On Sunday, former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw sparked controversy over comments he made regarding immigration. During an appearance on “Meet The Press” on CBS, the 78-year-old said he believes “hispanics should work harder at assimilation,” a sentiment that was swiftly condemned by his fellow guest, PBS NewsHour's Yamiche Alcindor, and outrage reverberated throughout social media over the next 24 hours. And though Brokaw initially tried to present himself as a devil’s advocate, he eventually apologized.
Still, his words, which so casually assume that the baseline for true Americanness is to be white and speak English, tapped into a deep-seated fear felt by so many immigrant communities in the United States: that no matter how long you’ve been here, someone might come along who questions your loyalty based on how you look and sound.
Identity is at the heart of Miss Bala, a reimagining of Gerardo Naranjo’s hit 2011 Mexican film by the same name, directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Twilight), which hits theaters February 1. Unlike the original, which centered around Tijuana-native Laura Guerrero, a pageant contestant who gets roped into doing a drug gang’s dirty work after witnessing a deadly shootout, the American version refocuses the action to straddle the border. (In fact, we actually see the infamous steel slats of Trump’s border wall in multiple shots.)
Gina Rodriguez plays Gloria, an L.A.-based Mexican-born American makeup artist who returns to her native Tijuana to support her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), who’s about to compete in the Miss Baja California beauty pageant in an effort to open up opportunities for herself and her little brother. But a night out at a pre-pageant club event ends in a massive gunfight — and only Gloria knows the identity of the attackers. Enter Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), a charismatic drug cartel operative who makes a bargain with a terrified Gloria: if she helps him do something illegal, he’ll find Suzu, who has gone missing in the aftermath of the violence.
But Gloria’s journey becomes even more complicated when she finds herself on the wrong side of the DEA. An encounter with American agent Brian Reich (Matt Lauria) makes it clear that she won’t be getting any help from her adopted country. Her pleas that she’s a victim who worked with the cartel out of fear for her life fall on deaf ears.
“I get it,” he tells her. “You’re a nobody, from nowhere. A broken home. You have nothing. And along comes this slick guy. He’s like flashing money around, and he’s giving you toys and free dresses. He’s from Tijuana and you lived there, and it sounds like a fun time right?”
In that cruel moment of intolerance and misogyny, it all comes together: just as Gloria has become too American to fit in with her old crowd in Mexico, she’s also too Mexican to be considered truly American. Ironically, the same goes for Lino, who turns out to have lived in California before being deported back to Tijuana. Their will-they-won’t-they dynamic is fueled by this kinship of never quite fitting in anywhere.
It’s an interesting twist, and one that certainly holds relevance in today’s climate. But this portrayal of dual loyalty is tricky. On the one hand, it highlights a very real school of thought that has a long, fraught history in America. But by having Gloria react the way she does — ie. total self-preservation mode, which prompts her to save Lino from a DEA gunfight as he’s the one more likely to help her out – the film also seems to give credence to such insidious suspicions.
Miss Bala’s greatest weakness is that, ultimately, it’s a film about Mexico that’s geared towards American viewers. It’s shot in rich, saturated hues, meant to evoke an exotic locale; the bad guy (Lino) is smoking hot; and though Hardwicke balances out the violence with shots of cool, native street art, scenes of intimate female friendship, and vibrant nightlife, the film still reinforces the stereotype of Mexico as a place where Americans go to die.
Still, there’s lots to like about this film. For one, there’s no white savior, a trope that still dominates movies of this ilk. Americans aren’t portrayed as the good guys, in fact, quite the opposite — the guns that Gloria is sent to pick up are American-made, provided by U.S. gangster Jimmy (Anthony Mackie).
Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer’s script gives Gloria a lot more agency than her predecessor in the original, Laura. In fact, it’s easier to get on board with this remake if one imagines Gloria as Laura’s alter-ego. Gloria fights where Laura is passive, almost indifferent, to the constant stream of horrors that befall her. The fact that Naranjo is an executive producer on the latest version even lends credence to that theory. Rather than simply showing the horrible things that happen to her, Miss Bala makes this about Gloria’s journey to find the power within herself to come out a winner — not just in a pageant, but in life. It’s the female revenge fantasy version of a real, gritty, bleak phenomenon that doesn’t usually have a happy ending.
As she first proved in last year’s Annihilation, Rodriguez has some solid action hero chops lurking under her enviable Jane the Virgin bombshell hair. She's easily the best part of the movie. In her portrayal of Gloria, her expressive eyes display the vulnerability of a woman who knows what she’s up against, but also a steely resolve that propels her forward. It’s still refreshing to see a woman meet men on their own turf, and with a cast and crew that’s 95% Latinx, a female lead of color, and a woman director the helm of a studio movie, Miss Bala truly is a win for onscreen diversity.
The plot unfolds less smoothly than it does in the original, but it’s almost worth it to see more of Rodriguez’s vibrant action scenes. And with an ending that certainly leaves room for the story to continue, perhaps we’ll be seeing more of that in the future. We definitely need it.