New ‘Bad Boys’ film taps expertise of VCU’s Santa Muerte scholar

“Much of her pop culture appeal is connected to surging interest in narco-culture, and one of Santa Muerte’s many diverse roles as folk saint is that of narco-saint,” says VCU expert Andrew Chesnut.

From left to right: Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.
Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, stars of "Bad Boys for Life." (Sony Pictures)

Bad Boys for Life,” the new Will Smith and Martin Lawrence action comedy that opens today, tapped the expertise of Virginia Commonwealth University professor Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., an internationally recognized expert of Latin American religious history and leading scholar on the Mexican folk saint Santa Muerte.

Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D.
Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D.

Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair of Catholic Studies in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was asked to provide the film production with his insight into Santa Muerte to ensure that the folk saint personifying death would be portrayed accurately.

What was the experience of consulting on the movie like? What were they most interested in about Santa Muerte, and what did you convey to them?

I was thrilled that the production company run by Will Smith's brother-in-law contacted me for consulting on the portrayal of Santa Muerte. He told me that Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who plays a narco-witch devoted to the Mexican skeleton saint, had insisted that the script be changed from featuring the Cuban religion of Palo Mayombe to Santa Muerte. Since part of the film takes place in Mexico City, it would make more sense to feature Mexico's most popular folk saint instead of a Cuban spiritual practice.

Since del Castillo has starred in several narco-dramas, such as “La Reina del Sur,” and is quite familiar with Santa Muerte, she insisted that the portrayal of the saint of death be accurate. So my main role was to advise on altar design in the context of a narco-devotee, as not only is del Castillo a witch but also the head of a Mexican drug cartel. I must say I couldn't be more pleased with how the altars turned out! 

In addition to this movie, Santa Muerte has been portrayed in several TV shows and video games in recent years, including “Breaking Bad,” “True Detective” and “Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands.” What do you think it is about Santa Muerte that makes her a compelling subject to explore in pop culture?

Indeed! I discuss her mushrooming presence in pop culture in my book, “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” (Oxford University Press, 2012). Much of her pop culture appeal is connected to surging interest in narco-culture, and one of Santa Muerte's many diverse roles as folk saint is that of narco-saint in which, as seen in “Bad Boys for Life,” she serves as protectress and avenger of drug dealers. The downside, of course, is that the fastest growing new religious movement in the West is demonized as nothing more than a narco-cult when the reality is that most of her approximately 12 million followers are working-class folk who are not involved in the drug trade. Thus, her other important roles of curandera (healer), love doctor, and agent of justice become totally eclipsed by narco-saint depictions. 

What did you think of the movie? Did it end up including much related to Santa Muerte? And, if so, what did you think about the portrayal?

On one hand, the movie accurately depicted Santa Muerte in her role as narco-saint, but on the other, such portrayals only reinforce the image of her as nothing but an evil death saint aiding and abetting Mexican cartel members.

In stark contrast, American law enforcement members, played by Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, among others, are portrayed as trying to adhere to good Christian and Buddhist moral standards. While the Santa Muerte altars don't get a lot of screen time, narco-witch Kate del Castillo is seen constantly invoking the female skeleton saint to neutralize American law enforcement.

 I was a bit disappointed that the Santa Muerte prayers my consulting partner, Kate Kingsbury, Ph.D., of the University of Alberta, had put together for the production company were muttered incomprehensibly by del Castillo. Kingsbury's "Daughters of Death" will be the next academic book on Santa Muerte, with my same publisher — Oxford University Press.

Anything else you would like to add?

Here at VCU our motto is "Make it real," and through my consulting gigs and strong media presence that's exactly what I have been endeavoring to do, share my research results on the fascinating religious landscape of the Americas with an audience beyond the confines of the ivory tower.

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