The Frontera movie is a story about lives shattered by the US-Mexico border.
The story unfolds around two families: one from the Mexican side, one from the U.S. side. Miguel (Michael Peña) crosses the border to find work to support his family, including his pregnant wife Paulina (Eva Longoria). On the other side lives a retired sheriff Roy (Ed Harris) and his wife Olivia (Amy Madigan).
From the moment Miguel crosses the border everything goes wrong. As the tragedy unfolds, Olivia is shot and killed. Miguel, in the wrong place at the wrong time, is wrongly blamed. The actions of a cast of villains and fools deepen the tragedy as Roy tries to find out the truth about his wife’s death. Like the movie Crossing Over, Frontera is about the lives caught in a border system over which they have no control.
Both Migual and Roy are appealing characters. Miguel expresses values of responsibility, respect for others and dignity. Roy expresses a desire for justice and commitment to truth. The high standards they and their wives set, are rarely met by others in the story whose stupidity, avarice, violence, cowardice, self-interest or predatory behaviour drives the events that unfold.
One message the Frontera movie effectively projects, its that nationality has nothing to do with character. There are good and bad people on both sides of the border. As Martin Luther King counsels, people are judged by the content of their character, rather than the colour of their skin (or in this case, the colour of their passport).
Beyond this, the movie projects a series of stereotypes about the border that will be familiar to anyone who follows the issue. Frontera doesn’t extend our understanding, it isn’t always accurate, and it doesn’t make original contributions. It does capture how the issue plays out in the popular imagination and, apart from being good drama, it’s worth watching for that reason.
Its primary message in this context is that the border is broken. This exposes people to danger and loss on both sides. It attracts exploitation of the unscrupulous and the criminal. It is a magnet for racist attitudes and violence. People on both sides are victims of its failure. As NPR demonstrates in its pictorial series on life on the US-Mexico frontera, this account leaves out much of a very complex story. The border is not just a “problem”. It is not just a line. It is a borderland where people live complex lives on each side (and sometimes both sides) of the line. NPR’s series of radio interviews also tell this complex story.
Frontera’s portrayal of the physical realities of the “line” are also misleading. The border is portrayed as a rancher’s paddock fence. While this may be true in some places (e.g. remote desert crossings), this ignores other places where hundreds of miles of border barriers and tens of thousands of officers patrol the frontera in an attempt to control who is allowed to cross. The movie invites the conclusion that “nothing is being done”. In doing so it supports agendas that seek to attract public money to the “problem”. With 20,000 border patrol officers in the US, there are 10 officers for every mile of the US-Mexico border. In 2014, it cost US taxpayer $3.6 billion to maintain the service.
As well as the agents, 1/3 of the US-Mexico border is barred by a fortified fence. This fortified barrier runs the entire border of Arizona, where Frontera is set. Other parts of the border are effectively impassible because of the Rio Grande (which runs for much of the eastern border), or because of desert or mountains.
The Frontera movie is limited in its imagination of possible solutions. It primarily offers are symbols representing border controls and development aid, although it might be read as cross border entrepreneurship. In this respect it is a very different take than that provided in the movie Elysium, which is far more adventurous in its imagination as to how the ‘problem’ might be solved.
Frontera also fails to draw the obvious connection between its conclusion that people are the same on both sides of the border, and the problem of condemning people on one side to deprivation and poverty in the name of fixing the broken ‘Frontera’. The status quo is equated with ‘the way things ought to be’. It taking this approach, the movie essentially endorses the ‘separate but equal’ myth. That myth sustained generations of oppression in the United States and elsewhere in the world on the grounds of race. While nationality, rather than race, is the justification in this case, it is hard to argue there is a moral difference. Is there really a substantive difference between a bantustan and an international border, when the border is a geographical dividing line between a decent life and grinding poverty? The architects of apartheid understood and sought to exploit the logical nexus, as for example in the following statement by C.P. Mulder.
If our policy is taken to its logical conclusion as far as the black people are concerned, there will be not one black man with South African citizenship … Every black man in South Africa will eventually be accommodated in some independent new state in this honourable way and there will no longer be an obligation on this Parliament to accommodate these people politically.
So does the logic of the nation-state argue that there is no obligation to people on the other side of the Frontera.