What’s with Catherine Zeta-Jones playing Columbian drug lord Griselda Blanco?

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, you might have seen the high-budget trailer for Lifetime’s Griselda Blanco biopic, Cocaine Godmother. If not, here you go:

If you’re astute to representation issues, you probably know what I’m going to point out as the problem. Catherine Zeta-Jones, a Welsh woman, is playing Blanco, a Colombian woman. Why is she, though?

There are plenty Latina actresses who could have played this role, and in fact, there is one who has been lobbying for this role for a very long time–Jennifer Lopez. Lopez has been jonesing to play Blanco for years, and has created a deal with HBO to bring her TV movie to life (as to when that movie is coming remains to be seen).

Surprisingly, it’s also not the first time Zeta-Jones has been tapped to play Blanco; she was initially supposed to play the Queen of Cocaine in a biopic called The Godmother. According to W Magazine, Zeta-Jones won the role over…Jennifer Lopez. According to a source to The Sunday Times in 2016, despite Lopez’s hard lobbying for the role, she didn’t win out because “she doesn’t have the acting quality to pull it off.”

Today, neither woman are in the role–it now belongs to Oscar-nominated actress Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace). But both women are gunning to have the last word on Blanco’s life. Right now, we’re seeing Zeta-Jones’ vanity project in the lead.

This gets back to the main point of this article–why is a non-Latina actress playing a Latina figure? From where I’m sitting, it seems like another case of Hollywood (and maybe even Zeta-Jones herself) believing in casting white actors in non-white roles because they have an ethnic “look.” It’s another, subtler kind of whitewashing.

There’s a reason Zeta-Jones has been able to play Latina on more than one occasion–she played a Latina character in The Mask of Zorro opposite Antonio Banderas–and that’s because she’s a white woman who has ethnically-ambiguous looks. Casting-wise, Zeta-Jones fits the model Hollywood looks for when casting a stereotypical non-black “Latina” role; she’s, as Hollywood would describe her, “exotic” thanks to her olive skin and curvy features. But casting her also comes with the added bonus of whiteness, which adds “credibility,” and “name recognition” to the role. In this way, Zeta-Jones can play both sides, having her cake and eating it, too.

But in the stills and trailer for Cocaine Godmother, you can still see Zeta-Jones exaggerating her already ethnically-ambiguous features to the point where it starts becoming character makeup. Her naturally olive skin is bronzed even further to get it closer to Blanco’s, making her skin look like it has an unnatural tan. Her nose is somehow contoured and highlighted to look even more bulbous in an effort to match Blanco’s nose in real life. The overall look is meant to make her look less like a Welsh-English woman and more like a woman of color–the makeup treatment doesn’t want you to equate Zeta-Jones’ performance with brownface, but let’s face it; it’s brownface.

This is also not the first time a white actress has used ethnic ambiguity to their advantage. Shirley Maclaine, who has naturally hooded eyes, was able to do it in the 1962 film that’s basically posits a white woman stealing a role from a Japanese woman as a comedy, My Geisha, and in 1966’s Gambit, in which she plays opposite Michael Caine as “exotic Eurasian showgirl” Nicole Chang. Most recently, Floriana Lima, an Italian-American actress, was able to use her looks to play Latina Supergirl character Maggie Sawyer. Many more examples exist beyond these two.

Zeta-Jones is looking to have her cake and eat it too again with Cocaine Godmother. But this time, there’s a little bit of pushback.

The noise around this film is only going to grow the closer we get to the film’s 2018 TV premiere. We’ll see how the film handles the impending whitewashing discussion it’ll inevitably come up against.