Traffic: "coopted and racialist demagoguery"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Mar 29 10:14:26 MST 2001

Bad Subjects (

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
(winner of Academy Award for best director in 2000)

By Arturo Aldama

Director Steven Soderbergh's critically acclaimed current release, Traffic,
has just been nominated for an Academy Award. Based on Stephen Gaghan's
Golden Globe-winning screenplay, Traffic is touted as a risk taking expose
of the failures of the Reagan-Bush backed 'war on drugs': a series of
militarizing policies that result in the apartheid like incarceration rates
of Latinos and African Americans, the further militarization of the US
/México border, and covert and overt interventions into cocoa leaf and
poppy bud producing countries in Latin America. Soderbergh with his nerdish
hipness and seeming critical intent only contributes to a coopted and
racialist demagoguery of the Hollywood cinematic apparatus. His work
continues the "bad boy" self absorption of Quentin Tarantino's disturbing
claims that he talks and writes Black better than African American folks.
In Traffic, Soderburg talks "spic" and "greaser" in the Norteño version
better than Chicanos and folks from northern Mexico. The first major faux
pas which continues the homogenizing tendencies that all "spics" are the
same is to cast the competent and important Puerto Rican/ Nuyorican golden
globe winner Benicio del Toro as the ethically conflicted moral compass of
the film. Toro's riqueño accent in all of his vocal richness and silent "r"
is almost comedic when he tries to talk like a Tijuanese cop. For those
unfamiliar with these important nuances of Chicana/o and Latina/o identity,
it's like having a working class Southerner play an edgy working class
Bronx street hustler with no apparent irony and intended comedic
effect-imagine the Walton family on speed.

The representation of the crack and smack addicted daughter played by Erika
Christensen of the newly appointed Drug Czar (played by Michael Douglas)
who exchanges sex for drugs with an inner city dealer continues the
anti-miscegenation hype of young whites corrupted by the sexual voodoo of
urban black men. The continual scenes of the faceless prep school daughter
lying under an African American man seemingly reinforce this racial
paranoia and angst. However, the director's adroit use of camera angles
that attempt to place the audience as the violated virgin which is meant to
shock and outrage the families of middle America inadvertently reveals
Soderbergh's fetish of being penetrated by black men. Furthermore, the wide
screen pan shots and tableaux scenes of urban ghettoes in Baltimore where
prep school kids go to score and be "cool" is again meant to shock middle
class America. However these montage -like but carefully constructed scenes
of urban decay, corruption and the drug economies of the street visually
reinforces the get tough on crime fear based policies that drive the
explosive growth of the prison industrial complex. His visual intent, I
imagine, is to have more search and seizure raids, more swat team
operations, no rehabilitation strategies, no critiques of origins and
causes of poverty, no job opportunities, no education, and no outreach to
disenfranchised youth and families.

But worse than hyping these fears is the representation of Tijuana as the
place of abandon-the abject zone of the US nation state-where corruption
and disease fester on the thin membrane of the American body politic and
where "over worked" and "understaffed" border patrol and DEA agents fight
to "hold the line." All shots of Mexico and Mexicans, or those simulating
Mexicans are done with orange/ yellow gel plates that cover the cameras
that give a pus like and rancid piss like coloration to these scenes,
visually reinforcing the ideas of disease, nausea and corruption. The
message that all Mexicans and state apparatuses of the US and Mexico work
for competing drug cartels locates the corruption of America in the South
and denies how the addiction patterns of the North are central to the
juridical, disciplinatory and funding apparatus of the State.

Finally, unlike Arnofsky's Requiem for a Dream, a much more ingenious and
cinematic risk taking meditation on how addiction is necessary to the
functioning of the body politic and its attendant state apparatus, Traffic
fails to offer any critiques on the criminalization of the drug economy.
Traffic does not engage the racially coded practice of mandatory sentencing
minimums that equate 100 grams of powder cocaine to one gram of crack
cocaine resulting in the warehousing, surveillance and brute violence
against African Americans and Latinos, with women of color as the largest
growing segment of the prison population. Traffic does not deal with: how
over 60% of prison inmates are imprisoned for treatable drug related
offenses; how drug addiction is an issue of medical urgency that requires a
multi-level treatment strategy; and how the prison industry has larger
incarceration rates than apartheid-era South Africa and the gulag system of
Stalinist Russia - currently around 2 million; and how over 34% of Latinos
are under the auspice of the criminal justice system.

The welsh born actress Catherine Zeta Jones who played along the
Spanish-made Latino-actor Antonio Bandera's in the Mask of Zorro both
fulfills the "quite not quite" ambivalence of colonial discourse by being
quite and not quite Mexican, serving as the ultimate trophy wife of the
only rich Mexican in the U.S. whose wealth is tied to the drug trade. In
the film's final trope, which is meant to foment the paranoia of the
festering South and the further corruption of even preteen youth,
Zeta-Jones showcases children's dolls that are odorless and that boil into
pure cocaine. They are meant to pass the line to feed the "jonesing" hunger
of the U.S. So with the Traffic and Erin Brockovich nominations, Soderbergh
moves from the B+ list of Hollywood power brokers to an A list status,
while Chicanas/os move into continued mandatory minimums, three strikes
your out, and unfettered police and migra brutality; moving from C risk to
A risk offenders. Two lists with differing results: criminalization,
incarceration, abjection and death and the unleashed purchasing power to
chingar the subaltern world with one's artistic vision.

Louis Proyect
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