Miami Vice: When Art Changed the World and a City was Powerless to Resist.

Being stuck inside the house during quarantine lockdown has given me a little bit more time to examine certain elements from my own life which were previously unconsidered or, just semi-interesting surface detail. Forty days in, I realize there was much more going on than I previously gave credit for. Being able to binge watch Miami Vice on HULU is one of them.

I was 13 when this show premiered in 1984 and most of the intellectual and social material which is of historic importance, went completely over my head. I remembered the show vividly, but as I watched every episode it was clear to me that I had absolutely no recollection of any one episode at all.

Looking back, it’s educational to see how America struggled to get past the staggering recession of the 1970s and deal with the rampant social inequalities of the day. The 1980s became the decade where the middle class got amnesia about the poverty they existed in and mistook the ability to wear clean clothes and do drugs as a sign of affluence. The country was falling apart in real life, but on television an entirely different vision was playing out as a matter of deception.

South Florida, Miami specifically, had embodied the crumbling American decay that had covered the country in a generational, post-industrial-era rust. A lot of America was suffering under a series of ills that wouldn’t quickly be figured out, and a lot of Americans tumbled into poverty and impoverished lifestyles which would last a generation or more. The trauma of the Vietnam War was still being inadequately processed and had hobbled ingenuity and middle class productivity for at least a decade. Couple that decay with the ever growing influx of people who were also coming to America for the same reasons people had come to America for the last 200 years, and the volcanic level of cocaine (Columbia and South America), heroin (South-east Asia) and other drugs flooding from every far corner of the globe along with the new dreamers. While people came for a new way of life, the drugs came because of the insatiable greed and shortfall within the supply and demand schema and was accepted as the new currency on the streets.

The de-Americanization of the city was occurring everywhere and birthed tension, distrust and self-segregation amongst the races, pushing people into ‘enclaves.’ Little Havana, Chinatown, German Town, Thai Town, and every version imaginable, flourished across the United States and put people into places where everyone felt safe, separated, but somehow still together.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Miami which was now a failing resort town with sandy beaches and a quickly declining population. Miami was going through the worst kinds of growing pains America could imagine, and these difficulties were exposed in vivid detail on the evening news. Violent drug wars between different drug Cartels played out on the streets, police brutality cases involving young blacks which would fully exonerate white officers, race riots in the open, extreme poverty, and Mafia assassinations over shipping contracts and speedboats all clashing with the old, white world of fading Americans past their prime, in full retirement, and living on Social Security. Miami, in the years between the Vietnam War and it’s full gentrification in the 90s, had a turbulent, deadly and difficult two decades.

With the social fabric of Southern Florida already falling apart, Immigration became the foremost point of contention of all the social issues of the region at that time.

In April of 1980, Fidel Castro opened the doors of Cuba’s massive Mariel Prison and told every inmate to leave the country and flood the shores of the United States. This was known historically as the ‘Mariel Boat Lift.’ Castro’s government assisted these prisoners as their goal was to lessen their burden and over-all cost of prisoners within his country. Castro labeled all of these people as ‘undesirable,’ and told them to never return. This was a dark moment for globalism which one could never expect, nor see coming. It was the world’s first international Uber ride from one country to another. America struggled to handle the crisis appropriately and humanely. The Cubans and Haitian refugees were sequestered in camps, under freeways and in make-shift slums. Then President Jimmy Carter had offered little to alleviate the situation and find a reasonable solution. The same problems persisted and followed Ronald Reagan post-election within days of taking office.

Miami at the time had been seeing issues of ‘white flight,’ ‘bright flight,’ and massive infrastructure issues from years of neglect that had left large parts of the city nearly vacant or spotted with pockets of elderly pensioners. Within six months after the Boatlift from Cuba, 125,000 ‘Marielitos’ had arrived in and around Miami. With the large amount of cocaine coming out of Columbia at the time, and two thirds of all narcotic shipments coming through Florida, the US Treasury Department calculated that over $5 Billion in excess US currency was circulating in the Miami area alone. This was noted later in Time Magazine to be “more than twelve Federal Reserve banks combined.”

Strangely, whatever was built up in the anxieties of everyday Americans, was going to be expressed in the arts — one way or the other. In this case, and the ever occurring realities of the Cuban exodus, and the ongoing drug wars, films like Scarface and the show Miami Vice premiered to show the world, inadvertently, a glamorized reality of what was happening day-to-day on the streets of Miami. But what happened after the show came out, was something that was stranger than fiction and to be fully forgotten if not examined and revisited.

At the time of the first episode, Miami was considered The Murder Capitol of The World. The show told the story of a visual Miami Beach which didn’t yet exist, but would in a very short time. Historians and preservationists just months before the shows’ debut, were lauding Miami as ‘The City of the Future.’ Miami Vice quickly made it a reality. Filming began in South Miami on deserted streets, without many permits, and in some scenes not a single car on the boulevard in either direction. Michael Mann’s art department for the show painted one building after another different pastel colors, looking to break up the red and the browns so prevalent within the forgotten landscape. The budget suffered, but the show soldiered on despite of these demands. The crew reported hearing gun shots and machine gun fire often. Some of the neighborhoods were shocked to see the film crew show up to film who appeared undaunted, but we’re equally concerned about their safety on set and frightened. South Miami Beach in 1984 was a literal ghost-town to residents and a war zone to anyone involved in the drug-trade.

