“Detroit, Detroit, gotta helluva hockey team,” sang Paul Simon, attempting to soften the outcast state of the Motor City still reeling from devastating riots five years before and a decade prior to the beginning of the 1980s crack-cocaine epidemic. For those of us who grew up in outstate Michigan during this ignominious interregnum, Detroit was little more and often less than a punch line for grim jokes and snide remarks.
Sure, there was the 1984 World Series. But the Tigers played in a ballpark blocks away from a deserted, decrepit train station that symbolized urban decay in thousands of films and student journalism assignments. Parenthetically placed between Livernois and a less-than-vibrant downtown were nothing but a combination of stark, burned-out buildings, skeezy-looking strip clubs, pawn shops, and vacant, boarded-up Michigan Avenue businesses.
That was the public transportation route I took each day and evening to and from my reference-book publishing gig in the 1980s. From office windows on Fort and Griswold, I could watch winter sunsets over an incredibly dreary cityscape, before working up the nerve to go outside and grab the bus home. Once the twilight had surrendered itself to interminable darkness, I witnessed from my bus window the crack zombies emerging from the alleys and side streets.
It was an ugly era in a town that I eventually befriended but never really acclimated to, mainly because of those stark, early experiences. Those impressions, unfortunately, once again were conjured by a recent viewing of “White Boy Rick,” which, although filmed in Cleveland, Ohio, captures perfectly a town that once seemed on the verge of permanent life support.
The title character is based on the true-life Richard Wershe Jr., who became the FBI’s youngest drug informant at the age of 14 (some sources claim he was 15). The filmmakers even show snippets of Al Pacino’s Serpico to drive home the heroic nature of Rick’s actions – despite the fact the FBI is depicted blackmailing Rick by threatening to bust his dad (Matthew McConaughey), a two-bit gun seller and manufacturer of illegal silencers.
Once the FBI get their men, they cut Rick loose. Desperate to help his financially strapped family, Rick turns to dealing drugs himself. Based on recollections of reading about his case at the time, he was pretty successful at it, too. Until, of course, the FBI catches wind of his activities and he strikes a deal with them to bust some dirty Detroit cops. When all is said and done, Rick is sentenced to life – ostensibly without parole – while the dirty cops he helped put away receive more lenient sentences.
Left out of the screenplay’s sentencing calculations, however, is the fact Rick was caught in possession of eight kilograms of cocaine, more than enough to choke Tony Montana in “Scarface.” Supposedly, the audience is supposed to recognize the injustice of all this, mainly because the writers (Andy Weiss, Logan, and Noah Miller) and director (Yann Demange) present Rick (Richie Merritt) as merely an adolescent pawn in a game he doesn’t fully understand, and his father as a charming loser who can’t catch a break operating within the law.
Between the two of them, there’s an interesting “Of Mice and Men” dynamic, with Rick as Lennie and his father as George, and a chain of video rental stores substituted for the rabbit farm. The means to justify the fantasized ends in this story include addicting thousands of actual victims, however, who paid heavily to devastate their own lives and the lives of those closest to them.
Only one person, Rick’s sister (Bel Powley), is shown succumbing to addiction, which is somewhat of a dramatic copout, since she’s portrayed making a full recovery with the tough-love help of her loving, compassionate father. No mention whatsoever of the lives completely destroyed or ended.
One can agree somewhat that Wershe’s sentencing was too harsh and that monies used for drug enforcement might have been better appropriated for treatment programs. But, again, I saw firsthand the zombies wandering Michigan Avenue, and read daily the reports of gangland turf battles only blocks from where I worked and lived. Sanitizing the saga of “White Boy Rick” as a slightly wacky story featuring a dysfunctional family in the age of crack cocaine might be cute, quaint, and sometimes funny, but it irresponsibly ignores addressing the real moral and legal issues.
Furthermore, it strives but fails to work as a metaphor for our contemporary opioid crisis, because the focus is mainly on the supply and distribution of an addictive product rather than the demand. Speaking of irresponsible, the casting of veterans Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as Rick’s grandparents is a shameful waste of two great talents. Neither actor is given anything memorable to do in the brief screen time allowed them.
One scene shows a bereft McConaughey clutching Rick’s baby girl in his arms as they are driven away from a visit to Rick in prison, even though child-protective car seats were required by law 30-some years ago. Perhaps that is unintentionally the point of the entire film: the failure of parents to use those aspects of society that are readily available and sometimes legally required to protect children from their poor choices. But, alas, no.
The film’s marketing boasts that Rick is a drug kingpin, and from that viewers are to surmise he’s some kind of folk hero with a funny nickname – a Detroit Robin Hood who is really a law-abiding informant betrayed by the FBI of Nottingham (Jennifer Jason Leigh, reprising a similar role she played in 1991’s “Rush,” and Rory Cochrane). Yeah, sure, except for that inconvenient eight kilos and all those folks wandering around Detroit during that decade, in Steppenwolf’s words, with tombstones in their eyes.