Contemporary television and
racial capitalism in place

by Curtis Marez

Get Shorty (Epix, 2017-19), a TV program inspired by the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, presents a meta-reflection on the process of media making in impoverished places. Season one deals with Amara de Escalones (Lidia Porto), a ruthless Guatemalan casino boss and drug trafficker in Puyallup, Nevada, who launders money by investing in a movie. Episode 8, “Shooting on Location,” depicts the production of The Admiral’s Mistress, an English period romance. Amara convinces the studio to film in Puyallup by providing armed Latinx gangsters to do free labor on set. With a penchant for animal prints and sharp red nails, Amara sleeps with and often murders her partners in crime. For example, she beds and then murders the owner of a water park where she launders money before forcing herself on the terrified director of The Admiral’s Mistress. While Get Shorty also depicts a studio head who defrauds insurance companies, Amara represents a kind of racialized and gendered terror that makes Hollywood’s transgressions pale by comparison.

Although set in Nevada, “Shooting on Location” was filmed on a backlot in Albuquerque to take advantage of state subsidies. The local tax incentive program in New Mexico—a poor state of mostly Mexican and Native American people—effectively diverts taxes from social welfare to media industries in Los Angeles. Hollywood promises more jobs and more spending on local businesses, but data suggests that such benefits are minimal compared to profits. TV producers redistribute wealth upwards in ways that seem unethical if not criminal but Get Shorty’s racist and sexist representation of Amara distracts from the local production context and Hollywood’s complicity in the theft of public resources.

Get Shorty exemplifies my claim in this essay that the content and production process of TV shows made in poor parts of the United States constitute powerful, interrelated forms of racial capitalism. Cedric J. Robinson introduced the concept of racial capitalism in Black MarxismThe Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983), where he argued that capitalism is inextricably fused with racism. “Racial capitalism,” Robinson writes, means that “as a material force,” racism “permeate[s] the social structures emergent from capitalism.” As such, both “the development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society” and its corresponding “social ideology” have historically “pursued essentially racial directions.”[1] [open endnotes in new wondow] Racial capitalism, in other words, combines systems of racialized theft and labor exploitation with the production and dissemination of the racist representations that support them.  

While Robinson’s ideas have been influential in Black studies, ethnic studies, and American studies, they have been underappreciated in media studies, even though he subsequently elaborated his theory of racial capitalism in Forgeries of Memory and MeaningBlacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film Before World War II (2007).[2] In this book, Robinson argues that racist movies justify the exploitation of workers of color and encourage racism among white workers. Racism historically precluded interracial solidarity and promoted forms of white supremacy as a psychic compensation for class differences among white people. Pictures vilifying people of color further normalize the disciplining of Black and Latinx labor and encourage white racism to the benefit of finance capitalists invested in the film industry.[3]

In his discussion of jungle films from the late 1920s and 1930s, for example, Robinson suggests that Hollywood is itself an industry of racial capitalism that intermixes racial inequalities in both representation and production. Jungle pictures helped legitimate the exploitation of workers in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, but also, he implies, in Black Los Angeles. Robinson cites a 1929 article published in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life about the thousands of Black extras employed to play Africans, Asians, and Pacific Island “savages.” They were recruited from South Central Los Angeles to work across town in Culver City, where the all-white studios were located.[4] Like other municipalities in greater Los Angeles, racially restrictive covenants were common in Culver City, and local police had a reputation for racist harassment. It was also home to many members of the Ku Klux Klan. At the same time as they faced possible racist violence, Black extras were often required to perform extreme physical feats in unsafe conditions and to participate in racist representations—conditions that inspired sit-down strikes and other labor actions.[5] Black extras played disposable African diamond miners (Diamond Handcuffs, 1928) and ivory porters (West of Zanzibar, 1928). Although attention to place is implicit in Robinson’s materialist perspective, his discussion of jungle movies is the rare example where he considers Hollywood’s local context of racialized labor exploitation. In this way, he connects film content rationalizing the exploitation of African workers to a local mode of production partly based in the exploitation of African American workers.

