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.

Legend has it "MTV Cops" was the show's original title, deriving from a two-word formula scrawled on a napkin by Brandon Tartikoff, then-president of NBC. Mann, who had also begun directing noirish films such as Thief, and Yerkovich, riding high on his hit Hill Street Blues, were given free reign, including a weekly $1.4 million budget. It was an unheard-of sum for a new TV show, and it was vastly greater than the allotment doled out to the Miami Police Department's actual vice squad, which had to manage on $1.1 million for the entire year -- hardly enough to buy the designer suits and flashy sports cars of Don Johnson's Det. Sonny Crockett or Philip Michael Thomas's Det. Ricardo Tubbs.

Shortly after the show's September 1984 launch, Tartikoff remembered asking Mann about the secret to the show's rapidly growing popularity. "He said, 'No earth tones,'" Tartikoff recalled for the New York Times. "He said the colors are different from everything you see on television. With other action-adventure shows the producer tells me: the story line. Here, Michael Mann says no earth tones."

Jan Eliasberg directed several key episodes of Miami Vice and later helmed episodes of Party of Five and Dawson's Creek as well as feature films such as Past Midnight. She's quick to agree that the show's unique visual palette was crucial. "I was like a kid in a candy store," she says of the expensive cameras, long lenses, and predilection for lengthy tracking shots that Mann encouraged, all elements more common to her film experiences. "It was like shooting a feature each week." Also important was an edgy mindset. "When I got the call that I was booked to do my first episode," she recounts, "I had my boyfriend at the time take me out to the desert and teach me how to shoot a gun." She adds with a laugh: "I just couldn't see walking onto the set without knowing how to fire a weapon."

Author T.D. Allman believes that same frisson often traveled over the airwaves and right into viewers' living rooms. "It wasn't simply that, each Friday night, you entered a fantasy world," he wrote in his book Miami: City of the Future. "The fantasy entered you. For sixty minutes, life became fast, mellow, and dangerous -- while all the time it was safe as the remote control on your TV set. Intuition always superseded logic; language itself lost meaning.... It was the cocaine aesthetic successfully translated to prime-time TV, it was the audiovisual equivalent of the biochemical experience of getting high." Naturally some fans opted to double-down as well: "People all over the country told me it was their regular Friday-night ritual," Allman noted. "First roll the joints or lay out the lines of coke. Then get high watching Crockett and Tubbs blow the drug dealers out of the water."

Despite the emphasis on its imagery -- a fixation that endures to this day -- director Eliasberg insists the show's resonance derived from a deeper place than mere neurology. "Everybody puts so much importance on the visuals of Miami Vice, the MTV-style cutting, the pastels, the architecture, the use of music," she says. "That was all there, and it was certainly cutting-edge for its time on television. But I feel what distinguished the show, especially in the third season, was the subject matter -- the stories that took on moral issues."

By the third season, the fall of 1986, Mann had tired of plots that revolved around chasing cocaine cowboys, Eliasberg says. Now the directive was to be as fresh as that day's headlines. For the episode "Contempt of Court," featuring a then-unknown Stanley Tucci as a crime boss on trial, Eliasberg says she looked to the "farcical" trial of mobster John Gotti: "We showed how corrupt and rigged the judicial system is. You just need to know how to play the system and you get whatever justice you want."

In a small way, Eliasberg was able to similarly prove this offscreen: After she fell in love with the ornate main courtroom in downtown Miami's old federal courthouse (where Manuel Noriega would later stand trial), her location manager persuaded judicial officers to rearrange their dockets, allowing her to shoot uninterrupted in the courtroom for three consecutive days. When it came to Miami Vice's scheduling needs, so much for a citizen's right to a speedy trial.

There was some occasional pushback from outside of Florida. For the episode "God's Work," Eliasberg focused on the Catholic Church refusing to help AIDS victims because of its moral stance on homosexuality. "It was pretty tough stuff for prime-time network television," she recalls. Maybe a little too tough for 1986. "The Catholic Church was in constant conversation with NBC about what they would and would not accept. I was in Miami, so I wasn't privy to those conversations, but I watched the script keep coming back more and more watered down."

Gustave Reininger, currently directing a biopic of beat poet Gregory Corso, began his career by writing several Miami Vice episodes. He shared Eliasberg's interest in moving beyond the tried-and-true cocaine tales. Effortlessly switching between quotes from Aristotle and Starsky and Hutch, Reininger remembers his own research trips to Miami, meeting FBI agents and drug dealers at Coconut Grove's Mutiny Hotel -- many of whom were more than willing to share their experiences with a Miami Vice writer.

"Every gangster wants to be in show biz," he sighs. "Sometimes they wanted to tell me too much. I'd just ask them for patterns, what a typical day was like. 'Well, last night at midnight we brought in a load from New Orleans.' No, no, no! I don't want to know specifics -- I don't want to be called in to testify!

