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.
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?