With few exceptions, Hollywood's portrayal of those involved in the manufacture, transport, sale, and use of drugs has, like the drug policies of the US government, always been rooted in fear and violence. From the cartoonish chaos of the 1930s government propaganda film Reefer Madness to the brutal account of a Cuban-American drug kingpin in 1983's Scarface, the depiction of the drug-involved as antagonist has been paramount to filmmakers' vision.
This approach was no doubt an effort to ride prevailing political winds that deem the drug war to be good and necessary. Toeing the government line has allowed filmmakers to avoid revealing the humanity of their subjects, lest a breath of truth threaten the house of cards that is the drug war.
Drugs first mainstreamed into theaters in the 1970s. Directors of the time portrayed heroin or cocaine trafficking in dramatic films by showing the gritty (mainly New York City) cop fighting against corrupt colleagues and drug dealers. These movies often starred revered actors like Al Pacino (Serpico) and Gene Hackman (The French Connection). A noted exception from the period, in that it was devoid of star talent and took place abroad, was Midnight Express (1978), a bleak tale of an American smuggler imprisoned in Turkey.
In the 1980s (and continuing into the 90s) action movies celebrated the vengeful American agent of drug interdiction. The above-the-law narcs of the time were played by rugged acting lightweights in tight jeans like Steven Seagal (Out for Justice) and Chuck Norris (Lone Wolf McQuade).
At the same time, American television celebrated a love affair with the ass-kicking narcotics officer in such popular television shows as Miami Vice and Norris's abhorrent Walker, Texas Ranger. With Cops - featuring an endless stream of handcuffed drug suspects of color - early "reality" television also got into the game.
Sympathetic portrayals of those even loosely associated with the drug trade were few and far between. The seeds of the drug comedy were planted in 1969's Easy Rider and first bore fruit as a genre in 1978's Cheech and Chong vehicle Up in Smoke and later in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High (and continuing in clunkers like 1993's Dazed and Confused [ed. Hey, now...!]). In the 90s, some filmmakers returned to and attempted to outdo the gritty 1970s leitmotif, notably 1991's Rush and 1996's gruesome Trainspotting, based on the Irvine Welsh novel.
As the drug war continued to escalate under President Clinton, notably with the advent of Plan Colombia, a new filmmaking tack emerged in 2000 with the arrival of Traffic.
Steven Soderbergh's multilayered reproach of the drug war was the most complete look to date at the horrible consequences of US drug policy. Critics hailed Traffic as the first US film to portray buyers and sellers on both sides of the US border as victims of the drug war. The film, stocked with A-list stars and featuring surprising cameos from Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, liberal pundit Michael Kinsley, and others, served to bring the drug war debate out of the political ethos and into the world of pop culture. The success of the film in turn fueled political debate around the drug war.
A year after Traffic came Blow, a compassionate portrayal of a cocaine kingpin, based on the life of imprisoned American trafficker George Jung.
Clearly, Hollywood's depiction of those involved with illegal drugs had, like the millennium, turned a corner.
The newest and perhaps most eloquent and personal entry to the drug-policy genre is Maria Full of Grace, a remarkable debut feature by New York writer/director Joshua Marston. The acclaimed film, which earned awards this year at Sundance and festivals in Berlin, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Newport, tells the story of Maria Alvarez, a pregnant 17-year-old Colombian who smuggles heroin into the US in the form of 62 pellets she swallows before the long flight to New York - where her payoff awaits.
The protagonist is played with extraordinary poise and appeal by the beautiful Catalina Sandino Moreno, a Colombian now living in New York.
Maria's struggle first to swallow the heroin-filled latex pellets and, later, her solution to having failed to keep them in her system is, though filmed with restraint by the skilled hand of Marston, nevertheless ghastly enough to activate filmgoers' gag reflexes.
But these and other uncomfortable moments are essential to showing moviegoers the strength and courage of Maria and the thousands of real-life women just like her.
"My goal was to put a sympathetic face on victims of the 'war on drugs,'" Marston said recently via phone from a taxi in Miami, where he had just arrived for the movie's local premiere. "Instead of the usual drug war movie that tells a story from the top down - from the perspective of a DEA agent, for example - with Maria, I chose to tell a story from the bottom up."
While the plot brings the preternaturally resourceful Maria from rural Colombia to Bogota and then New York City, the movie never strays from the director's vision to show the effects of the US government's drug war on regular Colombians.
Plan Colombia, implemented by President Clinton (it was written by Rand Beers, now a senior advisor to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry) and escalated under President Bush, pumps billions of US taxpayer dollars into a failed campaign of military aid, drug interdiction, and crop eradication that leads to the death and displacement of Colombia's most vulnerable - farmers, peasants, ethnic minorities, women and children - while fueling environmental degradation and the country's long-simmering civil war.
"It's an invasive policy," says Marston. "Instead of providing military advisors, helicopters, and fumigation, Plan Colombia should be about providing economic and humanitarian aid."
In spite of the staggering sums spent by the US government to stem the flow of illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine from the world's leading source (Colombia) to its leading consumer (the United States), Marston shows how a handful of poor, vulnerable Colombian women are able to foil the best laid plans of the drug war.
It is this and other understated jabs that Marston uses to demonstrate - better than any policy paper ever could - the futility of US drug-war efforts in Colombia. Yet in spite of Hollywood's promising move from depicting the drug-involved as violent automatons, the US government marches on with the drug war and Plan Colombia.
The mess we are in is caused by the drug war, not by teenage Colombian girls who ache for a better life for themselves and their children. Josh Marston knows this. Millions of Americans and Colombians know. How can our policymakers claim not to?
To learn more about Maria Full of Grace, or to view the trailer, visit the website. To participate in the fight against Plan Colombia, visit the Drug Policy Alliance's campaign.
This article originally ran at Alternet.