Similar claims can be made about the relationship between movies about Mexicans and the exploitation of Mexican workers in Southern California. During the first three decades of its twentieth century history, Los Angeles depended on Mexican labor to build and maintain rail lines; construct the homes driving regional real estate speculation; harvest and pack citrus and other crops; and tend the region’s lawns and gardens. Mexicans were also subject to segregation (including restrictive covenants) and police and vigilante violence. Hollywood employed a small number as extras, but only the whitest Mexican actors received credited roles. In response to the perceived threat of Mexican revolutionaries in Los Angeles, and with the advent of sound technologies, filmmaking became an indoor industry by the 1930s as studios were increasingly walled off from surrounding Mexican social spaces and employed their own private police forces. The many silent and early sound movies about Mexican bandits symbolically consolidated anti-Mexican whiteness and disciplined the Mexican workers on whom Hollywood still depends.[6]

To extrapolate from Forgeries of Memory and Meaning, Hollywood not only made movies that celebrated a Jim Crow/Juan Crow racial regime on behalf of other industries. Significantly, the film industry itself also constituted a dominant form of what I call racial capitalism in place through its occupation of material spaces and its exploitation of racialized labor, combined with its racist narratives. If “racial capitalism” names capitalism’s development in racial directions, “racial capitalism in place” describes those developments locally, in places where media are made.

Albuquerque Studios includes multiple production offices, nine soundstages and two backlots, and it occupies a large tract of land next to Isleta Pueblo, home to the Isleta Resort and Casino, the location for Jesse Pinkman’s stint in rehab at the end of season 2 and beginning of season 3 of Breaking Bad.
The producers of Preacher built a set representing a Texas church on an Albuquerque Studios backlot, the ruins of which are visible behind a chain link fence surrounded by rat traps. Albuquerque Studios is part of a larger planned community called Mesa del Sol, which includes a K-12 charter school, a fitness club, a café, a dog park, and a Baptist church, which has incorporated into its logo the Zia Pueblo sun symbol but with stained glass replacing the sun. According to its website, the church supports missionary work among Diné people in northern Arizona.

In this essay, I elaborate a theory of “racial capitalism in place” based on contemporary TV shows shot in New Mexico and Georgia to take advantage of local tax incentives and other state subsidies. New Mexico offers a 25% tax incentive for production and post-production costs (excluding above the line workers), with an additional 5% for TV shows and for productions using local facilities.[7] New Mexico’s incentive program paid out more than $83 million in 2021, during the Covid 19 pandemic.[8] Georgia also offers a 30% tax incentive, including costs for actors, writers, directors and show runners—in other words, the most privileged media workers. In the same pandemic year, Georgia’s incentives totaled $870 million even while the state cut funding for public education by almost a billion.[9] Georgia and New Mexico further attract media makers by providing public lands at significantly reduced rates for the building of soundstages and related facilities, and by subsidizing infrastructures such as roads.[10]

Georgia and New Mexico are relatively poor states with large Indigenous, Black, and people of color populations, exemplifying extreme forms of historic and ongoing structural inequality. Indigenous people and people of color are overrepresented in low wage work in the two states, a situation with origins in colonial and plantation histories. TV productions in Georgia and New Mexico indirectly benefit from low labor costs in service and agricultural sectors but employ relatively few local workers themselves. Officials promote tax credits for media production with arguments about the benefits of local employment, although the numbers are small relative to the total profits for wealthy TV producers from out of state. As Ryan Millsap, president of Blackhall Studios in the Atlanta area, explained to a local reporter,

“We’re taking movies that were conceived in LA, funded in LA, and then shipped to Georgia for manufacturing. Then they’re brought back to LA for distribution [and] then all the money stays in Los Angeles after the movie’s made.”[11]

In fact, research demonstrates that the effect on local economic growth is negligible or even negative.[12] Incentives drawing production to these states thus largely result in the upward redistribution of wealth from poor people of color to Hollywood.

