Politics at The Movies: Machete


Directed by Robert Rodriguez
“Machete” started out as a fake trailer during 2007’s “Grindhouse” double-feature, directed by Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. It’s important to watch it in the context of that genre – films that are cheesy in their production values, with special effects that rely more on buckets of fake blood than on anything approaching authenticity. It’s an intentional style, reminiscent of the B movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Knowing this about the movie in advance makes another aspect of “Machete” more surprising: It actually has a fairly serious theme. The plot centers around the topic of illegal immigration: a “network” that helps immigrants, a vigilante group that tries to stop them (with a leader played by Don Johnson), and a Texas state senator (Robert De Niro) who is running on an anti-immigration platform. It even picks up on current hot-button issues, like the sound bite-friendly, but factually dubious (get ready for the letters and emails), issue of anchor babies.  

Recent Pew Institute research, reported last week by the Associated Press in an article about “birth tourism,” shows that 85 percent of babies born to illegals are to mothers who have been here for more than a year. It also recognizes that families in border towns often have children on the U.S. side of the border, not for the citizenship status but simply for better medical care. The citizenship of a child doesn’t afford either citizenship or a right to residency to parents. Still, the anti-immigration proponents continue to paint a rhetorical but inaccurate picture of untold numbers of overtly pregnant mothers, staggering across the border fit to burst at any moment, simply to gain a fictional foothold in the U.S.

In the same Associated Press article, a demographer at Princeton stated that much of the reason that mothers give birth in the US is actually the result of a more closed border. Where the relatively open border used to allow men to circulate freely for short-term and seasonal work, families now travel and stay together because of the difficulty of the crossing. In “Machete,” the argument is made that a tighter border with a fence helps the smugglers and coyotes – those who are paid to get illegals across. The harder the crossing is and the smaller the flow of illegal immigrants, the more they can charge to facilitate the process. Indeed, the movie depicts the source of funding for the state senator to be from a Mexican drug lord (played appallingly badly by Steven Seagal) who wants a border fence that he can control.

All of this reminds me of an interesting irony described by conservation photographer Ian Shive during an interview for Capitol Weekly last year (Oct. 29, 2009). Ian described a trip he had taken to an area of desert along the border, where parts of the border fence have been constructed. What was once a fairly inhospitable stretch of hard-to-cross desert, is now crisscrossed with easily traveled dirt roads that are the result of the construction crews and their heavy vehicles. From a conservation and wildlife perspective, it’s devastating. From a smuggling perspective, it’s really quite advantageous as the fence is intermittent at best and the dirt roads make travel far easier.

Something else that the movie manages to illustrate well is the fact that people of questionable or non-existent status will flee rapidly when confronted with any law enforcement officer who has jurisdiction over immigration. If nothing else, it reminds us of one of the fundamental problems of the recent Arizona law. Even if one sidesteps the issues of racism and federal/state conflicts that have been raised in both complaints and legal challenges, it’s simply counterproductive to law enforcement to have an entire category of people inclined to avoid encountering, or speaking to, an agent or officer (letters—see above). Entire neighborhoods will witness crimes and react as though stricken dumb, or simply hide at the first sign of the authorities. In the movie, an agent (Jessica Alba) tries to help Machete, only to have every potential witness run away from her.

However, while these points are inserted into the movie with a purpose, they aren’t likely to be the main focus of most audience members. This is a movie one watches in order to see limbs and heads separated from torsos, spaced out with assorted metaphors that sound like they were read from a Mexican restaurant menu. And the whole enchilada delivers, on that extra spicy level.

Danny Trejo (Rodriguez’ cousin), himself an ex-con who served time in San Quentin for armed robbery, is fun to watch as the unlikely, rather stiff and craggy lead. Others in the cast include Cheech Marin as a Catholic priest, and Lindsey Lohan as a young woman who has a great relationship with drugs and a bad relationship with her father (really), played with devious and heartless glee by Jeff Fahey.

I assume that if one were to go into “Machete” expecting anything approaching a high quality or serious drama, one would be horrified at the spectacle and equally horrified at all the laughing and cheering throughout the film. As a vehicle for the aforementioned buckets of blood and free-rolling heads (including three that are liberated from their respective necks in a single machete swing), and light political parody, it’s a blast.

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