Is America ready for a black 'Scarface'?

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Few films are as iconic in popular culture as Scarface.

Al Pacino’s gritty depiction of Tony Montana — his rise, his reign and his ultimate demise — is a cinema classic. It is a story that many can’t imagine remaking, much less with a black actor as the lead. Not because the right actor doesn’t exist, but because the question remains: is there a fresh perspective left that can make that story compelling to a new audience?

As Universal Pictures prepares a new version of the movie, the expected ire of a viewing public – already exhausted by new versions of old movies — churned about how to update the classic.

Click here to view a Grio slideshow of our top 10 picks to replace Pacino

The hip-hop communities’ adoration for the time capsule of the Miami drug era of the 80s is common knowledge. It only takes about three MTV Cribs episodes from your favorite rappers’ houses to understand how much the movie meant to artists who found parallels to their own lives between all the violence, drug use and greed filling the screen.

That community was able to do something critics initially couldn’t in 1983. They saw past the surface hysteria about the movie’s violent content and embraced its moral code. Principles that, while flawed, held some universal truth to them.

What’s also interesting to point out is this isn’t the second coming of Scarface, it’s actually the third.

The fabled 1983 version was a contemporary re-imagining of the Howard Hughes produced 1932 film that featured an Italian character coming to the United States as an immigrant and falling into illegal activity, much the same way Montana did as a Cuban exile.

When Universal begins casting the movie, they’ll have to consider what’s the modern day equivalent to being an Italian immigrant in the 1930s or Cuban immigrant in the 1980s? Realistically, that may not be a black character at all.
Blacks in America still face tangible discrimination but on film, would the plight of a contemporary blacks capture the feeling of being an outsider the way the previous two versions? Would it even appeal to a non-black audience? Why not base the film around a Latin character again seeing as their fight for equal rights in America are still behind the curve and capturing national headlines.

If it is a black based cast, they’ll have to be careful not to fall into some of the same shortcomings remakes of popular movies with predominantly black casts have before.

From I Think I Love My Wife – a remake of the 1972 French film Love in the Afternoon ­- to the forgettable Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power that prominently featured Diddy. Even the more recent Death At A Funeral — which was a 2010 remake of a 2007 British movie for American audiences with black comedic leads, they all were negatively received and headed towards the Ice Cube’s First Sunday abyss (i.e. — instantly forgotten).

The studio will have to weigh just how much of a hip-hop influence they’ll want in this updated version, if any, but to bank everything on box office and critical reception would stand in stark contrast to the 1983 version. Initially, that film got most mixed to negative reviews.

Who could Universal bank on to support this movie at the box office without an all-star cast involved? The worst case scenario would be this production winding up in the Wal-Mart discount bin, an afterthought that the Soulja Boy-led Juice remake seems destined to become. If they are trying to milk all the potential out of this remake, it seems that the contemporary parallel wouldn’t be organized crime of cocaine but high-level white collar crimes.

A black lead would certainly fit there aside from the obvious backlash of another black character being cast a villain. That too ties into the strange charm of Pacino’s Tony Montana. There was a humanity there. You didn’t just say hello to the bad guy, you rooted for him and black actors exist who can coax that same sort of emotional connection out of viewers who know the lead character’s inevitable downfall is coming.

Trends are cyclical and the winds of change have brought back just about everything from the 80s. From snapback hats to movies we could’ve lived without 20 some odd years ago, Hollywood has made it clear that everything can (and will) be repackaged and resold to people who weren’t alive for its initial incarnation. Still, just re-booting this movie, setting it in Atlanta and throwing in some rapper cameos won’t be enough to move me towards a theater and hopefully that won’t be the case.

It’ll be interesting to see where this one goes because rampant praise and merchandising of the 1983 cult sensation isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.