I have yet to find a mainstream American film that examines the reasons for the invasions, that makes a critical analysis of Diệm’s rule of Southern Vietnam, as an admittedly extremely repressive nationalist dictator, that enforced powerful landlords propped up by the army, over a poverty-stricken agricultural population. That is not to mean that Ho Chi Ming and North Vietnamese authorities were not oppressive or had not committed atrocities and human rights violations, but at no time is this lost in the overall narrative, unlike in the former’s case.
My point is that, at best, these films defend non-engagement in the Vietnamese conflict, but they do not question the overall US foreign policies in the cold war context and the same goes for later conflicts, such as the Iraq War. There are some exceptions, especially in documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11 of Michael Moore or My Country, My Country of Laura Poitras, but those could hardly be qualified as mainstream.
This kind of narrative creates a collective history where the enemy (be it communists or religious fundamentalists) is always unequivocally evil. Indeed, the protagonist (be it an individual or a collective ethos) might make mistakes, but they always pale in comparison to those made by the enemy and are always literally or metaphorically redeemable in some form or another.
In a way, it is understandable, self-criticism is always a difficult task even at an individual level, more so on a collective one, but one would think that at least from a historical perspective it could be possible to approach it, you can see that to some extent in domestic policy, but the same does not happen in foreign one.
Indeed we find a myriad of productions that approach slavery or segregation issues (maybe not as many or given the attention some would wish), but that is an unavoidable point, one could say that the history of the US is the history of race relations and those permeate the social spectrum still today. However, the dominant cinematic history of slavery and segregation has commonly portrayed elements of white redemption against unfortunate institutions perpetuated by the most sadistic of white men, thus not unsettling or upsetting the viewer too much; yet, that is an improvement over the cinema that produces sentimental travesties of black-white relations where the white characters are “kind” to those who remain their slaves. Now, I’m not saying that some slave owners were not kind to their slaves, but the fact is that they remained a great minority, the continued portrayal of those “kind” slave owners distracts the attention from the much more who weren’t and, more importantly, from the fundamental humiliation of slavery. An exception to this motif can be found in the recent 12 Years a Slave, but that is quite a rarity.
But even critical portrayals of historic and present domestic policies are lacking in many areas: I have yet to watch a film that examines the deathly ethnic cleansing of the Southeast American Indians engineered by Andrew Jackson with Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, or the consequent discrimination and persecution suffered by American natives; or, about life in Japanese Internment camps during World War II.
So, what should our role, as viewers, be?
The lack of self-criticism of US policies, even historical ones, in films and TV is dangerous due to the influence of this narrative. Of course, local analysis or slight investigation into these issues would offer an alternative narrative, but this requires the motivation to do so, for those who lack it, this is the narrative sold and its version of the events is what remains. It is because of this that we should all endeavour in promoting critical viewing as paramount: I can enjoy a film that tries to force-feed me the righteousness of US positions during the cold war, maybe because the writing is good or the acting is superb, without say, buying into American intervention in Afghanistan. And this point stands for all kinds of entertainment, I have used US productions as an example because of their prevalence in the entertainment landscape, but we should be critical and vigilant with all kinds of content. By Paula R Escribà