Issues & Ideas

Miami Vice reflected Miami’s truth

BUSTED: Officer Howard Zeifman, Miami Beach Public infromation officer, takes one of three suspects who were allegedly working a cocaine lab on Abbott Avenue.
BUSTED: Officer Howard Zeifman, Miami Beach Public infromation officer, takes one of three suspects who were allegedly working a cocaine lab on Abbott Avenue. The Miami Herald

When Miami Vice premiered on Sept. 16, 1984, it created a nationwide sensation. Those guys! Those women! Plus all those cars and boats, and the music, those colors! Beyond its riveting sense of pace, place and style, Miami Vice reflected truths about America that the press, politicians and academics, along with people in Miami, had spent decades denying. One of the less obvious but more pervasive of those truths was that the escapist frontier-suburban-theme park version of America was mostly bunk, and always had been.

America was created in cities (Independence Hall, Bunker Hill, the slave markets of Jamestown, the counting houses of New York, the stock yards of Chicago, the dream factories of Los Angeles). Now, as Miami Vice showed in living color and stereophonic sound, it was being reinvented in cities once again.

During the 1950s and ’60s the de-Americanization of cities played as central a role in U.S. domestic affairs as belief in the world-wide Communist Conspiracy did in the conduct of U.S. foreign relations. Cities were where America’s trash got dumped; suburbs were where nice people went. Then, in the late seventies, Hollywood started showing Americans something the usual custodians of the national self-image had forgotten. Cities could be exciting. Cities could be fun.

True, cities were full of strange people and dangerous situations. That made them so much more interesting! Films like Saturday Night Fever (1977), Escape from New York (1981), and Blade Runner (1982) scared some people and delighted others for the same reasons Miami did. Such films did not deny that cities and the people living in them were different. They proclaimed it, they celebrated it, they flaunted it!

Miami Vice carried that sense of city excitement straight into America’s living rooms. More than a ratings success, the program was a cultural phenomenon. Wearing a tie with a jacket, previously obligatory, was now pathetically uncool. Being clean shaven was suddenly so suburban! Who wanted a house with a picture window when you could live on a boat with a pet alligator named Elvis? Out with station wagons! Up with Ferrari Testarossas!

On Miami Vice, the colors were more vivid; the music danced in your ears. None of this was by accident. It was the first major television series broadcast in stereophonic sound. On no previous program had the design dictum been: “No earth tones.” Barbara Capitman’s Deco pastels and Christo’s pink had gone national, with guns and car chases, on prime time TV.

Miami Vice also redefined American status. Skin color no longer decided your place, nor did ethnicity. Crockett (blond, blue-eyed and cool), Tubbs (black, stubbly-cheeked and cool) and coolest of all, their brooding, utterly cool (and Latino) boss, Lieutenant Castillo, belonged to a new American elite. These guys weren’t rich. In the conventional sense they were not successful, not even as law enforcement officers. (One of the show’s themes was the futility of law enforcement, even as its characters in their fabulous designer gear stoically kept up their pursuit of the bad guys in their $100,000 sports cars and million-dollar boats).

Yet, Detective Crockett, Detective Tubbs and Lieutenant Castillo were indivisibly and unalienably what Kerouac, up in Orlando, had called “hip.” The difference now, whether you called it hip, cool or hot, was that to be like them was no longer counter-culture. Thanks to Miami Vice, it was the new standard.

For Sonny Crockett, the producers made up a Smathers-type back story; he supposedly was a University of Florida ex-football star. The actor portraying him, Don Johnson, actually was, like Walt Disney, the son of a Missouri farmer. His partner Tubbs allegedly hailed from the mean streets of Newark. Philip Michael Thomas, the actor playing him, like Tuttle and Flagler, actually came from Ohio. No Cuban, the actor chosen to play Lieutenant Castillo, Edward James Olmos, was a Mexican-American imported from California to play the role of a Miami Vice’s top cop. These lapses from verisimilitude reinforced the larger truth. The realest Miamians always had been the pretend-ones.

Miami Vice offered a glimpse of an America of the future (that is today) which was eclectic, synthetic, polyglot and multiracial. Also like America today, Miami Vice was full of drugs, violence, designer labels and technological toys, but also imbued with a capacity for empathy and tolerance unimaginable in the past. In 1980, Miami had laid bare America’s racial and ethnic divisions. Now, only four years later, Miami Vice reveled in another truth about America. For all that divides them, when white, black and Hispanic Americans fuse their talents, they thrill the world. Long after its last episode was shown in the U.S., the show’s uniquely American hybrid dynamism made it a big hit in both Estonia and the United Arab Emirates, among other places.

The sociology was fascinating but what made Miami Vice essential viewing were those bodies — not just the breasts and biceps on the guest stars, but all those sexy extras crowding those beaches and bars. Who were all those gorgeous people? According to the news reports, Miami was a war zone. A peek into people’s bedrooms revealed Miamians all along had preferred to make love, and not just with the girl (or boy) next door. As recently as 1962 Dewey McLaughlin, the black merchant seaman from Honduras, and Connie Hoffman, the white waitress from Alabama, had been jailed for cohabitating in South Beach. By the time Miami Vice premiered in 1984, cross-cultural creativity — and mating — had become the norm. Whether it was Miami’s signature design firm, Arquetectonica, or Miami Sound Machine, or Miami Dade politics, behind many Miami success stories, there was an inter-ethnic coupling — sexual, not just professional or financial.

