As I sat before my computer at home in Brooklyn, New York awaiting certain destruction with the advent of Hurricane Irene, I decided to devote what could be one of my few remaining days by joining the exclusively obscure and gloriously pointless Boricua Film Club to see Zoe Saldana in her controversial new film, Colombiana. I remember falling in love with her in her graceful film debut in the 2000 movie, Center Stage. And then almost a decade later she was starring in the mega hit, Avatar. Now she was turning to a film focused on revenge and violence, two of my favorite movie-going themes.
But I was troubled by the criticism from the Colombian community that her latest film stereotyped Colombians as violent criminals. As a Puerto Rican, I encountered such stereotyping of my community going as far back as 1955 with the film Blackboard Jungle, followed by West Side Story (1961), Badge 373 (1973), Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981), The Believers (1987), Salsa (1988), Carlito's Way (1993), and Illegal Tender (2007) (man, that's a whole lot of stereotyping!). So I wanted to be sensitive to the criticisms of Zoe's new film.
The problem is that this criticism is beside the point because the film is not very good. Some may find thematic elements of Besson's latest joint culturally insulting, but with delivery this poor --- who cares? Zoe does a heroic job of pulling off a credible performance (remember, she can do no wrong for me), but the writing is at too many points inane and much of the material is crassly derivative. Zoe is entirely credible as a leading action hero (or villain, depending on your ethics), making the various cool acrobatics she performs in the movie believable and oh so graceful.
The plot is basically that this little girl in Bogota is sitting patiently in the kitchen of her home as her parents are being murdered in the house by a rival gang. She escapes and provides the US government, via a puke delivery system, with evidence on this gang that her father gave her just before he was killed. This buys her passage to the United States where she joins her Colombian uncle (played by New Zealander Cliff Curtis) after evading her US government escort. Yes, this little girl, on her own, eludes a trained government agent in a strange country, finds her way to Chicago from Miami by bus and then is able to navigate the Chicago subway system (something I still can't do), all this without knowing, as far as I know, any English. Anyway, she's then all grown up and determined to bring her parent's killer, Don Luis, to justice by killing him. He very conveniently, by the way, was moved to the Chicago area by the CIA for reasons never made clear. She kills the guy, of course, like 99 minutes later and then the movie ends with a terrible Johnny Cash-like song whose lyrics bore no relationship to anything in the movie (why they didn't use Juanes or Carlos Vives I don't know)..
Writer and filmmaker Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Professional, La Femme Nikita) shamelessly copies elements of his past films into this one. When, as a little girl, Zoe's character stabs a bad guy in his hand, well, that was what Besson did in an opening scene of La Femme Nikita, except it was a cop and a pencil (and it was in France, but maybe it was really filmed in Colombia, who knows?). The little girl, wanting to be "a killer" is straight from Besson's The Professional with Natalie Portman. Then there are the Bourne Identity rip-off scenes. This was like a "cut-and-paste" writing job.
The clumsy writing results in provoking unintentional laughter. When her uncle in Chicago asks the little girl what she wants to be, she replies, "A killer," and her uncle tells her something like "Okay, I'll train you but you first have to go to school." This is like, what, a 9 year old girl! Zoe's character's name is Cataleya, which is a flower that, according to the movie, grows in Colombia and becomes her killing tag. It's also not that easy to pronounce for non-Spanish speakers, so they probably would have helped the narrative it by calling her Rosa or something. An FBI agent investigating these assassinations is shown looking at a drawing of this flower, trying to figure what this clue means. It's a delivery guy in his office who observes this and casually mentions to the agent (who didn't ask him) that that is a picture of a cataleya, the national flower of Colombia. He knows this because he is married to a Colombiana. Nice to know somebody in the film had some connection to Colombia --- it wasn't even filmed there.
But getting back to the criticism from the organization ProColombia and others in the Colombian community --- Zoe told the Wall Street Journal the following four days ago:
"Shame on them? I don't know, I wish I knew how to address stupid unintelligent comments but I don't, I'm not a stupid person. I'm sorry, I never like to get political but it's just a shame that there are so many people out there that think so ignorantly. She could have been from Puerto Rico, she could have been from Goa, she could have been from China. But Luc Besson just wanted her to be from Colombia. Once you watch the movie, it has nothing to do with drugs, it has to do with violence. But violence lives in every city in every corner in every part of the world. So that said, PorColombia, are you kidding me? I've been trying to be diplomatic about it because I don't want to be bitter. Why would you think that this was made in such a simple fashion?"
