Traffic: A critical review of the movie about "The War On Drugs."

Michael T. McPhearson, April 2001

I love movies. I cannot express how much I love movies. I tried to imagine the world without movies and all I could think of is a dark screen just before the previews begin. Cinema is humanity’s latest and greatest art form. It incorporates all other forms of artistic expression into one. Tens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of people contribute their talents to create a moment of past or imagined reality come true.

Cinema also serves as an easily accessible window into popular culture. Like all art, movies reflect the time of their creation. While Academy award picture nominees are not by any means a comprehensive snap shot of prevailing social attitudes, they are as good a place as any to start. The 1967 nominees: Bonnie and Clyde’s graphic violence, The Graduate’s loss of innocence, Doctor Dolittle’s wishful simplicity, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’s integration, and In the Heat of the Night’s segregation, all reflect themes of the sixties. Sometimes the lists tell us more by what is omitted. For example, the1992 nominees include A few Good Men, Howard’s End, The Unforgiven, The Crying Game, and Scent of A Women but the Academy failed to include Malcolm X. Here we shall examine a 2000 nominee.

Traffic is arguably the most provocative and influential movie of the 2000 nominees. The mood, editing, camera angles, symbolism and cinematography are superb and make the movie a must see for anyone who enjoys the art of cinema. The screenplay is well written. The movie easily guides us through events in Mexico, a congressional after-party, a drug raid, and other excellent scenes. The dialogue is plausible, though sometimes predictable, and the characters were made real in our minds and hearts. The story broke some stereotypes and certainly widened the national conversation about U.S. drug policy. But it also reinforced other destructive images and missed an opportunity to make a powerful statement about the connection between the prison industry, our government’s continual transgressions of citizen’s civil liberties, racism (it tried on this one) and U.S. drug policy.

The screenplay writers wove together four separate story lines using the “War On Drugs,” (Traffic’s real name) as the pattern. The opening scenes reveal much of the ugly reality of a 30-year-old failed drug policy. The movie continues to unfold in clear lines of thought with moments of brilliance. The story of Javier Rodriguez, a Mexican police officer played by Benicio Del Toro, brings a new perspective of depth. It is refreshing to see a parallel drawn between police officers in the United States, struggling to do their jobs, and their counterparts in Mexico, fighting to do theirs. More important is Javier’s ability to negotiate corruption and intrigue in an effort to forward his dream of a country safe for his family and the people he loves. Javier shattered stereotypes when twice refusing financial gain through corrupt means. He then sacrifices his safety in pursuit of his dream. This is in deep contrast to the stereotype embedded in our popular culture of Mexican bandits, and Hispanic, Chicano or Latino drug runners who are ruthless and only interested in money and power. This story line, and Benicio’s Oscar winning portrayal of Javier are extraordinary.

Unfortunately, Carlos Ayala, the U.S. based drug trafficker played by Steven Bauer, reinforces the images Javier so artfully side stepped. He returns to us a shadow of undoubtedly his most famous role as Manolo, Tony Montana’s right hand man in Scarface, but this time as the boss. What better way to connect us to our readymade stereotypes then to give us a familiar face in a familiar role?

To its credit, the screenplay does provide an opportunity to see a drug kingpin as a husband. We first encounter Ayala’s family Helen, his pregnant wife played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, with friends, who see themselves as upwardly mobile, indulging in topics only discussed by those who need to create a feeling of class success. As the scene unfolds, we realize if we allow ourselves that Helen represents many women who know nothing about their husbands’ work and live lives based on illusions. The other women attending the luncheon could have had husbands who were illegal drug dealers or dealt in tobacco and run little if any risk of losing prestige or money despite the fact that tobacco, a legal drug, kills one in 10 adults worldwide and, according to a 1999 World Bank publication, these figures will by 2030, perhaps sooner, increase to kill one in six, or 10 million deaths per year-more than any other single cause.

Carlos’ eventual arrest forces Helen to awaken from her suburbanite stupor to the reality of innocence forever lost. After a time of bewilderment, she comes to her senses and vows to protect her way of life. She prevails through ruthless means and wins a new life as an equal partner in her husband’s business. This storyline has a strand of contemporary feminism at work, which runs through at least three of the five Academy Award 2000 Best Picture nominees.

Another stereotype presented in Traffic is the image of  White people going to Black neighborhoods to buy drugs, and the idea that large numbers of African Americans sell drugs. This stereotype was wholly reinforced when the newly appointed “Drug Czar” Robert Wakefield, portrayed by Michael Douglas, searched for his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen), who had escaped a rehab center to go on a drug binge. Robert forcefully persuades Caroline’s drug partner boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace) to “take a field trip” to their dealer. Seth promptly takes Robert to what appears to be the same “inner city” poverty-stricken neighborhood where we saw Caroline and Seth buy heroine earlier in the movie.

Robert:        “I can’t believe you bought my daughter to this place.”

Seth:           “To this place? OK right now all over this great nation of ours a hundred thousand White people from the suburbs are cruising around downtown asking every Black person they see, ‘you got any drugs? You know where I can score some drugs?’ Think about the effect that has on the psyche of a Black person, on their possibilities.”

“I guarantee you bring a hundred thousand Black people into your neighborhood… and they’re asking every white person they see, ‘you got any drugs? You know where I can score some drugs?’ Within a day everyone would be selling. Your friends, their kids. Here’s why. It’s an unbeatable market force. Its 300 percent mark up value…you can make $500 dollars in 2 hours and do whatever you want the rest of the day. I’m sorry. You tell’n me white people would still be going to law school?”

