On a sultry night at the docks of Miami, the shootout ends. Undercover cop James “Sonny” Crockett is cradling Evan Freed, a former friend who gasps for words; Crockett’s partner, Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs, tries to comfort Sonny by throwing his hand over his shoulder. This image in the episode “Evan” from the American series Miami Vice (1984-1990) is a veritable Renaissance painting of brotherly love and despair.
Created by Anthony Yerkovich and executive producer Michael Mann, Miami Vice revolved around the Cocaine Cowboys era, when Latin American drug cartels, law enforcement agencies and others were engaged in power games while the US was being knocked-out by false moralism and economic crisis, all making headlines in the news. Heralded as “a revolutionary series,” the show is today regarded as a quintessential representative of ‘80s culture, society and habits and its influence is still evident, not only on TV and movies but in other areas like sports – with the alternate design for the NBA team Miami Heat inspired by the show – and other media, including Rockstar Games’ hit game GTA Vice City.
The series can be viewed as a nouveau interpretation of masculinity embedded in a world of glamor and New Wave culture, infused with darkness. Unusually, it touched on subjects mainstream media was otherwise avoiding, such as homosexuality, AIDS, suicide, domestic violence, sex work, drug abuse and the US involvement in Vietnam, Central, and South American politics.
More personally, Miami Vice is an important part of my life, despite my young mind being unable to fully assimilate its rich content when I first discovered it. As an elder millennial, I recall that it was ordinary for broadcast TV to present violent shows and movies in the afternoons that would handle heavy and sometimes unsettling subjects. These programs weren’t the things that scared me, though; instead, it was the news hour that was frightening, with reports of economic problems, wars and crime. As Brazilians before the advent of cable TV and streaming platforms, we lived like many other third world dwellers – receiving trends and fashions from distant metropolises. When I watched something from abroad, it was ending its run or already done; the news, however, came for us in real time.
Rico Tubbs is the representation I didn’t have in my country
For reasons I can’t fully explain, as I was growing up, I identified Tubbs and Crockett as “my guys.” When Tubbs, played by Phillip Michael Thomas, appeared on the screen with smooth black skin, shiny hair, pastel suits, earring on one side, feline green eyes and catlike walk – and, importantly, someone Black like me – I felt a connection. Don Johnson’s Crockett as well, with his colorful shirts and white linen suit, I always saw as a cool “amigo.” In the Brazilian entertainment industry, both past and present, Black performers often resemble minstrel show actors from a bygone era in America. They most frequently appear in comedies and soap-operas, which present us as submissive servants or slaves.
As a child, I relished seeing Rico in his Cadillac, Sonny in his Ferraris, and all the fancy boats. I was thrilled by the shootouts that often revolved around some kind of deal with a white powder that I didn’t understand, but adults told me it was “toxic.” TV and videogames were my escape from reality, and in particular school life; more hazardous than following a TV drama for me was hearing kids in school imitating the sounds of whips to insult me as a descendant of enslaved people, or being referred to by the names of the Black comic relief characters of their favorite Brazilian TV shows.
The series also helped me cope with a depression that kicked in when I was 11 years-old, showing Crockett and Tubbs having to deal with depression, PTSD and burnout symptoms. As the series advances, Crockett and Tubbs become disillusioned by their daily cop job as the stories go deeper into the dark corners of Miami; they also had little room for their private lives. Michael Mann is a master of showing how some professions can be damaging to the psyche enough that people desperately look for a way out.
Watching people dealing with mental illnesses and hardship is supportive, even when they are fictional characters, and it’s not uncommon for people to relate or even project themselves onto movie and TV characters in order to escape reality. While movie stars come like gods on their humongous projections in movie theaters, TV stars are like visiting friends that you might see more than your neighbors; I have to admit that Tubbs was my proxy in those neon lit fantasies and nightmares.
As time went by, Miami Vice would be substituted by other productions and other interests in my life. When I was a high-school student, however, I found reruns of the show on cable and it felt like a chance encounter with people you forgot were once your bosom friends.
It was then that they became friends who taught me the English language. I had the privilege to go to private schools to learn languages, but revisiting the series and watching it in English – the first time I watched, it had been a Brazilian Portuguese version dubbed for broadcast TV – gave me a feeling of how people actually talk.
Schooling me for adulthood in a game of false glamor
The show was shot on a hefty budget around US$ 1.3 million per episode.). Much of the financing was directed not only to actors but to the soundtrack, costume and production design. Miami Vice was uniquely innovative in revealing the visual possibilities of its era.
As Miami Vice and I stuck together through the end of my teenage years and into young adulthood, the show helped me discover designer names like Adolfo Dominguez, Nino Cerruti, Giorgio Armani, Hugo Boss and Gianni Versace, as well as Rolex, Ebel, Ray Ban and Carrera. While Crockett’s wardrobe – composed of a jacket over t-shirts – was easier to adopt by fans in their daily lives, it was Tubbs’ more expensive taste that grabbed my attention (and has, arguably, aged better in the long run). Miami Vice also presented to me the idea of how African descendants, like myself, could be confident without becoming arrogant – a “sin” in a country that guides itself in faux-pas Catholic values, social and racial inequality and police brutality.
The series' soundtrack was also very appealing. While the series is highly associated with Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, there were further outstanding usages of music, such as when Tubbs and Crockett are on the receiving end by some narcos and are saved by Texas Ranger Jake Pierson (played by country legend Willie Nelson) in the episode “El Viejo”; the soundtrack is a little known piece from Depeche Mode: “Fly on the Windscreen” touching on the brevity of life adding a sense of how disposable life can be.
