Film Reviewed by Marvin X

There are many classic films on drugs and addiction, Traffic is now one of them. — Marvin X 


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Directed by Steven Soderbergh 
Screenplay by Stephen Gaghan 

staring Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro

Studio: Usa Films
Theatrical Release Date: January 5, 2001
DVD Release Date: May 29, 2001
Run Time: 147 minutes
Production Company: Usa Films

 Reviewed by Marvin X

As a former dope fiend, I looked at Traffic with a jaundiced eye, for it showed how much a fool I was to go for the "dope" after having clear knowledge of the real "war on drugs," which is, in fact, a war on blacks, the poor (throughout the world), and the 85% deaf, dumb and blind American public in general. 

Ironically, Traffic focused on upper class drug use, which is where and when we learn there is a real problem in the land-when a disease reaches the rich as it did with the drug czar’s daughter and/or when the "big boys" get busted as with the La Jolla businessmen. So even with two million men and women in prison, mostly on drug related charges or under the influence of drugs at the time of their arrests, there is no real problem because most of the imprisoned are minorities and poor, and the new prison industry is a boon to the economy-basic cost is nearly $50,000 per inmate per year, more than it costs to attend Harvard and Yale. 

What a horrendous waste of economic resources. Imagine the number of scientists, engineers, sociologists, teachers, social workers that might have come out of the prison population, rather than dope fiends, murderers, rapists and robbers. And don’t mention the traumatized, neglected and crime prone children of these inmates. 

No, Traffic didn’t deal with any of this, at least not on the American side of the border. For all the poverty of Mexico, the only thing the good Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) wanted for the children of Tijuana was a night baseball field. For this he put his life on the line dealing with the corrupt drug gangs and military generals, which were really one and the same, as anyone would know who has lived in Mexico-corruption is the way of life, the only way-no different than most banana republics. And is America any different? Recently the US general in change of the drug war in Columbia had to be deprived of his wife when she was caught sending kilos of cocaine back to America. Of course the general was innocent, right? 

With Traffic we are allowed to see how drugs affect people on both sides of the border. The movie begins with the Tijuana police busting drug runners in the desert, but the police are interrupted by general Salazar who is part of a rival cartel fighting for control of the border drug trade. Meanwhile in the USA, the new drug czar is about to be installed. And on the American side of the border another bust is in progress, headed by a black/Latino DEA duo of good guys(Luis Guzman as Ray Castro and Don Cheadle as Montel Gordan). 

Action shifts to the drug czar’s house where his daughter is entertaining friends with coke and crack. This scene probably shocked ghetto dope fiends who’ve never seen white kids do crack. I know it was shocking when I found myself in a crack house that was a virtual united nations: whites, blacks, Africans, Latinos, Asians, all gathered at the round table, hustling and whoring for dope. The daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is soon hooked and falls into the ritual, wishing she could stay in a seedy hotel room and do drugs forever, the crack was that good, her psychotic mind told her. Blacks don’t have the luxury to decide whether to stay is a seedy room, the lifestyle leaves them no choice, although there is a step lower: homelessness and pushing a shopping cart. 

In Atlanta I was told the blacks were poor before crack, after crack they were totally destitute. Seeing the daughter and boyfriend smoke crack gave me a powerful flashback to my days as a druggie, but not enough to trigger a desire to go cop, although seeing that smoke rise was a reminder of days gone past and years one managed to survive only God knows how. After all, I did try to kill myself numerous times, once accidentally cutting an artery but continuing to smoke until my friend ran to the hotel manager who rushed into the room with a baseball bat to get me out, not to save my life but to make sure I didn’t die in his hotel-the pool of blood I was standing in was damaging his carpet, bed and curtains. 

The scene moves to La Jolla, the rich white suburb of San Diego. When I taught briefly at the University of San Diego, located in La Jolla, the police stopped one of my students for a traffic violation and told him, "We stop all niggers in La Jolla’." The dope dealing La Jolla businessman’s wife Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is eating duck with her girlfriends, enjoying wine, completely oblivious that her drug financed lifestyle is about to end. The movie doesn’t tell how much the American economic wealth is derived from the drug trade, but how much of America’s wealth was created from the slave trade-the reparations movement is calculating this. When the figures come in, will America be as shocked as the wife when she learns the source of her husband’s wealth? When the husband David (Alec Roberts) is arrested, she cries out, "What will my neighbors think?" 

