ZeroZeroZero and the global drug trade; #BlackAF and Black affluence
Zero, Zero, Zero: Mexican police in the global drug trade

ZeroZeroZero, a Sky, Canal+ and Amazon series based on the Roberto (Gomorrah) Saviano book, has two things on its mind.

The first is one of Saviano’s major points, that the global drug trade, and particularly cocaine now, underpins much of the world’s economy. There are three locations and groups in the series. The Mexican drug lords harvest the drugs. A “respectable” American family from New Orleans transports the shipment, and a clan of the ’Ndrengheta, the Calabrian mafia, distributes it.

The point is made by the Gabriel Byrne character, who acknowledges that his shipping enterprise is only profitable because it is a front for transporting cocaine. The series in its eight episodes tracks the containers as they are loaded in Mexico, diverted to Africa where, in order to avoid customs, they wend their way through Dakar in Senegal, jihadists in Mali—who explain that they are at war because they have been disenfranchised by the French—and Morocco, a “civilized” country where bribery finally secures the shipment reaching the toe of Italy.

The global drug trade has a major influence on the world’s economy. Saviano points out in the book that in Colombia both the leftist guerrillas, the FARC, and the right-wing death squads, the AUC, partially fund themselves through the cocaine trade, a staple of the economy as a whole. This sheds new light on why, for example, supposedly “normal” or “democratic” right-wing governments like the present Duque regime have gone out of their way to sabotage peace talks which might result in a drying up of the trade on both sides.

Roberto Saviano

Equally, Saviano points out, after 2008, in the world’s banks liquidity became a problem with the banks’ money drying up. To the rescue, especially in New York and London, came laundered mob drug money from Russia and Latin America. These funds rescued the banks and helped restore their depositors’ money, lost through speculation, and in a sense saved the global financial system.

The second point in tracing the shipment, which is itself the lead “character” in the series, is that everywhere the cocaine trade touches results in violence and corruption. In Mexico, the police muscle their way into the trade, fashioning an army of street drug vendors to form an armed militia to take on the existing drug lords. The American brother and sister, trained by their father, are adept at sprinkling money all along the journey to bribe as many public officials as possible.

The ’Ndrangheta, the most clannish of the three major mafia groups, has also become the most globalized and has profited hugely from its central place in the drug trade; indeed it has entered every aspect, legitimate and illegitimate, of Italian life. In the show a bloody battle breaks out between families that will see a series of betrayals, each more frenzied than the last as the $32 million shipment winds its way to Italy. During the coronavirus, as Saviano reports, various organized crime groupings have been using the delivery of goods as a cover for breaking the quarantine and distributing drugs. They are a sort of Cosa Nostra Amazon. Or perhaps Amazon is a corporate Cosa Nostra. The two begin to merge.

What is new about ZeroZeroZero is the determined global sweep. Three stories are tracked independently, in Mexico, on the high seas, and in Italy. All three are linked at the beginning of the shipment and finally at the end. There is a clever trope used in each episode where one of the lead characters, usually the American brother or sister, reaches a climactic point that is then flashbacked to show how they got there. The final scene, set amidst brutal carnage and destruction, is a masterpiece of understatement as the American businesswoman serenely negotiates the next shipment oblivious to the bodies piled up around the transaction.

This is a strong critique, but there are some problems. In its presentation, this series has the mark of a Sky production. The series is often violent as reflects its milieu but also often sadistic, dragging the audience through scene after scene anticipating sudden brutality that is a relief when it happens and which somewhat takes away from the point. This was true of Sky’s other most famous series, based on the earlier Saviano book, Gomorrah, but that series is more sharply focused on the political economy of the Camorra, the Naples mafia, with each episode highlighting a different aspect of the gang’s reach into several layers of the economy. Sadistic violence is a Sky trademark, admittedly also along with an often acute examination of underground economies, and both are also present in its latest series, Gangs of London. The sadism bears the imprint of Sky’s former owner Rupert Murdoch. Its new majority shareholder Comcast, which only recently dropped out of a legislative lobbying association which advocated laws defending gun owners’ right to use their weapons whenever they feel threatened and limiting non-white voters, will most likely not alter Sky’s trajectory.

Uncomfortable also is the treatment of the American brother and sister who, until the end, are seen as the audience’s main identification figures. Next to the bloodshed unleashed by the Mexican soldier turned drug kingpin and the more intimate savagery of the Italian ’Ndrengheta revenge killings, the Americans appear to be civilized business people and we root for them to steer the shipment to its destination. Their white privilege is largely unquestioned until the end. There is also a lack of perspective in that we never see the victims of the drug sales or acquire any understanding of the pressures that drive these buyers to abuse the drug.