Not exactly the type of diplomatic response you would expect from a movie star, but with a Puerto Rican mother, a Dominican father and having grown up in Queens, well . . .
Back in 2001, Colombia's top beauty queen, Andrea Noceti, threatened to sue US television talk show host David Letterman for joking on air that swallowing bags of heroin ranked among her top talents. She was competing in the Miss Universe pageant in Puerto Rico that year and said Letterman had insulted all Colombians and made light of the country's civil war. This is what Letterman said during his monologue on his show on CBS:
"I don't know if you've seen a beauty pageant lately, but you know what's really gotten very impressive, the talent competition. For example, Miss Colombia - and this was hard to beat - swallowed 50 balloons full of heroin."
The New York Chapter of the National Hispanic Media Coalition (which my colleague Marta Garcia and I co-chair) worked with the Colombian leadership, including the Colombian Consul, to broker a meeting with CBS executives that resulted in a public apology to the Colombia community from Letterman.
There are strong sensitivities in Colombian and other Latino communities about being stereotyped in harmful ways, especially with the current anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment that exists in many sectors of American society. There is the rise in anti-Latino bias attacks being reported to the federal government and all sorts of anti-immigrant laws and ordinances being promulgated throughout the country, including a growing hate speech on the radio and other media resulting in killings of and other serious harms to Latinos and their families.
The studio points out that they had no intention of insulting the Colombian people and that the film's title should not be seen as offensive. However, the question has been raised as to why they changed the title outside of the United States market if that is the case. In Colombia, it will be called Dulce Venganza ("Sweet Revenge"), and in China, Heilansha ("Black Beauty Evil") (What! Is this Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s handiwork!).
It is clear that referring to Colombians in the United States has become shorthand for drug cartels, violence, crime and gangs. This, unfortunately, has become major marketing and plot shorthand in a whole lot of movies and television shows over the years. Besson, Zoe and Sony Pictures denying this is, of course, in Zoe's words, " . . . stupid unintelligent comments." Hey, the Latino community isn't stupid either!
But the bottom line is that Colombiana didn't live up to its potential and is just an okay movie. I wish Zoe was actually more politically savvy and handled this situation differently (she could have insisted that the movie be called, "The Canadian Revengeful and Violent Girl," but she didn't). On the other hand, she could have picked a better movie to be in that matched her considerable talents or simply used her star-power clout early on to actually have read the script more carefully and point out the stupid parts that needed changing.
The truth is that, ultimately, the people being stereotyped by a movie like Colombiana are not Colombians but the filmmakers themselves. The big greedy movie studio, the culturally-insensitive producers and writers, and the terrific actress, who tragically hasn't been able to pick a good script since Avatar (Takers,
Burning Palms, The Losers, Death at a Funeral. Really! Actually Death at a Funeral was a goof). Colombians as violent, drug-crazed killer criminals? Most of us should realize that, as used in this movie, these tropes by now are just tired Luc Besson clichés arbitrarily applied by him to any group of people, regardless of consequences, to make a fast buck and to lazily substitute for something called creativity. Colombians shouldn't worry about being stereotyped, but Besson certainly should. Hey, and I love La Femme Nikita.
One of the members of the Boricua Film Club told us a Colombian joke: This guy who is a world traveler was asked, "Why haven't you ever traveled to Colombia?" He replied, "My parents could never afford the ransom!" Colombia, Mexico, Iraq, pick any country. Why do Puerto Ricans wear pointed shoes?
By the way, the Boricua Film Club gave Colombiana a 50 percent approval rating. So we generally enjoyed it for the cool action sequences, the gratuitous violence, the many inadvertent laughs and Zoe Saldana. And, after seeing the movie, we all still think Colombians are okay, no matter what they say about them! But on the positive side, I am definitely not killing some 9-year old Colombiana's parents no matter what!
Angelo Falcón is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP). He is also one of the founders of the Boricua Film Club and an occasional film critic. The ultimate question is, will Hurricane Irene make this all irrelevant.