The drug czar Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is informed by the politicians of the various interest groups and their agendas for the drug war, cutting demand, prison, treatment on demand. At dinner, the daughter tells her dad her friends think it’s really fucking cool that her dad is the drug czar. Not long after one of them suffers cardiac arrest at her house and they dump him on the ground outside the hospital emergency room. The police bust them at the scene. The 16 year old honor student cannot explain to juvenile authorities why she is there, and in typical dope fiend fashion, lies to her parents about her drug use. The father is so busy being czar he doesn’t question his daughter about the depths of her addiction, his only concern is that she have a clean record. 

Cutting to Mexico, the good cop is persuaded by general Salazar to join his team to break the Tijuana cartel, after all, the good cop Javier Rodriquez only makes $316 monthly. He is ordered to bring in the cartel’s assassin, Flowers, who is captured in a gay bar by the ever adaptive Rodriquez and brought to the Salazar for a classical Mexican torture session, ending with wine at the general’s table. During a plane ride, the drug czar asks his staff for ideas on the drug war, there is silence, typical of true-red white and blue America-she is devoid of answers, feigns innocence and ignorance about so many things’.We learn the czar is an alcoholic, supposedly due to boredom with marriage. His wife Barbara (Amy Irving) tells him to inform his dope fiend daughter how bored he is and drives off, leaving him to enter the house and discover the daughter in the bathroom smoking crack. 

Carolyn is put in treatment. In a 12 step meeting, she confesses to anger, although not sure why. Perhaps it was due to the agony of being born with a silver spoon. She is seen escaping the facility. Probably the saddest moment in Traffic is the czar searching the ghetto for his daughter who has turned crack ho, tricking with the black dope man and others, having advanced to shooting coke. Imagine with all the power at his disposal, the father must go powerless on his personal crusade. 

Another revealing moment is when Carolyn’s boyfriend is snatched out of class by the father to join the search. The boy tells dad if l00,000 black people entered suburbia seeking drugs, there would be no white kids in law school-market forces would take effect, just as in the ghetto. Indeed, who will doubt how much the ghetto economy is dependent on drugs. We know many churches would go out of business without donations from mothers of children in the trade. Jesus wept. The power of dope is clear when the father offers the black dope dealer a thousand dollars to tell the location of his daughter. The dealer replies to the broken down drug czar, "Get the fuck outta here, I got money’." It is a touching moment when he finds his daughter tricking with a white man-at least he finds her. 

I thought about all the black girls with no daddy to rescue them, like the ones I knew, Annie, Judy, Yvonne, Renee, who made their transitions, long gone in traffic. In Mexico, the general is arrested for his role in the counter cartel and the partner of Rodriquez is executed for double crossing. His humbling last words are for Rodriquez to tell his wife he died doing something honorable, not like the rat he was. The good-hearted Rodriquez honors his request, although the wife is doubtful. When all the rats are sorted out in this complex drama, Rodriquez emerges as the hero, simply because he was lesser of the evil ones, after all, he was totally devoid of greed, wanting only a night baseball field for the children of Tijuana. 

Was this sentimental or sensible because we know the dope cartels are doing a brisk business as we speak, although they may be tied up in traffic at the border due to the 911 disaster and new security regulations. The late news says the drug war will be combined with the war on terrorism. We shall see. And what exactly does this mean-that black people shall be the target of the Bush devils? Traffic exposed the complexity of the drug problem, of course the reality is even more disparaging-Traffic touched the surface, particularly as it affects white people, although let’s be honest, a dope fiend is a dope fiend is a dope fiend. Michael Douglas as the czar was outstanding and his final words worth repeating, "The war on drugs makes many of our family members the enemy-and I don’t know how to wage war on our families’." In my own family and among my close friends, there are those who do not desire to give up drugs-and what can I say to them except, "Peace." There are many classic films on drugs and addiction, Traffic is now one of them.

Black Power Line

(Published: November 23, 2001)

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