White Boy Rick is a rough and complex biopic based on the story of Richard Wershe, Jr., the youngest (at 14) undercover drug informant ever to be recruited by the feds to help them go after the kingpins in the drug trade. At times touching, as when Rick (Richie Merritt) scavenges a stuffed animal from a neighbor’s trash to take home for his sister Dawn (Bel Powley), and at times enraging, the film shows the dark underside of the war on drugs in all its ugly glory: corrupt cops, heartless investigators, violent turf wars, strung-out druggies, and the poverty and despair that often lead people into the trade.
The story is set in mid-’80s Detroit, against a backdrop of empty factories, rat-infested playgrounds, and worn-out homes in worn-out neighborhoods. Richard Wershe Senior (Matthew McConaughey) is a hustler with a gun dealer’s license, and the film opens in the carnival-like atmosphere of families enjoying a gun show, popcorn and all. (I remember attending “hard money” investment conferences in the ’70s and early ’80s where guns were legally sold alongside exhibit booths offering survival gold and freeze-dried foods. How times have changed!)
The film shows the dark underside of the war on drugs in all its ugly glory: corrupt cops, heartless investigators, violent turf wars, strung-out druggies, and the poverty and despair that often lead people into the trade.
Wershe Sr. has a dream: VCRs have recently arrived on the scene, and he wants to open a video store. “All we need is a stake!” he tells Rick. That video store is his rabbit farm (Of Mice and Men), the dream that sustains him through all the disappointments of his life: a jobless economy, a daughter strung out on crack, a son who has dropped out of school, and a source of income that’s sketchy at best. He loves his family, but he can’t provide a good life for them. He has a license to sell registered guns at a meager profit, but the real money is in the “upsell” — the illegal homemade silencers he offers along with them. “The gun is the burger — but these are the fries,” he tells Rick, explaining how fast food servers are trained to make you think you want something you don’t really need. “Now go out and sell you some fries.”
Ironically, FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane) and Detective Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry) ply Rick with a burger and fries as they enlist his services as an undercover narc, threatening to arrest his father for illegal firearms sales if the boy doesn’t comply. This scene was particularly poignant to me, because several of my students at Sing Sing have told me that McDonald’s is the drug of choice for recruiting young drug runners in the streets. “You got no one at home watching out for you, and then some big kid on the block buys you McDonald’s and wants to be your friend. He gives you a cheeseburger and you hold his gun for him. And you end up in here.” Oh, so subtly, with a burger and fries, the film equates the Feds, the dealers, and Rick’s father. The kid never had a chance.
It makes no sense to save for the future when there isn’t a future in sight.
The scenes that follow show Rick immersing himself in the drug culture, with its fast money, easy women, and useless luxuries. These scenes also reminded me of stories my Sing Sing students have told me. “You spent it all as soon as you got it, because you knew this wasn’t going to last. We all knew we’d end up in here. So enjoy it while you can. I had a Mercedes, a big apartment, big parties, I was livin’ the life. Now I’m here.” Rick says something similar to Dawn: “It was good when we were kids. For a while.”
Hopelessness in impoverished neighborhoods often leads people to seek instant gratification and engage in risky behaviors. It makes no sense to save for the future when there isn’t a future in sight. There aren’t any rabbits, and there isn’t any video store. It’s all a pipe dream, mostly found at the bottom of a crack pipe. So grab a few laughs and some ass while you can. There isn’t going to be any more where you’re going.
The feds are no better than the drug lords, and probably worse, because they claim to be the good guys. Driven by moral relativism, they see no problem with getting kids high, sending them into dangerous situations in order to catch drug dealers, and then leaving them to deal with their addictions — and their incarcerations — when they’re no longer useful. Dawn gets strung out on coke provided by her boyfriend, but Rick gets strung out on money provided by the coke the feds give him for his undercover stake. When the feds drop him and that money source dries up, Rick is already hooked. “We gotta do something!” he says to his father in desperation. “We gotta make some money!”
This is a world Liberty readers seldom see and few legislators, journalists, and do-gooders of any sort understand. In one bitterly ironic scene of the movie, the film Footloose is playing on a television moments before automatic weapons riddle the room with bullets. (Footloose, you may recall, is set in a white middle-class community where the biggest threats to happiness are curfew violations, joyriding, and uncontrolled dancing.) “Get out of Yonkers!” is the advice I fairly scream at the families I know there, where poverty, drug use, crime, and hopelessness form a dragnet on their children. But they can’t let go of the safety net — their Section 8 housing — and they stay.
The feds see no problem with sending kids into dangerous situations in order to catch drug dealers, and then leaving them to deal with their addictions — and their incarcerations — when they’re no longer useful.
Rick Wershe may have been the youngest teen to be recruited as an undercover informant to avoid arrest, but he certainly isn’t the only one. According to an article by Tony Newman of Drug Policy Alliance, it has become all too common to bust people for minor possession and then threaten them with decades in prison unless they provide evidence on someone else -– and for those frightened, untrained informants to end up dead. Rick didn’t end up dead, but he might as well have, when his handlers stood idly by as he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole — for selling cocaine. It was the longest sentence for a nonviolent crime ever imposed, until Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for running the Silk Road website.
I watched the tears quietly trickle down 17-year-old Rick’s cheeks in the closing scenes of the film as he spoke through prison glass to his equally distraught father, and the tears quietly streamed down my cheeks too. I know too many of these young men — now middle-aged — who have beenincarcerated since they were teens because they were enticed into a drug trade that is only lucrative and deadly because it is illegal. There are no good guys in the war on drugs. There is only bad law. And bad schools. And bad neighborhoods without hope.
When Footloose ends, the local authorities acknowledge that they only made things worse when they banned dancing. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the same thing about banning drugs.