Among the prominent social issues that Hollywood constantly sets its sights on, nonviolent drug crimes are often dark horses. They sneak up on you and turn out to be great settings for film. I’m not talking about addiction movies or movies that display explicit drug use; I’m talking about the inner workings of a drug crime network, like the infiltration of international cartels as shown in “Sicario” (2015, Dennis Villlenueve). These types of movies tend to question our beliefs about drug crimes and use, no matter what they are, just as Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” (2018) can question our perceptions of race or “The Florida Project” (2017, Sean Baker) can reexamine our thoughts about privilege and poverty. “White Boy Rick,” based on the true story of Rick Wershe Jr., is such a film, chronicling the story of a 15-year-old Detroit boy who deals crack cocaine for the F.B.I. before getting caught up in the “game.”
The film creates a world of grey areas, where people make poor decisions left and right, yet are prompted by authority to start making said decisions in the first place. In an effort to lighten charges against Rick Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) for the illegal distribution of firearms (some to violent drug gangs) and end rampant drug crimes in Detroit, a duo of F.B.I. agents (Rory Cochrane and Jennifer Jason Leigh) enlist Rick Jr. (Richie Merritt) to sell drugs and establish a network with the predominantly African American gangs. The story starts messy and continues so as the film progresses, but it’s spliced together intricately enough that we can follow along. It’s also thrilling enough to entertain, as Rick’s interactions with gang members create edge-of-your-seat tension. Ethical questions pop up near the last third of the film, as the F.B.I. no longer enlists Rick’s help even as he continues to deal.
The trailers give away Rick’s fate; he was sentenced to life in prison and still serves time to this day (though reports say he’s moved to Florida and will receive parole by 2020). But it’s not Rick’s fate that the movie focuses on – it’s how he gets there. It’s about the blame game; the F.B.I. introduced the vulnerable teen to drug dealing in the first place, yet they’re not held accountable when he reenters the “game.” Communities are destroyed and families are separated just to have culprits behind bars (largely among the black population) – the movie asks us to distinguish between those who commit violent crimes and those who don’t. Distinguish between those who are smart enough to survive and those who are careless enough to get arrested. Why? Because in the filmmakers’ minds, the law failed to do so.
The gangs aren’t painted as saints either, though one might expect so in a film that encourages us to question the justice system. I think the best thematic device “White Boy Rick” uses is illusion; it paints an illusion of solidarity and brotherhood among gang members, but in reality they’re all trying to boost their egos as much as possible. When one kingpin is insulted at a VIP event in front of everyone, his retaliation involves violence and murder (which tragically gets out of hand). The facade of unity boils down to barbaric behavior where innocent lives are put on the line.
Rick is a victim, a witness, and a criminal all-in-one, exposed to violent and illegal activities early in life, yet self-righteous enough to believe he can master the system. It’s both a character study and a cultural study – which is one of the main values of “White Boy Rick.” Richie Merritt (in his first acting role ever) is fully aware of his character’s gifts and flaws, and balances the awkward teen persona with the wannabe drug dealer confidence flawlessly. Let’s not forget his titular nickname, which also means he’s trying hard to “talk black” and fit in, which is something that the script and Merritt have fun playing with. It’s never made out to be racist – just righteously ridiculous.
Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey takes a sideline role here so Merritt can get all of the deserved attention, but that doesn’t mean he is a waste or a bad casting choice. He has his subtle humor and even menace about him, playing a failed father with way too much on his plate. He’s excellent in his own way.
To match the grey ethical areas we have a grey atmosphere. When Rick isn’t partying at nightclubs or spending time in luxurious apartments, the film shows us constant dreariness and rainfall within the trash-filled streets of 1980s Detroit. It’s an excellent mise-en-scene for a film about the lower middle-class struggling with drugs. A scene early on shows Rick and a group of boys gruesomely shooting rats under a bridge; the shaky camerawork and bloody images capture the grittiness of Detroit…and lasts for the rest of the movie.
Stylistically, “White Boy Rick” dabbles into a bit of genre blending, which is (mostly) a plus. McConaughey’s performance briefly shifts the film into comedic territory, while Rick’s journey into depravity and jail provide for heart-wrenching drama. However, it’s never easy for a film to genre blend perfectly, and there’s an odd (but necessary) sequence in “White Boy Rick” that exemplifies this. Rick’s sister Dawn (Bel Powley) is shown involved with a gang member, and she’s soon addicted to drugs (presumably cocaine if not worse). Her ultimate rescue from a dingy apartment starts like a scene from a horror film: there’s sinister lighting and creepy camera pans. Once she’s being pulled away by Rick and her father though, the scene shifts into an emotional, tear-jerking struggle, and an excellent one at that. This is perhaps the most obvious example where “White Boy Rick” is trying to accomplish just a little too much, even though the result doesn’t ruin the movie.
Well-constructed on the outside and ultimately heartbreaking at its core, “White Boy Rick” is solid entertainment, acting as a tight thriller and a hard-hitting drama. It’s certainly above its current peers at the cinema.