They keep coming. Armed with replica automatic weapons firing blanks, gallons of stage blood and mangled Mexican accents, the cartels are streaming across our undefended border, and into our multiplexes and our video streams. These on-screen villains torture their enemies, they kill good Americans and they might turn up anywhere. Last year, in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” which is just one of at least six films in which the great Benicio Del Toro wrestles with Latin American drug lords, or plays one himself, they were linked to the bombing of a supermarket in Kansas City.
The cartel operative — be he a kingpin or a hit man or a smalltime drug dealer — has become the dominant image of Latino people in American television and cinema. He’s of course also the dominant image of Latino people in the discourse of the president of the United States. By the next network upfronts, or summer movie blockbuster season, Latino drug operatives may outpace their chief rivals — jihadi terrorists and Russians mobsters — and become the country’s leading screen bad guys. “You two understand that we’re dealing with a virus?” a Mexican cop asks his American counterparts, referring to the drug-fuelled corruption overwhelming a fictitious Mexican town in the CBS television drama “SEAL Team.”
“Here, everyone is born infected.” The dialogue and imagery of cartel movies associates Latino identity with inherent, pure evil again and again. It’s time for Hollywood to ask: What message are we sending to the American public by asking this country’s Latino actors to act out one execution-style killing after another? And isn’t this all becoming a bit tired and predictable? The quality of these dramas, speaking in purely artistic terms, varies widely: from the Emmy-winning TV series “Breaking Bad” and the not-so-celebrated 2013 comedy film “We’re the Millers” to this year’s widely panned “Peppermint” and Clint Eastwood’s largely well-received “The Mule.”
But they repeat the same tropes: Latino gang members grimacing as they mad-dog confused white people; a secret meeting on a Mexican hacienda, with tequila served and Latinas in bikinis as poolside eye candy. “It’s become a genre. You can see it,” Del Toro told The Guardian in June. Regarding films about drugs, he said, “They’re becoming the new westerns.” Unfortunately, this new genre doesn’t purport to depict events from America’s past, but rather a supposedly real menace in the here and now. In late December, President Donald Trump shut down parts of the government over the border wall he wants to build to keep out immigrants he says are drug-dealing criminals.
He’s never stopped making up false and distorted statements about the dangers posed by Latino immigrants. All the while, Hollywood has been inventing screen stories that sell the image of lawbreaking Latinos as a threat to American peace and security. In the odious 2018 film “Peppermint,” Jennifer Garner acts out a Trumpian fantasy. As a suburban mom whose husband and daughter were killed by Latino drug dealers, she becomes a one-woman vigilante army, killing a series of Latino assassins and destroying a piñata warehouse that doubles as a drug lord’s secret headquarters. The New Yorker called it “a racist film that reflects the current strain of anti-immigrant politics and its paranoid focus on MS-13.”
Like the drug dealers in “Peppermint,” the bad guys in Latino drug war films are often a mishmash of tropes and stereotypes. The cartel operatives in “SEAL Team” resemble an Islamic State army as they launch a Benghazi-style attack on the show’s heroes. The Americans take refuge in a Mexican church and summon other Navy SEALS to rescue them. The show aired not long after Trump sent troops to the Mexican border to stop a caravan of Central Americans. Hollywood has become addicted to the narco narrative because it offers a tried-andtrue tale of good and evil on an epic scale. The new Netflix series “Narcos: Mexico” features an excellent, nuanced performance by Diego Luna as a smart, enterprising and deeply flawed man.
But watching Luna build his “empire,” I longed to see a Latino actor play a big Hollywood role without seeing him leave the usual trail of cocaine and severed heads in his wake. In “The Mule,” Clint Eastwood plays an older man filled with regrets after a lifetime of alienating his wife and daughter. The drug dealers are really just stand-ins for forces that are eating away at many American families: rampant gun violence and the cruel logic of capitalism.The bad guys in narco films are always ruthless hyperentrepreneurs, and in “The Mule” they tell Eastwood’s character, “We own your ass.” In “The Mule,” as in countless films of lesser quality, Latino stereotypes become symbols of a white man’s powerlessness and his unchecked desires.
For his role in “Ozark,” Jason Bateman earned a Golden Globe nomination as yet another ordinary gringo caught up in the machinations of a Mexican cartel. Meanwhile, in real life, Latinos are acting out their own human foibles, and trying to build their own private empires, in fields that don’t involve criminal activity. They manage your local Walmart, study law, get divorced, attend cosplay conventions and do all sorts of things you rarely see them do in mainstream American television and film. The dominant story among the more than 57 million Latino people in the United States is not the drug war: It’s inequality, immigrant ambition and the wounds caused by the separation of extended families.
These themes await a treatment as virtuosic as “There Will Be Blood,” or as smart and cutting as “Get Out.” Mr or Ms Studio Executive, instead of another film with fake tattoos and stilted accents, consider investing in new talent and greenlighting a big, smart Latino project. And think of the narcos as chili powder — as a spice, they should be used sparingly. Insist on quality and complexity in the screen stories you tell about Latino people, and you might even look like a genius as you tap into a true and untold American epic more compelling that any cartel conspiracy.