Monday, August 14, 2006

Social class in Miami Vice

'Miami Vice': The Class Analysis
By Barbara Ehrenreich, AlterNet
Posted on August 11, 2006,

Everyone knows that the new big-screen "Miami Vice" is "darker" than the old one, meaning that the light-hearted, wise-cracking Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas have been replaced by the brooding, inarticulate Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, who favor dingy blues and grays over their predecessors' lavender and turquoise outfits. But the real darkness of the movie has gone unnoted by the critics: In his latest "Vice," Michael Mann offers up an economically globalized world populated only by the grimly poor and the breathtakingly ultra-rich, all of whom are bigtime felons.

Here, the poor serve largely as scenery, reminding us that we are now in Port-au-Prince (black faces), Ciudad del Este (brown), or a trailer park in the industrial wastelands of Miami (white and often tattooed). A few of them seem to be employed as lookouts or, a little higher up the career ladder, "shooters," for the drug gangs. Otherwise, they might as well be signposts.

As for a middle or working class: In crime fiction, this is the historical role of the cops or private eyes. In "Miami Vice," though, the good guys have not a shred of material existence to betray their social class. Crockett and Tubbs don't live anywhere, and touch down only in unfurnished apartments provided by their employer, where they use the showers for sex. They never sleep or eat, so we cannot know whether they prefer, for example, burgers to blackened sea bass. Only bad guys eat and then not much. The one who did appear to be chewing may have been just gnawing on his meth mouth.

In general, it's a starkly stripped-down world our heroes now inhabit. What is all the shooting about? Drugs, of course, but these are rarely mentioned by name, nor do the good guys ever hint at any moral impulse for the war. Are the drugs destructive? Could they possibly be more destructive than the shootouts, bombings, and torturings occasioned by their illegal status? No one seems to care. Drugs are just the "product," and the only issue is their delivery -- successful or intercepted in a hail of automatic weapon fire.

In Mann's hyper-abstract version of global capitalism, the "product" could be anything, so long as its price is high enough. To make sure we get the point, the coldhearted drug queen played by Gong Li suits up in high-corporate minimalism and refers to herself as a "businesswoman."

It's the ultra-rich -- Gong Li and her colleagues -- who hold our eyes in "Miami Vice." They live too large for movies; they need IMAX. I gasped when the camera swept over Brazil's Iguassu Falls, which are surely the very suburbs of heaven, and settled on the evil ones' mountaintop mansion, where the drug lord and his lady were cuddling and scheming, attended by a small army of servants. They may not have much fun -- Gong Li's thoughts are elsewhere -- but whatever they have, they have it fast. Want to dash over to Geneva to make a deposit? The personal jet awaits.

There's an instructive scene when things begin to heat up between Colin Farrell and Gong Li. (They're on opposite sides of the drug war, but in the same zone of hotness.) He offers her a drink. She favors mojitos and tells him the best ones are in Havana. They're in Miami when this exchange takes place, but -- no problem -- a high-speed power boat whisks them off to the mojito source. If she'd asked for a Stoli on million-year-old ice, no doubt they would have hightailed right down to Antarctica.

All right, it's just a silly summer movie, lacking either comprehensible dialogue or plot. But Mann's bleak vision of a world divided between shanty-towns and trailer parks at one end, and unimaginable luxury at the other, is not far off the mark. Take the crucial matter of travel: While the poor creep around in buses and the affluent creep a little faster in taxis, there's a class of people who take helicopters to the airport, where they then embark on private planes. According the Aug. 6 New York Times, private aviation has gone "mainstream," with even the "merely rich," who can't afford their own planes, buying up 25 hours of air travel for $299,000.

No pretzels on their menu. As the Times reports, one private fleet met a passenger's requirement for "Grey Goose vodka frozen two hours before flight, ice cubes made with Fiji water, filet mignon of precise cut and dimension, and Froot Loops ... for the kids."

Meanwhile, according to, nearly half the world's people -- 3 billion -- live on less than $2 a day. Their lives are too cramped and squalid to make for good summer viewing. But they do serve a function as local color -- and by catching the occasional bullet or bomb.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 13 books, most recently "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream." This piece originally appeared on Barbara's blog.

© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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