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Dr. Tukufu Zuberi

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The Color of Colombiana

Posted: 08/30/11 07:48 PM ET

Classes are about to begin here at the University of Pennsylvania, so I took my lunch break to watch CoIombiana at a nearby theater. I justified this act by claiming I was going to look at the film using my sociological imagination. In truth, I went to see this movie because I like action flicks, and what is better than an action movie about a beautiful girl with a grudge on a summer afternoon.

Spoiler Alert! You should not read the rest of what I have to say if you do not want to know the plot of the movie Colombiana.

Cataleya, played by Zoë Saldana, is the beautiful, sexy, cold-blooded, acrobatic, master assassin and she is out for revenge served cold. In the spirit of Hannah and Salt the viewer is asked to believe that this beautiful, sensual, woman could be a .50 caliber, sniper rifle, toting murderer taking down the toughest man with a kick or well placed punch. Zoë does a credible, some might say heroic job of making this look possible. I halfway believe it is possible.

The film begins with Cataleya, a brilliant nine year-old girl, witnessing the murder of her parents by Marco (Jordi Mollà) the evil enforcer for drug lord Don Luis (Beto Benites).

As the camera focuses on young Cataleya, we see what appears to be a shy smart child. Marco reminds her of when they meet for the first time and begins to comment on her intelligence, and even says that he and her father (who he just killed) used to be friends. In a flash before our eyes, Cataleya transforms into a super kid, and in her first act of revenge she stabs Marco in the hand with a hunting knife before jumping out the window and escaping to the U.S. This is where she convinces her Colombian gangster uncle, Emilio (Cliff Curtis), to teach her to be a professional killer!

After about fifteen minutes my sociological imagination was screaming that every Colombian in this film was a drug dealer, murderer, or some type of criminal. Even baby girl was in training to be a murderer.

Given that I know more than a few Colombians, I thought this film distorted the truth about Colombian peoples. There is a certain ignorance about Colombians that is very prominent in the United States in which an entire people are once again seen as violent, crime prone members of drug cartels. Or maybe this is just another cliché about non-white people.

I know this movie was pretending to be raceless. This would be consistent with the old myth about the racelessness of Colombia and other areas of Latin America. Come to think about it, this is pretty consistent with the current ideological move in the U.S. to be post-racial unlike the other box office hit with major black characters, The Help, which is a film about a white woman who writes a book about black housekeepers in the U.S. before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Here, Cataleya's race is not a subject of Colombiana.

However, the sociological sub-text of the film is Cataleya's race. Cataleya is black. Her mother is black.

Therefore being born of a Colombian assassin father and trained by a Colombian assassin uncle, she does not share the same racial space as either man. Both of whom could have passed for white in the Colombian context. I have been to Colombia more than a few times, so this seemed odd to me, but maybe that is because when I visit Colombia the Afro-Colombian community hosts me (with the one exception when the government of Colombia was my gracious host).

So this racial dimension in the film may not be obvious to the audience but anyone aware of the rising consciousness of the Afro-Colombian community will probably be a little taken aback. And, if the viewer has a sociological imagination, they would see that racial dimension as something missing from the film.

Let me end by saying something a little more sociological. Colombiana does in fact present a stereotype of the Colombian people. However, the biggest stereotype is of the filmmakers. The stereotype is of a film full of racial clichés and a lack of depth, but man that lady sure can kick high!