Miami Memoirs: Revisiting Scarface

If there is one movie that is inextricably from the image of 1980s Miami; it's Brian DePalma’s film Scarface. The 1983 film has become a cinematic icon. When you think '80s Miami, you think Don Johnson's Sonny Crockett and Al Pacino's Tony Montana — two characters that couldn't be more different, but have, in some way, fundamentally defined the Magic City. Yet at the time, Miamians had little use for Tony Montana — the city saw itself better reflected in Miami Vice — and, in fact, most wanted nothing to do with the film at the time. 

At the time the film was pitched, the idea of a narrative centered around a Cuban gangster that came to Miami during the Mariel boatlift terrified people. Many winced at the thought  of depicting a Cuban immigrant in such a negative fashion; juggling various gruesomely violent acts with in-your-face drug dealing was the last thing Miami wanted to shine a spotlight on — particularly at a time when the city's image wasn't exactly like a glitzy scene from Ballers. 

Machine guns and mountains of cocaine? Ummmm, thanks. Your movie sounds nice, and good luck with that — but we'll stick with palm trees and beaches as our identity. 

Producer Martin Bregman had planned to film the entire film in Miami, but after speaking with city officials it became clear to him the city wasn't so keen on the idea: 

“It’s obvious to me that they are afraid I am going to depict the Cuban community as a bunch of animals,” Bregman told the Miami Herald. “That’s not the type of movie I make. If they don’t want us there, we’ll leave. Believe me this is not going to give Miami or that area a bad image. It already has that image.”

The back-and-forth resulted in much of the film being shot in Los Angeles, yet the film still had a very "Miami" look to it since crucial scenes were shot in the city. The fact that Bregman and the film's backers didn't completely abandon the idea of the film centered around a Miamian of Cuban descent ended up being an incredibly important decision.

Miami would ultimately benefit greatly from a film city officials wanted nothing to do with. Little did the naysayers know but the film would eventually become synonymous with Cocaine Cowboys era Miami; oddly enough, in a positive way.

Although Scarface underwhelmed at the box office when first released, it would gain steam as time passed; everyone wanted to talk about the bath tub scene and scream: "Say hello to my little friend!"  A movie that would have received poor scores on Rotten Tomatoes in the '80s, had grown into a cult classic in the '90s — and Miami was at the center of it all.

By the time the '90s came around, it was practically in your college's code-of-conduct book that you must have a Bob Marley and Scarface poster hanging in your dorm room. Everything from shirts to coffee mugs had the image of Tony Montana smoking a cigar or clutching a machine gun on them. An entire generation of movie goers grew up loving the movie and its gritty-gangster-lawless edge, and Miami had played a larger role in that than just supplying the palm trees and sand. The story that is Scarface could only have taken place in Miami. The marriage between plot and location made for film perfection.

Violence on film wasn't as shocking anymore, and the War of Drugs was a nationwide problem, not just a Miami dilemma. Times had changed, and Miami was no longer worried about their image being tarnished by some now legendary movie. Oliver Stone’s Scarface script — once thought of as offensive to Miami's Cuban community — is now a badge of honor of sorts. Today, the name Tony Montana brings to mind being a badass no-shit-taking entrepreneur, as much as it does being a criminal drug dealer. 

While the relationship may have gotten off to a rocky start, Miami and the film Scarface will forever be linked.  

New Times will be running "Miami Memoirs," a series about the Magic City's iconic cultural moments, over the next months. Have suggestions? Email [email protected].
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Ryan Yousefi is a freelance writer for Miami New Times, a lover of sports, and an expert consumer of craft beer and pho. Hanley Ramirez once stole a baseball from him and to this day still owes him $10.