Perception Is Reality

Drugs, guns, violence, beauty, style, and the illusory world of Miami Vice

As father-and-son moments go, this one was downright surreal. Forget about Sunday-afternoon baseball games, weekend camping trips, or even a shared whoop of applause at a stadium rock concert. Instead, one grinning dad, sitting with his young son in the auditorium of downtown Miami's Hyatt Regency hotel, leaned over and whispered into his boy's ear. "Look at that!" he implored while pointing up at a movie screen as Jan Hammer's familiar theme song blasted out across the room. All eyes were on the images of this city's most famous police officers, Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, nonchalantly striking a cooler-than-cool pose in all their pastel-jacketed, Lamborghini-driving glory.

The Louis Wolfson II Moving Image Archive apparently expected the usual handful of cinema buffs for its July 2004 Miami Vice retrospective, but what actually transpired was nothing short of momentous. Nearly ten times the regular crowd had arrived for the archive's annual Rewind/Fast-Forward Film & Video Festival, and had there been more advance publicity, the turnout certainly would have been even larger. A sea of fathers toting children, both Latino and Anglo, appeared eager to show their progeny where they came from, to pass on a slice of their cultural legacy. And for better or worse, that's exactly what Miami Vice has become, a prism through which not only the world has come to understand Miami (an international hit, reruns still air in markets from Poland to Paraguay), but also through which Miamians have come to understand themselves.

The show's opening montage says more in 30 seconds about Miami's signature social collisions than any academic study: A gleaming Rolls-Royce cruises to a stop in front of Miami Beach's opulent Forge restaurant as a valet rushes forward; two buxom, bikini-clad women stride down the sidewalk past a Hasidic Jewish couple; a speedboat whips across sparkling Biscayne Bay. But if context were needed, you had only to watch the early Eighties TV news clips with which the Wolfson Archive surrounded the Miami Vice scenes: South Beach, a mournful narrator intoned, was "a ghetto in the sun," filled with impoverished seniors who were preyed upon by criminals and who eyed their new neighbors with confusion. "If you are offended by images of men kissing men, do not watch this next segment," solemnly advised WTVJ's Ed O'Dell, prefacing a segment about -- the horror! -- a gay pool party.

Then came a younger Michael Putney delivering on-air commentary -- acting as the elder statesman of our local press corps even two decades ago -- and decrying what was then the fevered talk of the town, Time magazine's 1981 cover story about Miami, "Paradise Lost." The piece, Putney groaned, was merely a cut-and-paste example of "pack journalism." He didn't characterize it as false, though, and for many others, sensationalistic or not, it was a slice of reportage that defined an era.

"An epidemic of violent crime, a plague of illicit drugs, and a tidal wave of refugees have slammed into South Florida with the destructive force of a hurricane," Time observed, and the dry statistics were damning enough. Miami had the highest crime rate in the nation, and drug-smuggling had become its major industry, surpassing both tourism and real estate, with an estimated 70 percent of the country's imported cocaine and marijuana moving through the area.

The anecdotes lingered. Bee Gees singer Barry Gibb warned that "no woman should be alone in this city," while brother Robin added, "Or man." The First Presbyterian Church's Rev. Paul MacVittie agreed. After his car and home had been burglarized, his son mugged, and his wife shot during a robbery, MacVittie was but one of many citizens who'd bought a gun. The Lord may have been his shepherd, but he seemed to be placing an equal amount of faith in Smith & Wesson.

But even if a criminal were actually arrested, there were few guarantees of serious consequences, especially if the suspect were a major drug dealer able to post his seven-figure bail. "We pay for what we need as we need it," one defense attorney bragged to Time. "If we can't bribe the cop, we try to bribe the prosecutor, and if we can't get the prosecutor, we try to buy the judge."

Of course, a crime wave was only part of the upheaval engulfing Miami. The Mariel boatlift that began in April 1980 was producing demographic changes that would eventually Latinize the city in every respect, from its political leadership to its social flavor. The following month's Liberty City riots (and the race riots that would erupt with near-seasonal regularity over the next decade) would in turn cement the seething ethnic tensions and mutual suspicions that still define our communities today. "The only thing blacks have in Miami are several hundred churches and funeral homes," former school district superintendent Johnny Jones told Time. "After a generation of being Southern slaves, blacks now face a future as Latin slaves." And Anglos? "We've become a boiling pot, not a melting pot," said then-Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré. "The Anglos can't adapt. They can't take it, so they're moving."

Putney wasn't the only media figure who read and pondered that Time cover story. Television writers Michael Mann and Anthony Yerkovich were similarly moved, though where Putney saw alarmist conjecture, they saw the grist for a TV show, one that would, as Yerkovich hoped, capture America's own Casablanca.

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