By Walidah Imarisha
I’ve watched a number of Robert Rodriguez’s films: From Dusk Til Dawn, Planet Terror, Sin City. While sometimes amused, I was often turned off by the cartoonish violence, the homage to 1970s filmmaking and the gratuitous breast shots. I certainly never expected to be writing this next sentence: With his newest film Machete, Robert Rodriguez has created the most brilliant political commentary I have seen in years. But here I am. And if you look deeper, you’ll see, wrapped up in the blood, boobs and kitsch, a subversive piece of radical art.
On the surface, it’s standard action fodder: A former cop (in this case Mexican federale) Machete Cortez (played by Danny Trejo) was betrayed by cops on the drug lord’s payroll. Stripped of his commission, Machete must flee Mexico but not before seeing his wife brutally murdered. He arrives in the U.S. undocumented, and becomes a day laborer.
This is where the story turns – Machete joins the Network, a collection of undocumented immigrants and allies. It began by aiding those who had come here undocumented. But it has developed into a defensive force, and is now looking to go on the offensive. Did I mention the symbol of the Network is a female revolutionary, Shé (Rodriguez’s nod to Ché Guevara, replete with red star beret)?
Politically sophisticated, Machete shows the complexities of the issues of immigration bleached from the nightly news. It shows the uneasy alliance of opposition, specifically between vigilantes and opportunistic politicians. Summed up succinctly by racist border vigilante leader Von Jackson (Don Johnson),“Why not let politics do what guns couldn’t?”
You’ve got Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), a white politician seeking re-election by riding the anti-immigrant wave to Congress. Rodriguez works to destroy the line between fantasy and reality with speeches that sound straight off Fox News. One of McLaughlin’s speech is clearly the rhetoric of the Tea Party with their attacks on Obama and immigration reform: “Everywhere I go people are talking about change. Why change? I like this great nation as it is.”
You even have Lindsay Lohan as April Booth, a spoiled coked-out rich party girl – if that doesn’t help to blur the lines of fantasy and reality…
Rodriguez has found the perfect social commentary platform for his brutal style in this satire. The gruesome spectacle he creates in all his film – such as having Machete repel out of a window using a mercenary’s own intestines as his rope – is juxtaposed with the gruesome spectacle on the issue of immigration. Rodriguez uses real life examples –a pregnant woman gunned down for crossing the desert – to show the every day horror we live with, which is (or at least should be) more shocking than celluloid violence.
For all of its spectacle and satire, Machete is an utterly human film. Machete is a man who can’t go back, whose very existence is branded illegal. He is now a man with no country, no home. How many live this situation today?
We have Yvette Sartana, a Latino ICE agent (played by Jessica Alba) who works hard to justify this country’s immigration policy, to Machete but mostly to herself: “It’s different here [than in Mexico]. Laws are enforced… The system works here.”
Ultimately, the film agrees not with Sartana but with the Network’s leader Luz (Michelle Rodriguez): “The way we see it, people risked everything to get here, but the system doesn’t work. It’s broken. So we created our own.”
Embedded in the new system that Rodriguez constructs is a subversive exploration of race politics. If we heard the story of a machete-wielding undocumented day laborer who was taking on politicians and small town sheriffs on the news, we’d call him a psycho and demand he be put down like a dog in the street. In this film, he is the hero we cheer for, while the majority of the white characters (except for those who are working to make a living or who have chosen to join the Network) are the villains.
The most compelling aspect of Rodriguez’s political art is that ultimately, Rodriguez does not show Machete as the lone Latino Superman coming to save his people. He shows the people as the ones who save themselves. The immigrants come together – gardeners, dishwashers, construction workers, cholos, chop shop workers – to fight the final battle. Machete tells us the people have the tools to free themselves, whether it is a machete, a gun, a pen, or a two-fingered peace symbol.
This film is not perfect. It is not safe. It is not easy. But it is a film that America won’t even know is coming until the Machete is in its back.