“Scarface” turns 40 and its portrayal of Cubans in Miami still rankles 

Over-the-top violence, a snowstorm of cocaine, a pastel city — and ruthless Cuban gangsters. That’s what made “Scarface” a sensation, and a controversy.

As the 40th anniversary of the film’s release in December 1983 approaches, “Scarface” remains one of the only big Hollywood productions with significant Cuban representation. 

At the time of its premiere, some believed it portrayed Cubans, particularly those who fled during the Mariel boatlift to the United States in 1980, in a harsh light. That view persists today, decades later. 

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who is of Cuban heritage, said Scarface misrepresented the Cuban community.

“I think unfortunately there was a misperception,” Suarez said in an interview. 

When filming was announced to start in 1982, Miami city commissioner Demetrio Perez Jr. did not want any minority portrayed negatively, assuming it would be anti-Cuban and pro-violence. Perez sought to block the permits for filming crew in Miami. 

With that, only 12 filming days were spent in the Magic City, with the remainder in Los Angeles.

“The reason that it was about a Cuban is because of the Mariel boatlift and because of the explosion in the cocaine trade — it was simply a way of taking advantage of the headlines,” said Nat Segaloff, author of the forthcoming “Say Hello to my Little Friend: A Century of Scarface.”  “A few years later, it might have been about the Russian mafia.”

Segaloff, who worked with screenwriter Brian DePalma as his publicist for his 1972 movie “Sisters,” explained that DePalma became frustrated when critics would not review the movie he made, but instead the movie they wanted to see. DePalma did not appreciate others when they did not try to understand but continued to criticize, Segaloff said.  

Segaloff explained that it was simply a matter of which oppressed population was taking advantage of their version of the American dream. Scarface was a morality tale, but the underlying message is sometimes overlooked. 

At the end of the film, main character Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino, plummets to a death that was brought on by his greed and lack of morals. 

“It…became sort of a metaphor for how Cuban Americans were able to so easily come into the white establishment and become a part of it. In this case, in the worst way,” said Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago. 

Santiago, who came to Miami from Cuba as a child during the freedom flights in 1969, enjoyed the movie but said it gave Cubans a bad reputation in America which hurt all the more so as they were just beginning to try to settle in their new country. 

“The movie captures the essence of what Miami was at the time,” Suarez said. “The beginning of the 80’s was rooted in violence.”

To other Cubans, it was simply just a good flick.

University of Miami film professor Rene Rodriguez recalled the time when he skipped school and snuck into the theater to watch the film.

As Rodriguez, then 16, stepped out the theater, a reporter for Channel 10 asked about his thoughts on the film. Bloody and awesome, Rodriguez responded.

“I wasn’t a (film) critic back then, so I didn’t evaluate it on those terms. I evaluated just on pure entertainment value,” said Rodriguez, who was born in Cuba and came to Miami when he was six.

To this day, Rodriguez, who also is operator of the Bill Cosford Cinema,  still loves “Scarface” while recognizing its message of what happens when a person abandons their ethics. He also appreciates how it shed a light on Miami as an opportune place for film production.

“He’s haunted by his actions,” Rodriguez said of Montana, the central character. “So I find it to be a very moral movie about a man who we like and we understand why he succumbed to that lifestyle because he had nothing else, but he remains a tragic figure.”

Meanwhile, a Dec. 9 event with Pacino at the Fontainebleau to mark the cult classic’s 40th anniversary has been canceled. The planned black-tie VIP gala during Art Basel week was scratched due to “unforeseen circumstances,” a spokesperson said.

Sophia Bolivar is a senior at FIU majoring in digital journalism and focusing her studies on criminal justice. Sharing a love for both writing and photography has led her to pursue a career in journalism.