Here we go again.
Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is Welsh, has been cast to play Griselda Blanco, the fearsome, murderous Colombian drug lord whose legendary life of crime was detailed in the documentary “Cocaine Cowboys 2.” Deadline Hollywood broke the news Wednesday night.
Casting choices for biopics are fraught because they trace the life of a real person, immortalizing them for future generations. When it’s spot-on — Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Angela Bassett as Tina Turner — the results can be electrifying. But more often, real people get whitewashed in cinematic retellings of their lives. Think Angelina Jolie playing Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart” or Jennifer Connelly playing Salvadorean-born Alicia Nash in “A Beautiful Mind.”
“I’m sorry but what part of this casting makes any kind of sense? Come on Hollywood. AreThere NO LATIN actresses???” actress Yolanda Ross tweeted in reaction to the news.
Casting isn’t just a problem with biopics. Plenty of people were angered when Rooney Mara was cast as Tiger Lily in the new Warner Bros. “Peter Pan” remake — more than 23,000 signed a petition telling studios to stop casting white actors in parts written for people of color. In 2013, Johnny Depp in redface as Tonto in “The Lone Ranger” elicited a similar reaction. And earlier this year, Comedy Girls Jenni Ruiza and Jesenia playfully asked “Saturday Night Live” showrunner Lorne Michaels to hire a Latina or two instead of subjecting viewers to castmembers in brownface.
Zeta-Jones is called upon to be Colombian when there are more visible Latina actresses working in Hollywood than ever — thanks in no small part to executive producers such as Eva Longoria and Salma Hayek. Hayek was responsible for bringing “Ugly Betty,” the show based on the Colombian telanovela “Yo soy Betty, la fea,” to network television. And Longoria has really taken charge with her production company UnbeliEVAble Entertainment.
In addition to executive producing Lifetime’s “Devious Maids,” Longoria is behind a new ABC drama about a Latino family in Texas politics called “Pair of Aces” and an NBC medical drama, “Critical.” She’s still a sought-after actress as well — both “Telenovela” for NBC and another untitled ABC project were developed with Longoria in mind.
Hayek and Longoria aside, others could have played Blanco. “Devious Maids” and “Orange is the New Black” may be the two most Latina-heavy casts on English-speaking television right now, and both feature talented actresses, including Ana Ortiz, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Selenis Leyva. Alas, none are as well-known as Zeta-Jones. Especially since so few projects with Latinas as lead characters get greenlit in the first place, this seems a missed opportunity.
But beyond the brownface debate, Zeta-Jones is a curious choice. Accents are not her strong suit, as we witnessed in “The Mask of Zorro” in 1998, when she was also in brownface — though that sort of thing didn’t get called out so loudly back then. For much of her career, Zeta-Jones’s voice has drifted between British and Ameri-British, and that’s about it. If she nails Blanco’s Colombian accent, it will be something of a coup.
Blanco’s story deserves better. If you’ve never seen “Cocaine Cowboys 2,” it’s well worth watching. One of Blanco’s boyfriends, Charles Cosby, served as a primary source and his tales are practically beyond belief. “I was a millionaire 45 days after meeting her,” Cosby says in the film.
Blanco was one of Miami’s chief cocaine traffickers in the 1970s and 80s. She built an empire so large it’s said she inspired the character of Tony Montana from “Scarface” and Jada Pinkett Smith’s “Gotham” character, Fish Mooney. She even played mentor to Pablo Escobar. Law enforcement estimated Blanco ran a billion-dollar business.
At the height of her operation, Blanco smuggled 3,400 pounds of coke per month into the United States by boat and plane. She was practically the Madame C.J. Walker of the narco trade; Blanco invented lingerie with secret compartments just for smuggling drugs.
She went out like a gangster at age 69 in 2012, when she was gunned down by an assassin on a motorcycle in Medellin, Colombia. In an ironic twist, Blanco is said to have invented the motorcycle assassination.
She collected a number of nicknames, including “the Black Widow” — she was suspected in the deaths of her three husbands — “la Madrina” and “the Cocaine Godmother.” She named one of her four sons Michael Corleone Blanco. Some estimates say Blanco ordered up to 240 hits, and Cosby said she even masterminded an elaborate plot to kidnap John F. Kennedy Jr. while she was in jail. As the documentary proclaims, “The Godmother … makes Tony Montana look like Mother Teresa.” She spent 18 years in prison for drug trafficking and murder before she was deported back to Colombia.
Culture has a way of lionizing drug lords, real and imaginary — Manuel Noriega, Escobar, Walter White — even as we’re aware of the vicious nature of their crimes. Benicio Del Toro, who was magnetic in “Traffic,” is playing Escobar in “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” which premiered recently at the Toronto Film Festival and is coming out next month. So it seems the time has come for “The Godmother.”
Reaction to the casting news on Twitter was mixed:
That’s a joke, right? CJZ is playing Griselda Blanco.
— Morgan Collins (@mashclash) October 2, 2014
Catherine Zeta Jones as Griselda Blanco? I’m in. — Claudio E. Cabrera (@cecabrera21) October 2, 2014
Awww hale nawl cuh RT @TheDiorHomie They’ve cast Catherine Zeta Jones as Griselda Blanco
— Auja Darling (@AujaBomaye) October 2, 2014
Lmfao ok RT @TheDiorHomie: They’ve cast Catherine Zeta Jones as Griselda Blanco
— C.weaver (@Chrisworldpeace) October 2, 2014
Catherine Zeta Jones as Griselda Blanco seems rather inappropriate…
— Shgerman Shmontana (@NICOnShit) October 2, 2014
So, they cast Catherine Zeta-Jones who is Welsh and 5’7″ as Griselda Blanco who is Colombian and 4’10”. I see. Can’t wait to see this movie. — Juan J. Arroyo (@btsmgl) October 2, 2014
@elmayimbe Whitewashing is incredibly annoying and somewhat offensive when it happens, but at least it’s happening to Griselda Blanco.
— Brendan Peltier (@BrunDeign) October 2, 2014