Deconstructing Scarface (1983): Challenging Its Cultural Perception
Scarface has become legendary in popular culture for its memorable lines while serving as inspiration for numerous rappers, where Tony Montana’s rags to riches story is a blueprint for their careers. They have dedicated rap lyrics to Tony such as “I take over the streets fresh off the banana boat. I come straight from the east, where niggas split your cantaloupe”  and “born alone, die alone, no crew to keep my crown or throne. I’m deep by sound alone, caved inside, 1,000 miles from home” . It is clear rappers like Future, who stated he simply wanted “to be respected out of the game” , and Nas’ influence from ‘growing up in the inner city’  have been inspired by Tony’s forthright and determined demeanor. Future and Nas clearly felt their own rags to riches story connected to Tony’s. Scarface as a result can be observed as a glorification of the criminal lifestyle, where acts of murder, drug-taking and materialistic desire are glamourised. However, the idea that Scarface glorifies a criminal lifestyle can be seen as a misperception; Tony Montana fell as quickly as he rose in his quest to dominate Miami’s underworld with horrific consequences. Scarface is a morality tale, instead of the rise and fall of an ambitious immigrant wanting his part of the American dream. Scarface is more closely related to its 1932 predecessor of the same name, which criticised American gangsters who dominated the nation’s media and called for the American legal system to respond with justice. Scarface contained themes of immorality and corrupted individuals from its predecessor. Scarface should be interpreted in relation to themes of immorality, horrific repercussions of a criminal lifestyle, excessive and materialistic desires.
Tony Montana’s Deceitful Characteristics
Tony Montana, according to Curtis Marez, was a ‘common source of inspiration’  for rappers who idolise him in popular culture. Tony came from a poor background to stake his claim in the American dream, where his determination resulted in vast riches and power. This would have been inspirational if not for Tony’s criminal lifestyle being fueled by deceit and greed. Scarface‘s opening scene showed Tony being interrogated by Immigration Officials, to check for any criminality in his past. Tony is quickly revealed to be lying in his answers firmly establishing his deceitful characteristics. This was a pivotal scene as it not only established Tony’s deceitful characteristics, it also indicated his criminality as entering America through deceit helped Tony’s violent rise to power. This is where Scarface took inspiration from its predecessor, as its protagonist behaved callously which served as an inspiration for Montana’s characteristics. This clearly is not what can be defined as an inspiration character, rather an immoral one.
Once Tony became established in Miami’s underworld, his deceitful behavior became more shameless by flirting with Elvira, his Bosses’ girlfriend. This aspect to Scarface follows its predecessor as its protagonist was also deceitful with others emphasising his immorality. This is significant to Tony’s deceitful characteristics as he showed no remorse for others’ emotions, making him immoral. Tony’s lack of remorse not only emphasised his immorality but also reflected why he could be a criminal, not caring whose life or lives he ruined. Tony’s deceitful characteristics reached a pivotal moment when visiting his mother and sister. Whilst his sister was naive to Tony’s intentions, his mother could see through Tony’s deceit. “Who did you kill for this, Antonio?”, his mother immediately asked, as she proceeded to criticise Tony. If Tony is seen as an inspiration for some, then why do they not take into account his deceitful behavior making him increasingly immoral and a shame upon his family? If they did then maybe Tony’s admirers might understand the darker side which dominated his personality.
The Horrific Realities of a Criminal Lifestyle
Scarface, as well as being regarded as an inspirational rags to riches story, is also accused of exploiting crime for action-filled entertainment. Ken Tucker noted ‘thinking broadly about how to drive that story line to new story lines, and thinking about the content as part of a new entertainment’ . Therefore Scarface is referenced through its scenes of violence as if it is an action-based film. However, Scarface followed its predecessor in reflecting horrific realities of a criminal lifestyle. Scarface‘s predecessor was made to condemn gang rule in America and the Government’s indifference. This was depicted by gangsters going on murderous rampages with horrific results. It was this moral standing which Scarface was influenced by, reflecting the horrific repercussions of a criminal lifestyle. The infamous decapitation scene of Tony’s associate Angel underlined such horrific realities. These scene made use of close-ups, emphasising the chainsaw and suspenseful music to convey terror within Tony seeing Angel brutally murdered and potentially suffering the same fate. This scene contradicts Scarface‘s reputation in exploiting action and glorifying criminality. Tony’s horrified reactions and fear of decapitation should have indicated to audiences horrific repercussions rather than a celebration of a criminal lifestyle.