Michael Mann’s viewpoint with the show highlighted the historical anxieties that had been growing since the loss of the Vietnam War with Middle Class White America. He had tapped into something vital, but frightening and decided to never let go.

There was at the time a pervasive feeling with Americans that they were being passively invaded. As refugees landed in large numbers from both Cuba and Haiti, Americans suspicions of a growing Hispanic culture was a threat to their nostalgic 1950s perfect view of a country which never existed.

Inside the television set, Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs were undercover detectives who were facing off with the dangerous, dark, lawless, foreign invaders week after week and always coming out on top. Justice was more often served with a bullet than a prison sentence. The character of James ‘Sonny’ Crockett could’ve been viewed as a coincidence in naming, but likely wasn’t. Like Davy Crockett repealing Hispanic invaders at the Alamo, the modern day version would play out repeatedly and in similar fashion on Friday nights. Instead of a valiant steed, he was supplied with a Ferrari Daytona Spyder and the full-on machismo of a ‘cigarette’ speed-boat while living aboard his personal luxury sail boat. The equity of his property, provided by the department, was in the millions. Even Ricardo Tubb’s mint-condition custom silver blue ‘64 Cadillac Coupe de Ville were artifacts well above a cops salary which is repeatedly referenced in the show at $43,500 a year.

Within four short years and along with the shows’ massive success in ratings, awards and cultural impact, Miami had undergone expansive gentrification. This was aided by sweeping Law Enforcement endeavors and construction projects who’s visible goal was be to became the number one tourist spot in the United States. By the time Miami Vice finished season three, this goal was mostly achieved.

The reality was that most Americans were coming to Miami to see the lifestyle portrayed in the show, which didn’t yet exist. However, by the time the show hit syndication and went around the world, that lifestyle aided by curious tourists brought interest, income and investment and literally changed to landscape to make Miami, specifically South Beach, into the Miami of Miami Vice.

This is where the popularity and impact of American Art transformed an American city into the fantasyland portrayed by Michael Mann and his production crew. An entire metropolis cloaked itself in the make-believe to become real and thriving. This is likely the most post-modern act of art ever witnessed or to occur — period.

While that might sound absurd and overly post-modern, never before had life imitated the arts so closely. The lasting impact on the culture, television, music and fashion was never more evident than it was when Miami Vice ran for five full seasons. Tee-shirts with suit coats became the predominate style in men’s clothes, and the show became a type of fetishism for Men’s Fashion like no show or film had ever done before. Pastel colors were now a part of the mainstream in everyone’s wardrobe. Music videos built into TV show episodes was a new thing. The sound of a show was now just as important as the look, and as important as the writing, which before Miami Vice, other than casting were the only real considerations.

The Writing in Miami Vice constantly investigated the idea of two Vice Cops who hunt monsters and the worst kind of opportunistic capitalists — while not becoming that very thing themselves. The foundation of the show was the notion that living outside the law meant living in a very different world where both worlds couldn’t exist simultaneously. That world was where marriage, family and ethics couldn’t survive or thrive and our heroes were often left not just lonely, but alone. The pilot showed the audience Crockett’s failing marriage, Tubb’s dead brother, another Officer’s life overwhelmed by medical expenses and vulnerable. It was also no mistake that Nietzsche’s Superman concept and his philosophy of nihilism continually found itself woven into the show and given voice by both the Vice Cops and the hustlers, alike. Crockett’s confidential source ‘Izzy Moreno’ was constantly quoting the literary heavyweight Nietzsche as well as Lee Iacocca, then CEO of Ford and a bestselling motivational business speaker, and always bringing an intellectual consideration that was never expected. If Michael Mann and the writing staff were also trying to send a message about the ‘War on Drugs’ during the Reagan Administration, it was none too subtle.

This was the story being shown to America every Friday night. And was shown in a classist setting of new found wealth, inequity and ill-gotten gain. The police were often being abused by the system while putting their lives in danger and the only bonds they made, were those they made with each other while on the streets, and on the job.

Video games inspired both by Miami Vice and Scarface would emerge almost a decade later in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The imprint it made upon the culture was forever indelible and permanent. Grand Theft Auto stands as one of the highest grossing video game franchises to date.

By the year 2000, and now 36 years later in 2020, Miami was been completely reborn as a the metropolis upon the ocean’s edge that the city fathers had tried for so many years after World War II to make happen, but couldn’t quite manage.

Miami Vice is also one of the few shows that is still required to pay for through either direct rentals or purchase and even over streaming via Hulu. While the look of the show may seem dated to some, the optics and the message still hold true and should be required viewing for many disciplines.

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Steffan Piper

Once a resident of Alaska, the Mayor of Nome asked him to ‘leave and never return,’ due to a minor misunderstanding.