Mesa del Sol homes resemble the “Spanish” and “Pueblo” style suburban houses featured in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, where the appropriation of Mexican and Indigenous architectural styles complements the theft of land and exploitation of labor in New Mexico’s past and present. Soundstages are visible in both photos, between the faux adobe homes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance.

Our current historical moment is marked by anti-Black police violence and Black Lives Matter; the theft and despoiling of Indigenous land and the Dakota Pipeline protests; and Latin American migration to the United States, spurred by the U.S. war on drugs and the cartels it helped make possible. The contemporary neoliberal racial regime remains anchored in racial violence, extractive industries, and racialized labor exploitation in the United States and the rest of the world. Like previous forms of capitalism—including the early 20th century finance capitalism studied by Robinson—neoliberal capitalism is inextricably fused with racism and related forms of pathologization that serve to differentiate and discipline workers—but there’s a new twist. Film and TV racial capitalism is funded by public money.

The contemporary diversion of tax dollars from the racialized poor to the Hollywood entertainment industry exemplifies neoliberalism as a novel development in the history of racial capitalism in place. Meanwhile, program content complements such developments by demonizing people of color and representing racialized poverty and violence as attractive, entertaining, and desirable. Such representations both justify a status quo of inequality and disavow Hollywood’s participation in it. Media corporations in this way “launder” public money appropriated from Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people by converting this money into TV spectacles, from crime drama to horror to science fiction. And, as I argue, building on Robinson’s account of early cinema, even recent programs that seem to challenge white supremacy can nonetheless promote racial capitalism.

The studios around Atlanta are even larger and more sumptuous than in Albuquerque. In 2020 Trilith Studios, formerly Pinewood Studios (where the Avengers movies were made), expanded into a 935-acre development that includes filmmaking facilities and a 235-acre “European” town with homes, restaurants, shops, parks, schools, a fitness center, and a spa. The images here are from the Trilith website, where their motto is “It Takes Imagination to Be Different.”

Laundering racial capitalism: crime TV

Made in New Mexico, Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-13) deals with a white high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who turns to manufacturing meth, ultimately outsmarting both a Mexican cartel and a gang of neo-Nazis. In recognition of the program’s footprint in New Mexico, when the state legislature expanded its tax incentive program, it passed the “Breaking Bad Bill.”[13] Also produced in New Mexico, Better Call Saul (AMC, 2015-2022) is a Breaking Bad prequel representing an ethically challenged but appealing white lawyer named Jimmy McGill. Over time, McGill changes his name and becomes the unscrupulous Saul Goodman, who wages a battle of wits with Mexican drug dealers.

Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul have been lauded for contributing to the New Mexican economy, but they’ve employed relatively few local workers, making the state incentive program seem like one of Saul Goodman’s schemes.[14] The first season comes perilously close to admitting as much. In one scene, McGill shoots a TV commercial with the help of film students and using equipment borrowed from the University of New Mexico. McGill’s commandeering of media-making resources from a public university stands in for the program’s reliance on tax dollars. Since like the show itself, McGill appropriates public resources, Better Call Saul seems to allegorize the conditions of its own production.

Also in this episode, the lawyer has been forced by a rival to remove a billboard promoting his practice. McGill sets up the shot on location for his commercial while a Mexican worker (stuntman Eddie J. Fernandez) is seen in the background taking the billboard down. As McGill looks into the camera and explains the injustice of the removal order, the worker falls from the billboard platform and hangs by a rope over the Albuquerque skyline. Scaling the billboard, McGill rushes to rescue the man, who complains “took you long enough” as the lawyer hands him some cash for his role in the public relations stunt. The scene inadvertently implies that TV producers who promise to lend a hand to local workers are also partly PR scammers. Or better yet, in their mode of production, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are symbolic money launderers, “cleaning” assets stripped from Indigenous and Mexican people and turning them into TV shows.[15]