A similar infamous scene of Omar, an police informant, being hung from an helicopter as a message for Tony to keep in line with business associates. Scarface was not exploiting or glorifying crime, instead it was reflecting crime’s brutal reality. This brutal reality in Scarface always represented crime’s consequences as disturbingly violent, there were no redeeming values as a criminal in Miami’s underworld. Despite Tony’s deceitful characteristics, eventually he became disillusioned with his criminality when asked to take part in an assassination. Tony questioned the assassination taking place knowing innocent children would be killed. Tony stood out of his criminality to compromise the assassination attempt, which triggered his own death. Tony’s realisation of his criminal lifestyle took influence from its predecessor, where its protagonist becomes increasingly dazed as his life drastically changed. Scarface has become misinterpreted in glamourising criminality and instead should be seen as conveying horrific realities of a criminal lifestyle with no positives.
Excess and Materialistic Environment
The argument for Scarface being seen as glamourising Tony’s lifestyle can be further diminished in portraying its environment in an excessive and materialistic manner. Scarface might be seen as incorporating 1980s styles since it was the time period. However, this incorporation can be interpreted as representing tackiness. This style reflected materialistic shallowness, coinciding with the characters’ excessive nature. Club Babylon is a frequent location where Tony visits for business and pleasure. Every time Tony entered Club Babylon, a piece of crass pop music would play. Wherever it was Debbie Harry’s Rush Rush, Amy Holland’s She’s on Fire or Daily’s I’m Hot Tonight, they were representations of cheaply-produced pop songs which lacked ingenuity only offering a quick rush with no substance, symbolising the characters’ lives. When Tony became established in Miami’s underground, he was surrounded by contemporary styles within modern apartments and flash clothing. The lavish surroundings and clothing from an aesthetic perspective were the characters’ representing themselves as prominent individuals. Yet deep down it all equated to a shallow existence leaving Tony and his acquaintances increasingly void of emotion.
Tony’s relationship with Elvira conveyed this shallow existence when she told him, “I have enough friends, I don’t need another one”. Elvira’s quote can be interpreted as an emptiness incorporated into the excessive and shallow reality of their materialism. Tony’s materialistic urges increased as he became bigger in Miami’s underworld. Tony purchased a Cadillac with leopard-skinned interiors. He proudly presented the Cadillac to Elvira, not realising how crass he looked. Once Tony became Miami’s underworld’s most prominent drug dealer, his excessive and materialistic behavior reached consuming highs. Tony was shown modifying his mansion with lavish portraits of himself and Elvira, surrounding himself with drugs which he takes on a regular basis and even kept a tiger chained in his back yard. Whereas some see this as Scarface making Tony’s lifestyle glamorous, it should be read as excessive and materialistic behavior on Tony’s part. Tony became less disciplined, losing control of his life when he has all the material riches. Scarface was conveying the repercussions of Tony’s excessive and materialistic lifestyle. It was not a glorious existence filled with comfortable surroundings, rather a soulless existence which could not satisfy Tony.
Scarface in representing Tony Montana as a deceitful character, showing horrific repercussions of a criminal lifestyle and the characters’ excessive, materialistic desires established itself criticising rather than exploiting crime. Tony Montana only cared for himself regardless of the consequences or feelings of others. Tony’s selfishness counters arguments of his position as an inspirational character for those willing to succeed. This extends into horrific repercussions of a criminal lifestyle, where Tony’s selfishness was equaled by the brutal violence and immorality he encountered. Scarface portrayed countless acts of brutality as a consequence of pursuing a criminal lifestyle, it was never meant to be seen as entertaining or part of a glorious rise to power. The excessive, materialistic desires emphasised by Tony’s crass taste reveal further flaws in arguments of Tony as an inspiration. These aspects of Scarface show why it should not be seen as elevating Tony Montana as an inspiration or glorifying criminality. Scarface should be seen as a cautionary tale of immorality and greed leading to disastrous consequences.
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2. Nas. 1994. ‘The World Is Yours’. Rap-Genius.com. [Online]. Available From: http://rap.genius.com/Nas-the-world-is-yours-lyrics
3. Langhorne., C. 2012. ‘Drake, T.I. & Ludacris See The Future, Pack Bags For Future’. Sohh.com. [Online]. Available From: http://www.sohh.com/2012/03/drake_ti_ludacris_see_the_future_pack_ba.html
4. Anonymous., N/A. ‘The World Is Yours by Nas’. Songfacts.com. [Online]. Available From: http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=7849
5. Marez., C. 2004. Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics. University of Minnesota Press.
6. Tucker., K. 2008. Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America. St. Martin’s Griffin.
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