"In the end, hanging with these drug kingpins wasn't that interesting," he says. "You know that saying by Hannah Arendt? Evil is banal. Much more fascinating was how the normal people in Miami were being affected by living in that atmosphere."

If the ratings were any guide, those normal people were equally fascinated with the facsimile being beamed back at them -- Miami Vice consistently topped its broadcast time slot in South Florida and across the country. Screenings in Western Europe quickly followed, with a similarly enthusiastic reaction there.

"My hope all along was that it would scare people away from Miami," wryly growls novelist Carl Hiaasen, first a muckraking reporter and then a columnist for the Miami Herald during Miami Vice's run. "I thought that would be a public service at the time, to thin the herd out," he quips. "But it had the opposite effect. I've talked to people from England who saw the show and thought, 'That looks beautiful. We'll just wear shoes we can throw away in case they get bloody, but by god, we're gonna go to Miami.' All the chamber of commerce types were worried about the effect it might have on tourism. Then they realized that if you show people a couple palm trees and a nice beach, they don't really care if they have to step over a couple corpses to get there."

Although Hiaasen's novels are deeply rooted in the same stranger-than-fiction accounts of local con men and hustlers that inspired Miami Vice's writers, he feels little kinship with their approach. And don't ask him if the show managed to accurately depict any of Miami's mid-Eighties vibe. "Was it accurate?" Hiaasen scoffs. "In the same way that Star Trek accurately captured the space program. It's like asking if Hoss Cartwright was your typical cowboy. And I'm sure the folks in Orange County would say The O.C. isn't representative of the way they live either. Sure, there were a lot of bloody days in Miami, but [Miami Vice] was TV." The most he'll grant? "It's fun to watch -- how can you quibble with a show where a guy keeps a pet alligator on his boat? That beats Lassie any day of the week."

Hiaasen, moreover, is wary of anyone trying to romanticize the bad old days. "There are no deep truths there," he says of that period. "It didn't produce a single great novel, a single memorable piece of rock music that I can recall, and damn few movies that are worth watching twice. Sure, it was a time when Miami was getting an identity, partly because of fast money and glitz, and as a place where beautiful young people went to get swept up into it all. But there's not much that's heavy to talk about. There was a lot of drug-dealing, a lot of people died, a lot of people went to jail, and none of that was glamorous at all."

By 1989, Miami Vice's fifth and final season, it was hard to disagree with Hiaasen's critical assessment. The show, as then-executive producer Dick Wolf has admitted, "had run its course. " Don Johnson was clearly anxious to leave for a film career, and the writing staff seemed equally eager to bail out. How else to explain an episode with an extended dream sequence, singer James Brown as a crazed UFO-ologist, and aliens -- yes, aliens -- hovering over Crockett and Tubbs's car?

Just as telling, though, the South Beach that Mann and Yerkovich had envisioned was taking concrete shape. Boarded-up Art Deco hotels they'd once repainted themselves to use as backdrops were now open for business, some of them thriving. An entirely new milieu was forming with the arrival of the film and fashion industries, one that would keep Miami Vice's sizzle but swap out its grit.

Miami author John Rothchild described this turn-of-the-decade shift -- stoked by the media -- in Up for Grabs, his seminal book about Florida's wacky history: "Jon Bradshaw, a bourbon-slugging, safari-jacketed journalist in the Hemingway mode, was sent to town by Vanity Fair," he writes. "He spent a week or so interviewing the usual suspects and wrote a long and intriguing update on drugs, spies, scams, hustles, and the latest indictments being handed down -- in other words, the typical Miami dispatch from the 1980s. Tina Brown, then editor of Vanity Fair, killed Bradshaw's article. She didn't want grist. She wanted glitz.... Michael Caine sighted at the Delano Hotel! Steffi Graf sighted on Washington Avenue! Leona Helmsley buys mansion on Star Island! Madonna blows kisses at Miami Heat point guard!"

As anyone who was even barely conscious during the recent MTV Video Music Awards weekend can tell you, glitz is still the default portrayal not only of South Beach but also of those odd little areas across the causeways. Accordingly it's worth wondering how Michael Mann's upcoming film adaptation of Miami Vice will unfold. Currently shooting all over Miami-Dade County and set for release in July 2006, it holds the potential to remodel Miami once more.

A look at Miami Vice's production notes further muddies speculation. With Wu-Tang Clan member RZA composing the film's score, expect a soundtrack of jarring hip-hop, not a kitschy replay of Eighties hits by Phil Collins and Glen Frey. Actress Gong Li (of Farewell My Concubine fame) is set to play Isabella, the Chinese-Cuban wife of a crime-syndicate head and the conflicted love interest of Crockett's Colin Farrell. Naomie Harris plays fellow detective Trudy Joplin, girlfriend to Tubbs's Jamie Foxx.

