Plata o plomo? Accents in Netflix’s Narcos

I’ve been chewing on this thought for a while now, so I’m going to sort of explore it in this blog post in the hopes that it will foster some kind of meaningful discussion about the intersection of identity/language in TV. I watched season one of Narcos when it first came out, and was really fascinated by the show. In case you haven’t seen it, Narcos chronicles the life of famed Colombian drug-lord Pablo Escobar, his followers, and the havoc he wrought on the country throughout the mid to late 80’s. Here’s a brief trailer for context. If you’re interested in starting it, consider this your warning that it’s pretty intense. In fact, if blood and violence (particularly the kind that involves guns) is something that unnerves you easily, I would recommend skipping it.

Narcos_TV_Series-776889831-large.jpg

Still from Narcos (https://www.filmaffinity.com/en/movieimage.php?imageId=776889831).

For the most part, the show has received pretty impressive reviews (Slate published a comprehensive one that you can read here). It’s a Netflix original, and those rarely disappoint. Plenty of Colombians, like my good friend Sebastian, rave about the show and its unflinching portrayal of life in Colombia during Escobar’s time. Others, however, have not been so generous in their reviews. Escobar is played by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, who has pretty inhibiting difficulties pulling off an authentic Colombian accent. To native ears, the accent he utilizes on the show falls anywhere on the spectrum between laughable to straight-up offensive. Read this Guardian piece for examples of some reactions. We sort of touched on this topic in our discussion of Gloria’s accent in Modern Family and that of Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy. I think the general consensus was that, as native speakers, those two had a sort of artistic agency that allowed for their performances to come across as authentic as opposed to offensive (in the way that Amos and Andy did).

So—with all of that as context, I suppose I want to pose a couple of questions: what is the extent of television’s responsibility in ensuring that characters like Pablo Escobar come across as authentically Colombian? Does it make a difference that he’s Latin American, but not from Colombia and not a native Spanish speaker? Is it our responsibility as viewers to separate the character from the actor and work harder to use our imagination? Can we make room for artistic freedom and at the same time represent members of different cultures/countries/races etc. with respect and legitimacy? I’m not asking these questions rhetorically; I genuinely am not quite sure what my stance is, though I will say that I think I lean towards a deeper commitment to authenticity in casting. Thoughts?

 

-Callie Sartain

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5 Responses to Plata o plomo? Accents in Netflix’s Narcos

  1. mediaphiles says:

    I am really glad I read your blog because I never analyzed this show and Escobar’s character in this way. I simply thought that the show was a great representation of Escobar’s life and extremely entertaining for that matter. But now I find myself curious about authenticity as well. -Jenna Romano

  2. mediaphiles says:

    I loved this post because it made me really work to answer your questions, sometimes contradicting myself in the process. I love Narcos and think that Wagner does an amazing job playing Escobar, but I am not a native Spanish speaking and admittedly had no idea that his accent was that forced/unauthentic. It’s hard to give a straight answer to questions that I think we touched on in class that don’t have one fit answers. This post made my think about the backlash a Nina Simone (a famous singer in the 60s-70s) bio pic generated because Nina, a dark skinned African American women, was being played by Zoe Saldana, an Afro-Latina whose complexion is much lighter than Simone’s. People were outranged at not only her appearance (she was made visibly darker for the role) but also her forced accident. I guess it’s easier to give a pass to those actors whose portrayal is still considered by a majority to be talented? I really don’t have a solid answer but I do think it’s an easy pill to swallow if you feel as though the acting is exceptional. -Courtney Green

  3. mediaphiles says:

    Who knew! As a Spanish major, I am slightly embarrassed to say that I didn’t even notice the poor authentic Columbian accent. Interestingly, I interviewed an exchange student from Columbia who attends Wake, and her thoughts on this show were surprising. One would assume that many Columbians would not be happy about this show being released on Netflix as it represented Columbia as a violent and drug-loving latin american country ruled by corrupt government. She explained that although the facts of Pablo Escobar depicted in the show are accurate, many Americans fail to recognize that Columbia has since changed from those days. She says when the show first came out, friends on campus would ask her if her family was part of the drug gangs in Columbia, or if she knew anyone who had been killed because of the war on drugs. Really? Are we that ignorant that we watch one show on Columbia and automatically assume that’s the reality of the situation there. I worry what other shows have gotten Americans to set pre-conceieved and stereotypical notions about differing countries and cultures.

  4. marymdalton says:

    Good discussion. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer, since I can’t tell the difference in the authenticity of the accents!

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