Netflix's "Narcos" has a lot of people talking. Starring the magnificent Brazilian actor Wagner Moura and co-produced and partially directed by Brazilian José Padilha, the show focuses on Colombia but carries an indelible Brazilian imprint. There have been a variety of complaints about the show, but I think it's a great watch and an important jumping-off point for shows and movies about Latin America for a global audience. Here's why.
5. Almost half of it is in Spanish - even if the accents are off.
There's been a lot of complaining about Moura's Brazilian accent in Spanish, and the potpourri of other accents among the Spanish-speaking cast. But the fact that it's in Spanish at all is a huge improvement over many U.S. productions where the cast speaks English, even though they're supposed to be Russian or French or Mexican. There's been hesitation to thrust subtitles on American audiences, but since Netflix is betting on global viewers, it took the risk, and I think it paid off well. I understand how annoying the accent issue must be for Colombians, but a lot of viewers likely didn't notice, especially because Moura is so great (and terrifying).
4. Its docudrama format uses a huge amount of actual events and people, including layers of historic footage.
One of the complaints about the show relates to the mentions of magical realism. I get that it's clichéd, but I think it drives at the idea that truth is often stranger than fiction, and it's in this realm that Padilha - who directed the documentary Bus 174 and the Elite Squad docudramas - thrives. Moral relativism, the blurred line between good and evil, and the intersection of violence and power are all very much part of his wheelhouse, and they're what make "Narcos" so compelling. Padilha favors this format because he seems invested in educating audiences in addition to entertaining them.
3. "Narcos" addresses American intervention in Latin America in an interesting and nuanced way, and it reminds us that the drug war is truly global.
It's rare to see a blockbuster TV show or movie address American interventionism in Latin America well. One of the best things about "Narcos" is not only using historical facts, but ensuring that the Americans in the story aren't seen as the heroes, sweeping in to aid the "helpless" locals. (This is likely because of the amount of Latin Americans involved in producing and directing the series, another important factor to point out.) Not only do we learn about U.S. involvement in Colombia's drug war, but we also learn about U.S. support of Pinochet in Chile, as well as very relevant issues of torture and surveillance.
While the show focuses on Colombia, viewers get a glimpse of how the cocaine trade expanded its global reach. After the show came out, I found out that a man in the neighborhood where I grew up was jailed for running an airline ferrying cocaine from Colombia to the U.S.
2. It drives home the idea that what happened to Colombia could happen in other Latin American countries.
Colombia is uniquely geographically positioned for the cocaine trade to have flourished there: neighboring coca-growing countries, having a climate where coca could grow, and being relatively close to the U.S., among other factors.
But the show's highlight of the fact that Chile was initially a cocaine-trafficking hotspot is a relevant one. Drug trafficking and its funding of organized crime has affected all Latin American countries, and while Colombia is still a major player, ground zero of drug trafficking in the Americas has moved to Mexico and Central America. Watching the show, I can easily imagine spin-offs series in other Latin American countries, even Brazil. Padilha himself reportedly left his home in Rio de Janeiro and moved to Los Angeles after getting fed up with armed violence.
1. The series illustrates what Colombians endured and continue to endure in their daily lives and in forming a national identity.
Colombians are the heroes in this series: not only the leaders who stood up to the traffickers but also the regular people who dealt with the consequences of the drug war. To me, that's one of the strongest elements of the show and one that transcends Hollywood stereotypes.
I think it also helps global audiences understand why the drug war has affected Colombians' view of themselves and the shame and trauma they feel having lived through the worst of the violence. It's hard to be a Colombian abroad because of the stigma attached to the drug war, meaning Colombians have faced more stringent visa requirements and humiliations when crossing borders. There's a powerful moment in the series featuring presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán and part of a real speech he gave:
"We're changing the Colombian people's consciousness...so that never again will any Colombian feel ashamed when he shows his country's passport."
The show focuses on some of Colombia's worst historical moments, but it provides so much historical context that it really helps people understand what the country went through and the incredible corrupting power of drug money. It really makes one think: what if this had been your country?