Hollywood likes to pretend that it’s in a constant state of self-improvement, and that the days of blackface and Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi are far in the past. But we aren’t that far removed from Zoe Saldaña playing Nina Simone, FX casting a white British actor as a budding Middle Eastern despot in Tyrant or Catherine Zeta-Jones playing notorious Colombian drug kingpin Griselda Blanco in Lifetime’s Cocaine Godmother.
I hope we can all agree that whatever divine and legal sanctions she deserved for being, by all accounts, quite monstrous at times, Griselda Blanco did not deserve the throughly bizarro accent and makeup job that accompanied Zeta-Jones’ performance in Cocaine Godmother.
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If nothing else, Netflix’s six-part Griselda is an adequate representational corrective. Colombian actress Sofía Vergara plays Blanco, with a latex job that doesn’t really make her look like Griselda Blanco, but definitely makes her look like “Not Sofía Vergara.” The creative team consists of Eric Newman, Doug Miro, Ingrid Escajeda and Carlo Bernard, all but one of them alums of Narcos. Colombian director Andrés Baiz was behind the camera for the entirety. Much of Griselda is told in Spanish.
Griselda indeed succeeds as compensation for previous and perhaps even upcoming treatments of Blanco — a movie with Jennifer Lopez has been long in development — but flounders in over-compensation. The creators’ understanding of Blanco, her possible brilliance and certifiable viciousness falls along very formulaic lines. And, in transitioning Blanco from plucky underdog to tragic figure of Shakespearean depths, Griselda starts off stylish and interesting (if not completely convincing) and ends up ludicrous (if not completely convincing).
Per the creators’ version of events, Griselda kicks off in 1978 with single-mom Blanco fleeing Medellín with her three sons — Morally Concerned, Too Young to Understand, and Who? — and arriving in Miami with only a kilo of cocaine and a dream. In this interpretation, Griselda has no connections and no infrastructure, but she has a great idea: White people might also enjoy cocaine!
From little cocaine acorns grow big cocaine oaks, and over several hastily elided years, that one kilo has metastasized into a full empire. But you can’t take over the drug trade in a major city without stepping on a few toes, and soon Griselda is going head to head with a bunch of tiny kingpins, hot-headed cartel bosses and a law enforcement task force that includes overlooked Miami cop — and fellow single mom — June Hawkins (Juliana Aidén Martinez).
Contain your surprise that in gaining the world, Griselda loses her soul, the violence escalates and her family, the people she allegedly did all this for, are put in jeopardy.
To be clear: Griselda does not attempt to create a narrative in which Griselda Blanco was heroic, but it canonizes her nonetheless. The storyline here is that Griselda was a striver fighting institutional sexism to become a trailblazer — basically Lessons in Chemistry if Brie Larson’s character had used those eponymous lessons to become Walter White instead of Julia Child. A lot of rough edges have been sanded off, leaving a putty nose behind.
Griselda is a killer, but the series’ acknowledged body count is far below most conservative estimates of the carnage she left in her wake. And when Griselda gets all murder-y — either by her own hand or via an order — she’s pretty consistently worried about it, especially once she starts smoking crack in scenes that are much funnier than I suspect they’re supposed to be.
At every turn, one can see Griselda picking and choosing a semi-factual path that adheres with minimal complication to an underdog journey. This starts at the very beginning, because if Griselda were to acknowledge that its main character arrived in Miami having previously run a major drug operation out of New York City, the already precarious rise-and-fall arc would fall apart. Griselda can’t, in hubristic and literal terms, get high on her own supply if her fictionalized arc doesn’t start low, however untrue that is.
The show is a repetitive run of “There’s no way Griselda can come back from this” moments that illustrate her moral decay, but only in broad strokes; the supporting characters are nearly all one-note figures notable as either likable allies (Martin Rodriguez’s Rivi, who becomes Griselda’s peyote-taking top enforcer, comes closest to fully dimensional) or desperately killable chauvinists (Maximiliano Hernández’s Papo is easily the most misogynistic and therefore the most in need of killing). Even June, set up as Griselda’s most legitimate antagonist, has no human personality traits beyond the adversity she faces in bringing the Godmother down. It’s Griselda and then an entire supporting ensemble of people sitting on couches waiting to watch news reports of what Griselda does next.
As dramatically shoddy as Griselda increasingly becomes, Vergara keeps it watchable. The hardest-working member of the Modern Family cast — she consistently elevated Gloria from walking stereotype to intricate punchline machine, yet never won an Emmy — Vergara, an executive producer here, deserves full credit for unveiling a whole new set of serious chops. She never makes Griselda quite as frightening as the real woman was — an opening quotation from Pablo Escobar admitting to being afraid of her makes it particularly odd that Escobar isn’t used as even a minor character — but she locates Griselda’s insecurities and her brains even from under the layers of makeup. What keeps it from being a truly great performance is the absence of any sort of worthy scene partner, though co-stars Vanessa Ferlito and José Zúñiga have a scene or two where they come close.
If you’re fine with a generally hagiographic approach to Griselda Blanco — certainly multiple generations of hip-hop artists have put her in a namecheck pantheon with the likes of Escobar and Frank White — the creative team’s Narcos background prepares you for the highs and lows of Griselda. It boasts the same giddy embrace of period fashion and music; the same Goodfellas-inspired love of outsized violence and long tracking shots through lively nightclubs; and the same struggles to properly balance a cat-and-mouse storyline between charismatic villains and wooden law enforcement officers. A definitive Griselda Blanco biopic is still out there somewhere, but this is better than some (or at least one).
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