More curious are the scheduled shooting locations, which include not only Port-au-Prince but also Havana, with apparently at least one scene shot on the island featuring Everlayn Gorges as the winner of a "Miss Cuba" beauty pageant -- no doubt preparing to head for Miami with her portfolio tucked under one arm. It remains unclear just how Mann intends to have Universal Pictures set up shop in Cuba -- dodging the U.S. trade embargo, which prohibits the direct financing or production of commercial films on the island.

David Fulton, a spokesman for Mann, insists Havana's inclusion in Miami Vice's production notes is merely a bureaucratic misunderstanding on Universal's part. "There are scenes in the movie that depict Havana," Fulton confirms, "but [Mann] always knew from the beginning that it would be impossible for us to shoot there." Instead, November will find Mann whisking his cast and crew off to Uruguay, where Montevideo will serve as a mock Havana.

Mann himself has been tightlipped, banning the press from his film's set. In one of his few interviews, a brief phone chat, he offered up only what Miami Herald reporter Douglas Hanks III called "cryptic hints" about his film's story line, seeming more interested in the current real-estate mania and its luxury high-rise condos than in rehashing the life of drug lords or venturing out for club crawls on South Beach. The one name he dropped was local architect Chad Oppenheim, not Pablo Escobar, but Mann was no less dazzled than he had been two decades earlier. "Miami Vice is kind of a state of mind, kind of an attitude," he told Hanks, invoking the Magic City as "a Caribbean Las Vegas" that maintained the "same attitude that was prevalent in 1984."

Such a dichotomy will undoubtedly inspire a media blitz upon the release of Mann's film next summer. Just as an earlier generation of scribes was sent parachuting into town to document the environment surrounding Miami Vice's first incarnation, every glossy magazine editor in New York will surely want a fresh look at the city. Miami's vice of 1985 versus its vice of 2005 -- on- and offscreen -- stand as convenient bookmarks. Simply add the requisite number of scantily clad models and you have a circulation-booster to boot. And if history is any guide, as these new images are reflected back to Miami, many of them will eventually become reality.

In fact Details wasn't even willing to wait until next year. The magazine, which has impressed advertisers with its ability to both mirror and forecast the sensibilities of young men, used its September 2005 issue to lay out its own take on Miami's present-day highlife, under the headline Miami Vice: The Sequel. An opening two-page spread deployed the de rigueur brace of topless blondes sunbathing on a speedboat to illustrate its tag that "the Crockett-and-Tubbs days of sex, coke, and money are back with a vengeance in Southern Florida."

Yet not a single drug dealer appears in Details's story. No suave undercover officers, not even a loudmouthed, jewelry-flashing criminal defense attorney makes it into Andrew Stengel's account. Instead of cartel heads, Stengel profiles real-estate developers like Jorge Perez, David Edelstein, and the always-good-for-a-ribald-quote Thomas Kramer. Their consigliore is nightlife promoter Michael Capponi, who might know little of real-estate law but is a master at attracting moneyed crowds -- or at least the women to entice them. The brash cocaine cowboys who kept the cash flowing are now young investors throwing around deposits, taking out foolhardy interest-only mortgages, and blithely flipping preconstruction condos as if they were nothing more than pancakes. And cocaine, once the focal point of the entire Eighties social whirl? Ubiquitous for sure, but simply as a fuel that keeps the party swinging through the night -- and that prevents anyone from thinking clearly enough to ask probing questions that extend beyond those fabulous new floor plans.

Only one character is missing from this colorful picture: today's answer to the Eighties' fabled investment banker -- the hedge-fund manager, that archetypal young Turk who, having been freed from the stultifying atmosphere of traditional Wall Street brokerages and their SEC regulations, gleefully promises his clients investment returns that not only beat the market but also approach the profit margins of late-night drug deals.

How do these enterprising financiers achieve these stunning returns? In a growing number of cases, they don't. Up at West Palm Beach's KL Group, hedge-fund managers Won Sok Lee and Yung Bae Kim dazzled the town with their outsize lifestyles and ingratiating charm -- that is until the duo mysteriously disappeared this past February with more than $200 million from their 225 investors, many from Miami. The SEC's investigative head here has compared the KL Group to a classic pyramid scheme, but with its missing culprits, clueless police, and a flock of fleeced millionaires as embarrassed as they are angry, this is more than just a cautionary tale for today's Miami, or a fresh update of the "Smuggler's Blues." It sounds an awful lot like grist for Michael Mann and his new Miami Vice.


Coke Calendar: A selective timeline highlighting memorable dates in Miami's drug history

Big Story, Big Screen: Two Miami documentary filmmakers capture a time and place in Cocaine Cowboys

Weapons of Choice: Favorite guns of drug dealers during Miami's cocaine heyday

The Boys: Willy and Sal were Miami's own Kings of Cocaine

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Miami Concert Tickets
Loading...