Nevertheless, ZeroZeroZero—a drug runners’ term for the purest cocaine borrowed from a description of the whitest flour—goes Narcos one better. Its attempt at global storytelling across three continents reflects the magnitude and interpenetration of this deadly industry in a scope that rivals the power of the drug itself. What is still to add is the problem of a global system where working-class users pick up the drug for respite from the increasing desperation of their lives, and middle-class users are driven to the drug as a stimulus to keep producing to maintain their lifestyle.

#BlackAF: African-American forcefulness or simply Black affluence?

Barrises in the lap of luxury

Kenya Barris, creator of the ABC sit-com Black-ish, which also has inspired two spinoff series, Grown-ish and the upcoming Mixed-ish, has added another series, #BlackAF (meaning Black as F—) to the “ish” franchise or, in DC terms, the ish universe or “ishverse.” The concept of “ish” is a tricky way of saying the characters, while addressing more typical African-American concerns, also are part of and indeed relish being middle class or the case of #BlackAF, not nouveau riche but rather for the most part comfortably settled into affluence.

Still, there is this nagging, clawing, and to the Barrises—the sit-com family that bears the real name of their creator with Kenya himself playing the father—the irritating fact that they can never leave their blackness behind. This is particularly a problem for dad Kenya, who is constantly grousing about white people. He is acutely aware of the way in Hollywood he can still be treated as a second-class citizen, seen in his encounter with Modern Family’s creator Steve Levitan, who he feels slights him. Levitan, he says, gets preferred treatment, though in the upper strata of the town in terms of what each has accomplished they are equal.

The Barrises Celebrate

The show was pitched as a combination of Black-ish and Curb Your Enthusiasm with Barris taking the curmudgeonly Larry David part and with the addition that what he is irritated about is still-existing racism, which the show presents as mostly real but sometimes overly harped on by him. There has been criticism of Barris’s performance, as not being curmudgeonly enough and also not exploring the depths of his troubled and troubling consciousness as does Larry David.

Perhaps the larger problem with the series is that while Larry David is a misanthrope, prickly on a number of issues, Barris’s problems and irritation mostly spring from his treatment as a Black man within the entertainment world and the rarefied world of the upper ranks of Los Angeles society. To try to fit the Seinfeld-Curb Your Enthusiasm comedy-of-manners template with characters irritated about modern life over the issue of racism may be a way of denying or flattening the still awful prevalence of that issue.

The other problem is that the show confuses grousing for critique. Barris’s easy fitting of the history of African-American exploitation and impoverishment into a few phrases—he keeps reminding us it all springs from slavery—though it may be meant to normalize conversations about racism and thus keep the subject on the table, possibly has instead the effect of smoothing and trimming the uncomfortable edges.

The critique is not a real critique. A series like The Larry Sanders Show, which is much more vicious and tells many more truths about its object of satire—how relations in the television industry are centered around profit and prestige—points the way to what #BlackAF might have been.

Chester Himes

It’s from a different era, but a passage from that acute social critic Chester Himes, discussing an earlier era of L.A., that of the 1940s, describes, in his first novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, the overwhelming nature of the problem. The lead character, a Black worker in a factory in L.A., talks about how he “had been hurt emotionally, spiritually, and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear: I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college…. I had survived the humiliating last five years of the Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I had become bitter and saturated with hate.”

In a later novel, The End of a Primitive, Himes describes what happens when, as he had done in his second novel, The Lonely Crusade, a creator tells actual truths about race in America: “They cancelled all radio appearances, all public contacts, removed his books from the stores, returned them to the publishers…, writers for the capitalist press labeled it sordid, bitter, the most poorly written book ever published, said hate ran through it like a yellow bile, likened it to the graffiti on walls, and termed him psychotic….”

We’re a long way out from that to the mild irritation in the guise of critique in #BlackAF with its actual disdain for offending anyone. Is this a factor of how far African Americans have come in this society? Or is it simply a new kind of parading of mild rebuke as thinly veiled rationale for wallowing in affluence?


Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe, a film, television and art critic, is also the author of the Harry Palmer LA Mysteries, the latest volume of which, The House That Buff Built, is about the real estate industry, dispossession, and appropriation in the shaping of “modern” Los Angeles.