The connection between TV production and the shady appropriation of public resources is most directly represented in Better Call Saul, where McGill forms “Saul Goodman Productions” and employs UNM film students and equipment to make TV commercials for local businesses and for his own law practice (season 2, 3, and 5). Under McGill’s direction, the students also use “borrowed” university equipment in another PR stunt (the filming of a ceremony naming a university library after his late brother to influence the state bar), and to produce incriminating images to foil another lawyer (season 4 and 6). In most of his film projects, McGill uses deception to access public filming locations for free, including a military base, a high school, a courtroom building, and a UNM quad. Over the course of six seasons his commercials come to define his life of greed.  The first episode of season one begins with McGill nostalgically watching one of his commercials while in hiding in Omaha, and the penultimate episode of seasons six ends when one of his elderly marks (Carol Burnett) discovers the commercial on the internet and calls the authorities. Finally, the show’s title sequence mimics McGill’s cheap commercials with grainy video images that increasingly degrade over the course of the show, suggesting the protagonist’s moral descent while seemingly identifying Sony Pictures (Better Call Saul’s production company) with thieving Saul Goodman Productions.

The two shows disavow TV production as money laundering, however, with stereotypical representations of racialized criminality. Both programs include working-class Mexican and Indigenous people as backgrounds in crime and court scenes, while a handful of such actors have larger roles as drug dealers and cartel hit men. They give a few Latinx characters backstories that explain how they became criminals (notably Gus Fring in Breaking Bad and Nacho in Better Call Saul), but for the most part, brown violence and criminality are assumed as a given and represented as static and unchanging. The show’s most significant representations of Mexican workers are thus as inherently violent criminals, especially grinning psychopaths such as Tuco (Raymond Cruz) and Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton).

Breaking Bad naturalizes Latinx criminality with a rogue’s gallery of terrifying narcos, starting with Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), seen here in a flashback after almost drowning his young nephew to teach the lesson “familia es todo” (season 3, episode 7). Hector’s nephew Tuco Salamanca, is a gold-grill-wearing sociopath who puts cigarettes out on his tongue (Raymond Cruz, season 1, episode 6).
Hector’s other nephews, twins Leonel and Marco Salamanca (Daniel Mocada and Luis Mocada), are here pictured decapitating Tortuga (Danny Trejo) with a machete (season 3, episode 3). Those characters reappear in Better Call Saul, with the addition of Hector’s nephew Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), shown here menacing the program’s protagonists, a gun in his waistband (season 5, episode 10).

By contrast, Walter White and Jimmy McGill are depicted as slipping into crime over time and seemingly against type. Although the programs’ white protagonists become reprehensible (Walter White especially so), they nonetheless have family and friends they care for and who care for them; despite their flaws, the main characters are depicted as compelling (if not always attractive) anti-heroes. What is more, both men are excellent at their jobs. White is a meticulous craftsman of meth, producing a purer product than his Mexican rivals and ultimately triumphing over Fring, the Afro-Latinx evil genius of the drug world. Similarly, McGill is a brilliant tactician who outsmarts his rivals, both legal and criminal. White and McGill are thus represented as superior to the shows’ Mexican narcos; the narrative hierarchy between major and minor characters parallels the kinds of hierarchical distinctions between white workers and workers of color in early cinema analyzed by Robinson.[16]

With their depictions of superior white workers and inferior, inherently violent Mexican workers, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul naturalize racialized criminality. From that vantage point, Mexican criminals are born rather than a product of racial capitalism. While both programs promise to bring jobs to New Mexico, they instead bring the ideological infrastructure that supports racialized policing, criminalization, and carceral state violence.[17] The shows thus participate in racial capitalism through a mix of production practices and ideological representations, accumulation by racialized dispossession, and TV narratives that legitimate racialized criminalization, imprisonment, and detention.

Black, Indigenous and Mexican people appear in the background of courtroom scenes in Better Call Saul.
Better Call Saul also represents Mexicans as criminals in the foreground of desert landscape shots.