Tina Turner, Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits, U2, The Police, Roger Daltrey, Miami Sound Machine were among some of the musical artists featured throughout the series, but the true MVP is Czech-American musician Jan Hammer, who not only landed the #1 at Billboard with the show’s theme but also produced the very popular “Crockett’s Theme” and the love theme “Tubbs and Valerie.”
The cinematography, meanwhile, explored the city as a character in its own right. Although many of the scenes were shot during daylight, it still has a game of shadows and gray areas characteristic of the noir genre, with imagery and an overall tone influenced by European cinema, cowboy and samurai movies, as well as Blaxploitation movies. Be it uptown or in poorer areas, the city has a feel that differentiates itself from more familiar places in TV and movie history like New York or London.
“This is Miami pal. Where you can’t even tell the players without a program”
Perhaps the series' biggest impact on my adult life is its neo-noirish setting. Although a beach city, Miami’s art deco and modernist architecture isn’t a far cry from my own drizzled and grayish São Paulo, which is also known for having buildings from these two movements in architecture and arts. Both cities also have Iberian roots – Miami from Spain and São Paulo from Portugal, as can be seen in colonial houses – and share a cosmopolitan appeal as well as a colorful elite. They are also stricken by poverty, with inequality playing an important role in both places not to forget the tropical heat.
Like Miami, São Paulo is pretty violent; we walk around these streets looking over our shoulders, afraid of imminent threats that might not only take away our possessions but also end our lives in a very unexpected and unrepentant way.
Power games are part of São Paulo’s culture, as it is the richest city in Latin America, and my alma mater is one of the most expensive private universities; hence I had to learn fast how to keep quiet, not because I was ashamed of my background but because the less you talk, more you’ll learn by observing the unwritten and silent codes.
Once considered the star student of my Journalism school class, I started to be inserted into what is considered São Paulo’s high-society – a colonized version of what is seen in America and in Europe – from my early 20s. While I’ve been able to keep my ethics, I had to play the part of showing myself in the best appearance possible, in good shape and at the same time without attracting too much attention. In a concrete yet tropical setting, pastels and neutral colors are a good dress code to avoid sticking out as a sore thumb in places where many have deep end pockets but can’t shake their telenovela tackiness.
Journalism can cast an illusion on its professionals as you interview people who are positioned in higher places, even by visiting their houses, mansions, penthouses and offices in skyscrapers, but you are not one of them.
Due to my field of work, I’ve dabbled with politicians, celebrities, athletes, prostitutes, dictatorship torturers, drug dealers, police officers, judges, lawyers, activists, scholars and ordinary folks; all manners of people from every social stratum, I’ve been dealing with so many players that it needs a program to keep track.
I could relate to Crockett and Tubbs as they pretended to be from a social stratum by wearing designer clothes and driving expensive cars that came through apprehensions and are actually owned by the Police department via forfeiture of assets; hence they blend in to a world of excesses and consumption revolving around pain, deception and despair. Fancy clothes can give an appearance of richness but there is something that comes from being outside the upper-classes, that I really know well, which can’t just be shaken off as dust over a beige Italian jacket.
I want to move to somewhere I don’t know the name of the players
Just as in real-life, many Miami Vice episodes ended with bad guys evading justice, unexplained deaths of good and bad characters alike, and shades of a corruption that reached the further depths of American politics during the so-called drug wars. Miami Vice pulled me to maturity in a more effective manner than the “drugs and sex are bad” teachers and priests talk could do.
From my early years, I became used to big politicians and business people getting away with their bad deeds by just watching the news or by seeing criminals running rampant through the city, a violence I experienced very early in my life; but not just criminal violence this city and its games brought upon me. I’ve witnessed that relationships are formed based on interests in these areas and also their phony appeal of easy money. Solitude and poverty stalk like a succubus while outsiders of the media believe we are having the time of our lives. Some violences don’t need to be physical to be a lingering punishment.
You have to grow up fast when you come from impoverished countries, especially as some of them deny the diversity of its own population. Miami Vice felt to me a guide to the early days of my career, and it is proving to still be influential, even decades after its mainstream success, as I’ve been through changes and for years I’ve been trying to start new paths due to the burden brought by working in media.
By the end of the series the duo left the Miami Law Enforcement due to disappointment and stress caused by their line of work, in a very emotional closure showing that many folks won’t have a “happy ending.” Like them, I’m locked in a tropical neo-noir nightmare but still sorting my way out. I write stories that haunt me at night and sometimes even during daylight while living in this country that exposes us to danger and injustice every time. It impacted me how both characters threw their badges to the ground due to the corruption in the highest places in American politics and how they were just mere pawns.
Brazil is not much different and corruption seems to be integral to our national identity as soccer or samba. Journalism always had its problems, still in Brazil it is so attached to politics and entertainment that it became another branch of propaganda. There is something more real in actors playing undercover police officers than there is to real Brazilian journalism.
I prefer to work in my home-office and go to the streets to interview people over newsrooms due to the shenanigans and the false flattering of those involved not to mention the promiscuous relations between public power, private business and media that leaves our lives asunder as sign of the illness called “corruption” to which I was just another pawn, so, like in Miami Vice, I feel the need to put an end to this living nightmare and I hope to leave some parts of my life behind.