In the opening minutes of Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story, an adolescent girl prostitutes herself to a man, murders him with his own gun after he refuses to pay, and walks away wearing a smile.
The sequence of events is a prelude to Lifetime's movie-length biopic about the legendary drug lord and temporary Miami resident Griselda Blanco, playing out even before the film's title appears onscreen. It's offered as an introduction to Blanco, evidence of her nascent sociopathy, sure, but also her ballsy, take-no-shit attitude. If Cocaine Godmother were a work of fiction, you might find yourself rooting for young Griselda, a violent but feminist action hero.
But the story of Griselda Blanco is real and, in Miami at least, notorious. To tell her story is to grapple both with her legendary persona as well as the pain and grief she left in her wake. But director Guillermo Navarro focuses on salacious, soapy plot lines rather than the genuinely interesting details of Blanco's rise to power, her unraveling, her capture, and, ultimately, her murder. Navarro's overdramatic approach is not surprising — this is a Lifetime movie, after all — but it's still disappointing, turning a rich and complex history into a series of wasted opportunities.
Catherine Zeta-Jones portrays Blanco, beginning with her life as a teenage wife and mother to three sons in Queens, New York. Zeta-Jones, a 48-year-old Welsh woman, struggles to embody the role of a 17-year-old Colombian immigrant, and though her portrayal solidifies as the story progresses, her accent remains cringeworthy throughout. (At least in her later, allegedly cocaine-addicted years, you can blame it on the drugs.)
Blanco leaves her abusive husband to enter the drug-smuggling trade, but voiceover narration and montages gloss over Blanco's entire early drug history in a matter of minutes. There's so much to explore in those years: One imagines tense meetings with misogynist drug lords and dramatic maneuvers and monologues straight out of Breaking Bad. Instead, Cocaine Godmother gives us a handful of scenes of Blanco stuffing women's bras with coke and a shot of Pablo Escobar, as the voiceover essentially says, "yadda, yadda, yadda." Then it's back to faux-scandalous love scenes with Blanco's lover Carolina and far too many portrayals of her three sons acting like entitled brats.
Blanco is famous because she was as intelligent and ruthless a criminal as any man, but Cocaine Godmother doesn't focus on her crimes. Instead, it's obsessed with their effects on the traditionally feminine roles she also played: lover, wife, and mother. The result is a story about the most successful female drug lord in recent history that's, well, kind of boring.
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Made-for-TV movies are notorious for being so bad they're good, and Cocaine Godmother leans into that trend hard. Zeta-Jones' coke-fueled freak-outs are epic. There's a machete stabbing straight out of a B-movie. In one execution scene, Blanco peek-a-boos over the wall of a bathroom stall and, after some banter, promises to shoot her targets six times. She then fires seven shots and saunters over to a mirror to pout, "This was my favorite blouse."
The problem is that this movie isn't Sharknado. The characters, including Blanco's victims, represent real people who were gunned down to pave the way for Griselda's regime. For viewers, the giddy oh shit, did that just happen high of seeing these ridiculous portrayals onscreen can quickly morph into a nauseating oh shit, some version of that really did happen realization.
Zeta-Jones has said she was inspired to play Blanco after watching Cocaine Cowboys , the now-classic Miami drug documentary by Miami film company Rakontur. But watching Lifetime's version of events, you might find yourself wishing its filmmakers had taken a few more pages out of Cowboys' playbook rather than filling the minutes with lingering sexual innuendo and gratuitous face-slaps straight out of a daytime soap. Griselda Blanco was a bad bitch, and maybe this campy telling of her life story is the best she deserves. But for the victims in her story, and viewers who'll tune in this weekend, Cocaine Godmother could've done a lot better.
Cocaine Godmother airs 8 p.m. Saturday, January 20, on Lifetime.