Johnny Depp’s new movie, The Rum Diary certainly seems to be motivated by good intentions. It’s a homage to his late friend, gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, and it replaces some of his original novel’s derogatory treatment of Puerto Ricans with a progressive argument against the way unbridled speculative business ventures exploit that vulnerable island territory. But under the guise of liberal empathy, The Rum Diary gives almost no voice to Puerto Ricans themselves, and in some ways joins in on the exploitative joyride.
Featuring only one minor Latino character, the faceless Segurra, The Rum Diary joins the pantheon of Hollywood films that use Puerto Rico and/or Puerto Ricans as a backdrop to comment, sometimes comically, and sometimes seriously, about nagging political and social problems of the day. Like West Side Story, the film tries to create a measured degree of sympathy for Puerto Ricans while stereotyping them. Like Bananas, a lampoon of Latin American dictatorships that was shot largely in Puerto Rico, it reduces them to voiceless caricatures lurking in the background.
But in this 21st century of globalization and tax breaks for the rich, there’s an even more disturbing reality behind The Rum Diary and its mega-star that seems to undercut the movie’s apparent goodwill. While Depp’s character, Paul Kemp, who represents an updated version of the young Hunter Thompson, rails on about greedy land barons and ugly Americans, there lies a great irony here. Depp himself is filthy rich, and makes no apologies for it.
“Basically if they’re going to pay me the stupid money right now, I’m going to take it,” Depp is quoted as saying in the November issue of Vanity Fair. The report goes on to say that he has made $300 million for his acting in the Pirates of Caribbean series “due to a gross-profit-sharing deal with Disney.” In just the period between June 2009 and June 2010, he made $75 million.
Like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth in the series, The Rum Diary was shot in Puerto Rico through an arrangement with a government agency that grants huge tax breaks to mega-rich Hollywood studios. The Puerto Rico Film Commission offers a 40% tax credit to filmmakers, most notably Hollywood productions like Fast Five and Men Who Stare at Goats.
While these productions due provide jobs of varying skill levels to Puerto Rican residents, these jobs are temporary in nature, and do little to alleviate the unemployment rate in the island, which hovers near 20%. In an even more poignant irony, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences blocked America–directed by local talent Sonia Fritz and one of the few “Puerto Rican” films backed by the PR Film Commission–as a Foreign-language Oscar entry this year because of the island’s status as a U.S. territory.
In the climactic moments of The Rum Diary, as Kemp finds his literary voice, Depp revels while pounding away at his typewriter. “I’d finally understood the connection,” he says, “between children scavenging for food and shiny brass plates on the front doors of banks.”
It seems that Kemp did, but it’s not clear that Depp has. While tax breaks and huge profits enjoyed by banks and large corporations have recently come into question, confronting beloved Hollywood stars and their beyond-CEO-like salaries hasn’t been a topic of discussion. Perhaps the time for that has come.