At Least the Acting and Storytelling in ‘Narcos’ Rings True

Sep 20, 2015
3:04 PM
Wagner Moura stars as cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar in Netflix's 'Narcos'

Wagner Moura stars as cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar in Netflix’s ‘Narcos’

Being excited for a film or TV show or anything is usually a recipe for disappointment. Few things can compete with the awesome power of the human imagination. You get 15 minutes into the movie or two episodes into the show and quickly lose interest because what you imagined was much more gripping than what the director and actors were able to produce, at least to your mind. (The same thing happens with restaurants, by the way.)

Still, I anticipated the release of Netflix’s new series Narcos like Apple junkies do the newest device. I’ve been covering the goings-on in Latin America for all of my (albeit short) career, and as a fan of Netflix shows already Orange is the New Black, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Daredevil, Wet Hot American Summer, plus a string of solid documentaries like The Square, Mitt and Hot Girls Wanted — I had hope that the ascendant streaming-media company would provide a fresh take on the nearly played-out narco drama.

Narcos begins as you might expect of a miniseries centered on Colombia’s notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar: The voice of DEA agent Steve Murphy (played by American actor Boyd Holbrook) speaks as we take in the twinkling skyline of 1980s Bogotá. Gunmen spray up a bar where a group of gang members are drinking beers and groping scantily clad girls. “Don’t call me a bad guy just yet,” agent Murphy says. Cue the Latin theme music.

But just when you think you’re about to spend the next 10 hours staring at a banal rendition of a tale you’ve seen at least half a dozen times before, in steps Wagner Moura, the actor playing the story’s villainous hero.

The scene on the bridge — where Escobar comes up against a band of Colombian security forces looking to thwart the still small-time smuggler — is one of the best dramatic scenes I’ve ever seen on TV or in film. It’s a breathless few minutes, bringing to mind the performance Christoph Waltz gave in Inglourious Basterds or Javier Bardem’s role as a psychotic hitman in No Country for Old Men. The scene should earn Moura an Emmy nomination, if not a statuette.

Besides his masterful acting, however, one thing about Moura is immediately apparent, at least to native Spanish speakers: his Spanish is off. The Latinos I watched the series with — one a daughter of Juárez, Mexico, if credentials are required — just assumed the actor was from either Spain or Argentina, where the locals have a distinct way of speaking. But when Moura faltered on Escobar’s own name, I did a quick Wikipedia search (as I do when I watch anything, to the eternal irritation of my fairer half).

Turns out Moura is Brazilian — something I learned when I watched Elysium in 2013 but had apparently forgotten — the show’s producers had decided three months before shooting that the Colombian characters would speak in Spanish, forcing the Portuguese-speaking Moura to move to Medellín in hopes of absorbing as much of the dialect as he could.

Despite his best efforts, many Latinos — not just Colombians — have found the actor’s way of speaking cringeworthy.

As the Guardian‘s Bogota correspondent Sibylla Brodzinsky writes:

To a non-native speaker, the accents may not make a difference: the actors speak Spanish and you can read the subtitles. But many Colombians have felt their teeth set on edge by the sound of Escobar offering the choice of ‘plata o plomo – silver or lead – with a strong Brazilian accent.

‘It’s like having someone with a strong southern American accent play Sherlock Holmes,’ said Orlando González, a Bogotá interior designer who watched the first episode.

Many viewers took to Twitter to voice their complaints:


To be sure, most people seem able to look past the botched accent and appreciate the strong acting and narrative on display throughout Narcos.

“The actor playing Escobar is Brazilian and learned Spanish for the role! I think that’s pretty impressive and he’s a really good actor,” Jennifer Ramón-Dover writes on Facebook. “And the show is entertaining. I liked the fact that they spoke Spanish with English subtitles and weren’t forced to speak in a ridiculously accented English.”

“The guy who plays Pablo is from Brazil. So yes, he has a funny ‘Colombian accent’ but his acting is top notch. All the actors in Narcos are very good,” writes Martín P. Beltrán.

I agree with the last two comments. So Moura’s Spanish is a little grating on Latino ears. What I find ridiculous is that many viewers would demand that the role of Pablo Escobar should be played by a Colombian, or even someone who sounds authentically Colombian. That’s not how the art of moviemaking should work. It’s about good storytelling and strong acting.

While Benicio del Toro’s portrayal of Che in 2008 got generally good reviews — even in Cuba — I’m sure there were some who chafed at the mere possibility of a Puerto Rican actor playing the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary. Few people seem to care when a Australian plays a Roman gladiator or an Englishman takes on the title role of a beloved American president. This is art, not documentary. Accuracy comes in a distant second to the effect. Were Latinos to impose the rule that Colombians should be played by Colombians and Hondurans should be played by Hondurans, we might see some decent movies and TV shows made but they won’t be nearly as good as they could have been.

And while I’m on the subject, I mostly enjoyed Kiwi star Cliff Curtis roles as Escobar in Blow and Smiley in Training Day. Plus I think The Old Man and the Sea is my favorite story set in Latin America. There I said it. Where do I hand in my Latino card?

That a television show about an infamous Colombian is directed by a Brazilian and starring a Brazilian — whose theme song is even sung by a Brazilian — means no more to me than if the entire cast and crew were paisas. I don’t wish Moura were Colombian or at least had a Colombian accent, just as I wouldn’t have liked Gladiator better had they casted an actual Italian who spoke Latin. In fact, I would’ve liked it much less.


Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.