Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

The problem with criminal biopics

Olanrewaju Ajidagba explores the complexity of glorious portrayals of criminals in popular culture.

On the morning of November 27th 1989, a domestic Colombian aircraft headed for Alfonso Bonilla Aragon International Airport in Cali, southwest Colombia, took off from El Dorado international airport in Bogota. Five minutes into the flight at an average speed of 794 kilometres per hour, the plane had risen to an altitude of 13,000 feet, when suddenly two consecutive high-explosive detonations ripped the airliner into two flaming halves which fell dismally to a three-mile radius around the town of Sochoa. The incident killed all 107 people on board alongside an additional three people on the ground who died as a result of their proximity to the rapid descent of the plane’s falling debris.

The domestic aircraft was Avianca flight 203 and its mid-air explosion was the apex attack in an era of narco-terrorism in Colombia started by the infamous Medellin cartel. Its head was arguably the wealthiest criminal the world has ever known: Pablo Escobar Gaviria. The explosives planted in Flight 203 by the Medellin cartel was meant to eliminate the then Colombia presidential candidate, Cesar Gaviria, who had declared war on Pablo and his drug-peddling cohorts. Cesar Gaviria narrowly missed the flight because of security reasons and eventually went on to become Colombia’s 28th president.

Despite Pablo’s famed ruthlessness as evident in the aftermath of flight 203, there are few personalities in popular culture to date, either dead or alive, who can successfully boast about attaining the dizzying levels of his posthumous celebrity status. The growing list of films, songs and documentaries that have been inspired by the life of the man who presided over one of the most profitable criminal enterprises in history makes sure the eponymous legacy he allegedly coveted stays intact.

Rather than focusing on the victims of Pablo’s crimes or showing how the rise of the violence perpetrated by rival drug cartels has adversely affected Medellin and Colombia in general, the majority of the biopics on Pablo tend to tow the overworn path of displaying the extent of Pablo’s ostensible wealth and his criminal ingenuity while spending less time on his ignominious downfall and the harrowing depths of his crimes. The result of this is a worldwide fascination with one of history’s most brutal characters, whose acts of narco-terrorism can be said to be on par with that of Osama Bin Laden – even though the two men share different ideologies and a common disdain for the intervention of Western government in their respective countries.

This is the problem with criminal biopics. Whether it is attempting to educate its viewers about the end results of a life spent in the annals of the criminal underworld or just participating in the vain, retrogressive act of celebrating individuals for their perversive ingenuity, flawed criminal biopics which fit into this category always end up creating an eponymous legacy for their subjects. From classic movies like the Godfather to recent pictures like the Wolf of Wall Street, Hollywood’s fascination with the extravagant lifestyles of the criminal elite, especially those with a rags to riches back story often elevates the characters of these movies to anti-establishment saints who were able to amass colossal amounts of wealth despite the unfair odds posed by their immediate environment.   

This problem isn’t specific to Western film industries alone. In Nigeria, the shoddily-named film industry, Nollywood, has also rolled out a number of movies that seem to glorify armed robbers who possess supreme supernatural powers that enables them to evade capture by security agents. While it might not be the direct intention of movie directors in Hollywood, Nollywood or global film industries, to glorify certain criminals, the subjectivity of any work of art renders it susceptible to multiple interpretations by its audience. In this case, there’s a need for movie directors and storytellers to display sound judgment while creating their stories, especially in environments where people often tend to pursue a life of crime due to kleptocracies that have ensured that the average citizen does not get their due benefits from the state. 

In a widely read article written by Evan Ratliff for Bloomberg, the chronicled fall of “billionaire Gucci master” Ramon Abbas AKA Hushpuppi, whose vain display of ostentatious wealth on Instagram attracted over two million followers, teeming with hopefuls that constantly hang on to his motivational anecdotes because they provide an alternative route for millions of hardworking Nigerian youths who have been failed by the ineptitude of those in government. While no peculiar circumstances in life excuse an exclusive devotion to a life of crime, it is also worth noting that the recent rise in online scams perpetrated by “yahoo boys” in Nigeria is a direct result of the huge indifference of the Nigerian political elite to the rising levels of poverty in the country. 

In this sort of environment, Rogues like Hushpuppi are seen as heroes who have defied the ills of their environment to attain some sort of dreamscape where the everyday struggle for money is a distant worry. Mixed reactions have trailed the announcement made on Instagram by Mo Abudu, the CEO of ebonylife TV, a major Nigerian entertainment company, to collaborate with American movie producer Will Packer on a movie based on the Bloomberg article. While there’s a need to “tell our own stories with authenticity and avoid making characters that are one-dimensional”, as espoused by Mo Abudu in a publication by Premium Times Nigeria, the much-touted “hushpuppi movie” should not be a biopic. In fact, the name “hushpuppi” should not be used in the movie in any case.

The reasons for these demands are self-evident. Any biopic with eponymous references to the life of hushpuppi would elevate him to the status of an urban legend like that of a Pablo or an Al Capone despite the intentions of the storyteller or movie director. There’s simply no need to make a movie about a man that has contributed in enormous proportions to the international disregard for Nigeria and Nigerians. Stories about the rise and fall of online scammers and their extravagant lifestyles in Nigeria can still be expertly told without making any reference to hushpuppi in particular. 

Nigerians don’t need another Pablo to define its international image in the way the legacies of the Medellin cartel’s drug wars have created harmful stereotypes about Colombians. Just like there has been an absence of worthy legacies to be turned into biopics in most of Nigeria’s political history, the name Ramon Abbas AKA hushpuppi needs to be allowed to recline slowly into the deep, dark cesspits of Nigeria’s history, the place where it rightly belongs.

Image Credit: Pxfuel

Support student journalism

Student journalism does not come cheap. Now, more than ever, we need your support.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles