Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Reviewed by Arturo Aldama
Friday, February 16 2001, 3:14 PM
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 /Mexico 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 Nortenyo 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 riqueno 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 -- are corruption and disease festering 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, disciplinary 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.