It had taken a very long time but what Florida’s forgotten philosopher of sex and love had written 150 years earlier was finally demonstrated to be entirely correct. “The intermediate grade of color are not only healthy, but when condition is favorable, they are improved in shape, strength and beauty,” Zephaniah Kingsley — Florida’s most original and insightful thinker, ever —- had declared in 1829. Who, watching Miami Vice, could deny that now?

In five seasons, Miami Vice retold Florida’s story. Outsiders invented it. Outsiders made it real. Outsiders made it fashionable. Then, as always, disaster struck. The show lost its producer, it lost its central concept. Finally, it lost its edge, but before it faltered Miles Davis played his trumpet on Miami Vice. Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson and Frank Zappa vied to get on the show. Decades later, actors who got their start on Miami Vice were among the world’s most interesting performers. They included John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, Liam Neeson, and Kyra Sedgwick. Whether they were musicians or actors, there tended to be something idiosyncratic as well as photogenic about them all. That Miami Vice quality extended to the real life conspirators (Watergate’s G. Gordon Liddy) and capitalist wheeler-dealers (Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca) who also appeared on the show.

The show’s grip of detail kept it from being merely a fantasy. U.S. law authorized enforcement agencies to seize drug dealers’ property and then use it in their work. That explained all those speed boats and sports cars and, presumably, the designer clothing and fashion accessories, ranging from firearms to sunglasses, which the cops drove, piloted, brandished and wore.

The show also accurately reflected Miami’s emergence as a unified metropolitan area. “The fact that Crockett and Tubbs were Dade County officers and not City of Miami police represented the growing notion of metro government in Miami,” one fan later recalled. “In 1997, a county referendum changed the name from Dade County to Miami-Dade County. This allowed people to relate the county government to recognized notions and images of Miami, many of which were first popularized by Miami Vice.”

What the show nailed most accurately was the multiplier effect of excess cash. By the 1980s, more than two-thirds of America’s cocaine imports were reaching their consumers via Florida. The U.S. Treasury Department calculated that some $5 billion in excess currency was circulating in the Miami area. This, Time Magazine reported, was “more than the nation’s twelve Federal Reserve banks combined.”

The Miami Herald conducted tests and discovered it was impossible to find a $100 bill in Miami without traces of cocaine on it. People used all that money for purposes other than snorting coke. They bought cars, condos, houses, boats — also clothes, accessories, food, wine, sex and people and, sometimes, after the sex and people paled, they hired hit men. Much as they complained about drugs and crime, few of Miami’s movers and shakers complained about all that money flowing into their businesses and bank accounts, even when the white powder did stick to your fingers.

“Miami Vice” was a reflection of Miami, but what did Miami reflect? By the 1980s, people, money and contraband were converging on the Miami metropolis for the same reason they had on Fernandina Island 200 years earlier. Thanks to a combination of happenstance and inevitability, Miami had become what the French scholar Fernand Braudel called a world city existing in world time. This was in contradistinction to the Florida “attraction,” which exists out of time (or in false time) and also (whether theme park or gated community) occupies an artificial space deliberately contrived to exclude reality.

The way it thrived in the real world, and fed off real events, made Miami different and prophetic. So far as many people were concerned, it also made Miami frightening, but as events all across America would show Miami was a harbinger, not an aberration. At the very moment the masters and mistresses of the conventional wisdom were proclaiming it doomed, dangerous and obsolete, Miami was enjoying its latest stunning comeback. Soon cities all over America would demonstrate they were laboratories of the American future, too.

Miami’s Year of Convergence, and After

Dec. 17, 1979: Arthur McDuffie beaten by Miami Police

Dec. 21, 1979: McDuffie dies of multiple skull fractures

January-March 1980: Multiple investigations document police brutality

March 1980: Warhol-Capitman rendezvous, South Beach

April 1, 1980: 5 Cubans on Peru embassy grounds in Havana

April 6: 10,000 Cubans on Peru embassy grounds

April 15: Castro opens Mariel for mass exodus

May 17: All-white jury finds all policemen Not Guilty

May 17-20: “Liberty City” riots consume black neighborhoods

May 23: Officers involved in beating reinstated

By May 31: More than 90,000 “Marielitos” reach Florida

By Oct. 31: Mariel closed; a total 124779 have departed

Nov. 7: Ronald Reagan defeats Jimmy Carter for U.S. president

Dec. 17: Officer tried for violating McDuffie’s rights acquitted

Nov. 17, 1981: Dade County pays McDuffie family $1.1 million; $483,833 goes to lawyers

1981 onwards: “Urban renewal” eradicates black neighborhoods

May 1983: “Surrounded Islands” unveiled

September 1984: Miami Vice first episode

1980-1990: U.S. Census shows Miami continues to grow

2010: Census Metro Miami surpasses Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Seattle, Washington, D.C.

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