In his film, Traffic (2000), Steven Soderbergh provides a detailed critique of the US Government’s method in the war on drugs of stopping the supplier. In doing so, Soderbergh highlights the US Government’s lack of concern with providing treatment for drug addicts. He allows the life of the new leader of the war on drugs, Bob Wakefield (Michael Douglas), to serve as his mouthpiece against the attacking the supplier method of the drug war.
He accomplishes this by flipping the drug war stereotype of a drug addict, poor African-American, into having Wakefield’s daughter, Caroline Wakefield (Erika Christensen), be the film’s representation of drug addiction. Moreover, Soderbergh shapes certain elements/stereotypes of the drug war to fit his agenda of displaying the problems with going after the suppliers without accounting for the demand.
For example, Soderbergh fictionalizes actual historical events in Mexico to highlight its corruption without providing a palate cleanser of morals within its society to convey a sense of hopelessness toward the attack on the suppliers. In doing so, he highlights the ever-revolving door of suppliers ready to take over in Mexico to convey his overall point of turning the US government’s focus more toward the demand for drugs.
Soderbergh conveys the reach of drug addiction extended past impoverished areas to promote his agenda of focusing more on the societal problem of the demand for drugs rather than on attacking its suppliers. Soderbergh’s choice of Caroline to represent drug addiction allowed him to cause a controversy with the mainstream media during the year it was released; he knew a wealthy white girl succumbing to the disease of drug addiction would provide him with the attention he desired for his film.
Soderbergh further conveys his want for controversy with having the scene of the African-American male drug dealer taking advantage of Caroline in her drugged-out state. In this scene, he has a representative of the main victims of the US government’s drug war, an impoverished African-American, rape the innocence of the American society, a wealthy white girl, to symbolize drug addiction being a problem without the boundaries of class division.
Soderbergh use of an African American drug dealer in the scene coincides with Nekima Levy-Pounds article’s, “Going Up in Smoke: The Impacts of the Drug War on Young Black Men”, argument of the drug war targeting African Americans given: five grams of crack cocaine [a drug more likely trafficked by African Americans), or roughly a teaspoon, would result in a five-year mandatory minimum term of imprisonment.
Meanwhile, those who sold powder cocaine [a drug more likely trafficked by whites] would face the same punishment for possession of 500 grams (568). Therefore, Soderbergh put a representative of the main oppressed group of the drug war to throw in the audience face the government’s misplaced attention on drug suppliers. In a sense, Soderbergh gave the film’s audience the monster the US government had created through its full fledge attack on drug suppliers. After all, the drug dealer was a product of the environment the drug war had created.
Furthermore, the scene effectively uses Caroline getting raped by the African-American drug dealer to symbolize America, Caroline, getting take over by the disease of drug addiction without any resistance: the drug dealer essentially becomes a symbol for the impact the drug war has on the United States. Therefore, Soderbergh’s portrayal of Caroline’s descent into drug addiction reflects his overall argument for both government’s focus to shift toward attacking the demand for drugs rather than the suppliers.
Furthermore, Traffic directly combated with the US government’s narrative during the time it was released given John Walters, who just received George W. Bush’s nomination for head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, “was a controversial advocate of incarceration over treatment” (Schulte 49). Soderbergh’s film attacked Walters’ way of thinking through its detailed description of drug addiction being a societal problem instead of an individual problem. Walters advocacy for incarceration connotes a sense of drug addiction being a criminal offense rather than a disease.
Walters’ way of thinking was conveyed perfected by unnamed senator in a comment from 1989, referenced in Stephanie Ricker Schulte’s article, “The Political Power of Film: Traffic’s Impact on Drug Policy Debates”, “We must not allow these people to escape punishment or receive lenient sentences because there is simply no more room for them in our prisons” (48). These comments reflect Walters’ attitude of drug addicts being criminals in need of incarceration to punish them for their affliction.
Soderbergh conveys this type of thinking towards drug addicts in Traffic through the mouth of the Mexican general Arturo Salazar during his meeting with Bob Wakefield, “Addicts treat themselves. They overdose, and then there’s one less to worry about”(1:30:02). Soderbergh use of Salazar to convey this concept allows a juxtaposition to form between his mind set towards the drug problem and Wakefield’s. In doing so, Salazar becomes a symbol of the US governments thinking towards drug addiction being an individual problem rather than societal one.
