Of the many issues in Lifetime’s “Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story,” casting white actress Catherine Zeta-Jones to play the real-life Colombian drug lord is one of the most egregious. And in this case, it’s not just lip service when it comes to the need for proper representation. Not casting a Latina actress is a missed opportunity to find someone who could’ve embodied this larger-than-life character because Zeta-Jones simply isn’t up to the task. She’s not just unconvincing; she’s outlandish.
Although the ruthlessness of “The Godfather” was an inspiration for the real-life Blanco, who even named her fourth son Michael Corleone, Zeta-Jones is no Marlon Brando, unless it’s by way of “Grey Gardens.” While she brings a certain theatrical glee to the role, she lacks the necessary menace for a woman who supposedly has the blood of over 200 people on her hands. Zeta-Jones doesn’t chew the scenery so much as gum it lovingly with her put-upon accent.
And this brings us to the brownface. While tinting Zeta-Jones’ skin is thankfully kept to a minimum, the fake Colombian accent is as blatant as any costume or bronzer. There’s a certain skin-crawling fascination to be had hearing her draw out the syllables of “lion” to sound like, “lye-ohhn.” And it doesn’t help that the script is pretty darn awful either, with schlocky lines like, “I care for your safety. Even a cat only has nine lives.”
Beyond just the performance though, Zeta-Jones isn’t given much to work with to make Blanco more than a caricature. Although Blanco may have worked closely with Pablo Escobar to distribute drugs in Miami, this movie is no “Narcos,” no matter how hard it tries. And it does try, all the way down to a wisecracking DEA agent who provides annoying narration. “Cocaine Godmother” has some of the same problems that Season 1 of “Narcos” had in trotting out the usual stereotypes and drug-trafficking cliches. Netflix’s show, however, was anchored by strong performances and has evolved to explore much more nuance in its characters.
Here, despite being the star of her own story, Blanco never goes beyond being happy, sad, or angry, and forget about learning anything close to the interiority of her thoughts. The superficially crass dialogue is partly to blame but so is the breakneck speed in which the movie tries to hit every one of the big events in her life. But when her life is full of psychopathic sons, disposable husbands, double-crosses, hookups, smuggling drugs, and lots and lots of murder, trying to fit all of that into two hours leads to episodic fatigue and desensitization.
As is proper, “Cocaine Grandmother” is the Griselda Blanco show, but spending a little time fleshing out the people around her would’ve also gone a long way in providing insight. Of her three grown sons, we only remember the one called Uber, probably because his name is Uber. A right-hand man named Rudy seems like he had the potential for a personality also. And the biggest waste of all is Blanco’s lover Carolina (yes, Blanco was openly bisexual), who didn’t amount to much more than pretty wallpaper that eventually faded.
It appears that “Cocaine Godmother” stayed somewhat faithful to the facts, if not the actual essence of Blanco’s life, so there’s that. It’s also not entirely unwatchable, but there are far better ways to spend your Saturday. And for those seeking a “so bad it’s great” viewing experience, it somehow manages to fall short of those dubious charms as well. Blanco has led quite the life, and it’s a shame that the time and care wasn’t spent to really dig into it properly and respectfully. What a waste.
“Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story” airs Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on Lifetime.