Robert:       Stares at the boy in silence.

I applaud this attempt at responsible dialogue, but I am a bit confused and wonder about their point. The writers miserably fail at their attempt to make an insightful statement about “race” and economic opportunity, but succeed in uncovering profound differences in the country’s perception of its self and reality. The image of hundreds of thousands of White people roaming around Black neighborhoods across the U.S. is, well fantasy. Having spent time in Harlem, the nearly all Black areas of Newark, St. Louis, and other “inner cities,” I assure you that you seldom see any White people. One certainly never sees large numbers together at one time unless they are police or there is a special event like a school visit or on location filming. This is not to say White people do not go to Black neighborhoods to buy drugs. Peewee’s account of his drug pushing days in Randall Robinson’s book, The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe Each Other, testifies to large numbers of Whites buying drugs in Harlem. But that was in the 1950’s when Peewee was a boy. Today the stereotype is grossly exaggerated. My college and adult experiences have shown me that more often than not White people buy drugs from other White people.

As for the idea that large numbers of Blacks would drive around White suburban neighborhoods to buy anything, let alone illegal drugs, it simply cannot happen while a few long-standing realities remain true. The vanilla suburbs and chocolate inner cities were created by White fear of color and pursuit of the homogenous American dream of home ownership, picket fences, apple pie and Christian virtue. These forces inherently deny non-White people, and specifically Blacks economic opportunity. Those Blacks who have found economic success have also found themselves facing social barriers. This has created the chocolate and or Neapolitan (mixed color) suburban inner ring with the vanilla outer ring spreading further and further away from the city. I said all that to say that, two of the reasons illegal drugs are easily available in poor Black neighborhoods are: the drug trade is the most lucrative and one of the few economic opportunities available in poor communities. Some Black entrepreneurs are willing to take the risk of selling drugs because the gain is so profitable. Seth hit this point on the head. What he failed to take into account is that economic opportunity and success created the White suburbs and White fear keeps Blacks from being able to drive through them, much less hangout. If large numbers of Black people went to a White suburban neighborhood, large numbers of police would show up in riot gear to “protect life and property.” White people would lock the shutters and bar the doors in horror. Selling would be the last thing on their minds.

These suburban Whites need not take the risk of selling illegal drugs. Like the women eating with Helen, their families are supported by legal industries. The bread winners in these families likely have well-paying jobs in companies that sell legal drugs –(tobacco or alcohol), products used to kill (guns), products that poison our water and air (chemicals, petroleum and paper), products that when sold had known design flaws that resulted in consumer deaths (automobiles & SUV’s Ford Explorer), products that relieve suffering but are denied to groups of people because they are poor and cannot pay full price –(pharmaceuticals), and products rated for adults by the sellers but marketed to children (entertainment). These companies are legitimate and protected by law. Why should these White executives take the chance of spending 25 years to life in jail selling illegal products?

While many of the said trends are slowly changing– White people are trickling back into the cities and non-Whites are increasingly gaining economic and social access– the displacement of poor people in the cities is the norm and Whites and Blacks continue to have a deep social interaction gulf no matter the economic parity.  We have no basis to think that these trends will change in the near future. Seth’s statement was at best naive. A more accurate and progressive statement would have challenged us to look at how minorities, particularly African Americans and Hispanics, are profiled as high drug users when in fact African Americans constitute about 13 percent of the country’s total population and 13 percent of the nation’s drug users, but account for 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 55 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison. These numbers give a stark picture of people of African descent’s “possibilities.” The screenwriters could have made a statement about the people sentenced to decades in prison for petty nonviolent offenses like possession of marijuana. Seth could have said something about the heart breaking cases of innocent people sent to prison or the mothers, fathers, and children whose lives are destroyed by the “war on drugs,” or the civil liberties society has sacrificed in its name. Instead Seth’s observation seeks to support the “racial profile” myth that Black people as a group sell drugs.

My analysis of Traffic is not to attack its cinematic quality. It is an excellent movie and based on its cinematography, style, subject matter and Benicio’s performance, deserved its nomination for Best Picture. It is a wonderful piece of cinema and as such it is also a reflection of its time. It is no coincidence that the story of the people most harmed by the “drug war” was not portrayed in Traffic. These are the same people who are used as cogs in our economy to create jobs in the prison industry.  Their tragedies are statistics used by politicians to show progress in protecting American” virtue in the nation’s fight against the decline of Christian values. They are the examples authoritarian interest use to control the populace. Their story, the marginalized and powerless peoples’ stories, are ignored every day.

Cpeace score 8.5 (If you are fighting the injustice of U.S. drug policy and or love the art of cinema, Traffic is an excellent movie to rent or own.) I have it.

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About Michael T. McPhearson

Currently Michael is executive director of Veterans For Peace and co-chair of the Don't Shoot Coalition, A Saint Louis based coalition that formed in the aftermath of Michael Brown's police killing death in Ferguson, MO. From August 2010 to September 2013, Michael worked as the National Coordinator with United For Peace and Justice. He is a former board member of Veterans For Peace and as well as Executive Director from 2005 to 2010. He works closely with the Newark based People’s Organization for Progress and the Saint Louis centered Organization for Black Struggle. Michel also publishes the Mcphearsonreport.org expressing his views on war and peace, politics, human rights, race and other things. Michael also launched Reclaimthedream.org website as an effort to change the discourse and ignite a new conversation about Dr. Martin Luther King’s message and what it means to live in just and peaceful communities.