Soderbergh set up this comparison to provide a commentary on how the government needs to move towards attacking the demand before the supply; Wakefield mind state of focusing on treatment represents the Soderbergh’s while Salazar’s represented the US Government’s seen in Walters’ advocacy for incarceration. In the end, this type of thinking pushes the focus away from the demand on drugs, in favor of, trying to fix the problem with punishment. Furthermore, Soderbergh used a group of young wealthy drug users to covey drug addiction being a societal problem through portraying the stress of their environment causing their desire for drugs.
Soderbergh’s choice of using members of the upper class allowed the film to come off more sympathetic towards drugs users given its an unexpected portrayal. The film provides their descent into drugs from a standpoint of these kids trying to relieve stress from their studies or simply trying to find themselves. In doing so, Soderbergh allows his audience to see the overwhelming pressure pushing these kids towards drugs providing a commentary on how society’s the problem rather than the kids themselves.
Soderbergh conveys this pressure with the scene of a drunk Caroline saying to Seth (Topher Grace), “It never seems like anyone ever says anything that matters to them”(34:00). Caroline’s drunk rambling comes through with a layer of truth conveying her environment forces her to conform to the ideals of her peers rather than just being herself. Caroline’s selfreflection points to the problem of drug addiction being a societal one rather than an individual problem reflecting Soderbergh’s overall premise of shifting to focus to the demand of drugs within American society.
Soderbergh’s want for the focus to shift to the demand reflects itself most predominantly in the scene where Bob Wakefield meets with his fellow representatives from the other government agencies on a plane. In this scene, Wakefield ask his peers the following question, “Is anyone from treatment on this flight” (Soderbergh 1:08:50) reflecting the lack of concern Soderbergh critiques the US government has for rehabilitation in Traffic. Ironically, Wakefield quickly changes his focus right back to the suppliers proclaiming the need to take down one of Mexican cartels.
Soderbergh uses this moment to foreshadow Wakefield’s growth throughout the film from the drug czar with the agenda of attacking the suppliers to a father concerned with his daughter’s addiction. Furthermore, the silence of the other government officials when Wakefield asks for new ideas of how to take down one of the cartels provides the backdrop of needing a new course of action concerning the focus of the war on drugs. Wakefield’s focus on taking down a cartel to solve the drug problem coincides with the US government’s tactical approach during the 1990’s and the early 2000’s.
For example, the US government approach, referenced in Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno’s article, “Winding Down the War on Drugs Reevaluating Global Drug Policy”, regarding the situation in Columbia with Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel and the Cali Cartel during in 1990s: US backing and covert assistance from the Cali cartel and disaffected former Escobar associates (which organized into a death squad known as the PEPES, or People Persecuted by Escobar), killed Escobar in 1993.
The United States then turned its attention to Escobar’s major rival, the Cali Cartel” (37). However, the US government didn’t account for the people waiting in the wings to take over for the two cartels reflects the constant revolving door of would be drug suppliers; there will always be a new power waiting to take over if the demand exists. Soderbergh projects this revolving door of supplier’s in Mexico through fictionizes, giving different names, actual events of Mexican History.
For example, Soderbergh closely based the character, General Arturo Salazar, on the Mexican General Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo who in 1997 was “arrested and convicted of working with cartels [Juarez cartel]” (Grillo 258). In doing so, Soderbergh adds a layer of reality to the film forcing the audience to understand the societal drug problem exists outside the film. Soderbergh’s fictionalization of historical events gives his narrative a more documentary-esque feel forcing a feeling of sympathy to overcome the film’s audience.
Furthermore, Soderbergh choice of mimicking the Salazar storyline after Rebollo’s life projects the corruption within the Mexico government during this era. It provided the allusion of the circumstances surrounding the Mexican government represented in the film being relatively similar to the actual Mexican government. Moreover, Soderbergh’s highlighting of the corruption within the Mexican government coincides with the findings of loan Grillo’s article “”Mexican Cartels: A Century of Defying U. S. Drug Policy”, egarding the constant revolving door of suppliers during the 1990’s, “the new generation of cartels that emerged in the 1990s proved only wealthier and more violent. The Mexican traffickers’ wealth increased as they gradually took over most of the cocaine profits from their Colombian partners” (257). Grillo’s point regarding the new generation cartels brings out the horrifying reality of no matter how many cartels the governments stop there will always been another one ready to take its place if the demand for drugs still exists.
For example, Grillo references the US government’s highly efficient plan of, “blocking the trafficking route from Colombia through the Caribbean Sea to Florida with a combination of naval ships and radars”(257). In response, the suppliers just, “shifted the vast majority of their product to Mexico where it could be trafficked over the 2,000-mile border” (257) conveying Soderbergh’s point of if the demand exists there always will be a way to feed the demand.