The most compelling part of White Boy Rick, the true story of a Detroit teenager who became a hustler, an FBI informant and a drug kingpin all before the age of 16, comes at the very end of the film, when a brief epilogue addresses Rick Wershe Jr.’s fate after the same enforcement officers he’d informed for desert him when he becomes a defendant. In an instant, an already multi-layered drama about the strength of family ties, coming of age in a crime-riddled city and the choices we make when we’re painted into the proverbial corner manages an even more meaningful depth as an examination of the country’s broken criminal justice system.
Directed by Yann Demange (’71) and written by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller, the film’s marketing would have you believe you’re walking into the latest in a long line of gangster dramas built around the glitz, glamour and gun battles of dealing drugs and running hustles. Think Goodfellas or Scarface. And to a certain degree, that’s very much what we get in White Boy Rick, as we meet Rick (first-time actor Richie Merritt) negotiating for a few knock-off Russian semi-automatics at a gun show, his dad Rick Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) more than happy to lay down the cash for them.
This is, we learn, Rick Sr.’s line of business, picking up inventory where he can, then illegally selling the guns to the gangs and criminals who populate the neighborhood on the east side of Detroit where he, Rick Jr. and sister Dawn (Bel Powley) live. Theirs is a life of functioning poverty, with enough coming in to keep a roof over their heads if little else. Not that this standard of living dampens Rick Sr’s spirit even a little bit; he’s a businessman, a man with a plan, a guy always ready to make a deal, and he’s got big dreams of opening a video rental store that’ll finally move his family out of the desperate state they’re in.
When Dawn takes off to live with her drug addicted, abusive boyfriend, the two Ricks settle into a bachelor life of petty crimes and underage drinking. Ever the con artist, Rick Sr. keeps the feds at bay when they pop over for a friendly hello, looking for information on the various gang activities in the neighborhood. Caught eavesdropping on the conversation, the agents are soon asking Rick Jr. if he can identify any of the criminals in the photos, which he does, sharing that at least two of the people they’re looking for are already dead. Intrigued, the agents return to chat with Rick Jr. about helping them out a bit more; soon, he’s using marked bills to buy crack at local hot houses, sending the agents fighting the War on Drugs in behind him.
It’s at about this point that the film’s writers, a trio who joined forces when two production companies realized they were both developing a movie about Wershe’s life, begin to ever-so-subtly ratchet up the stakes. We watch Rick Jr. become tight with the gangs he’s informing on, gaining confidence in every deal. He’s learning the ropes of an illicit game, all with the backing of the federal government; even Rick Sr. gets comfortable in the knowledge that whatever his kid gets into, he’ll get back out of it just as easily. This bubble of protection from law enforcement only strengthens their father/son bond, and even Dawn comes rushing back to the family when a beef with a local gang sends Rick Jr. to the hospital. There’s a particularly moving scene at the hospital that reminds us this is, in one sense, the story of a family determined to stick together whatever life throws at them.
Demange keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, the mid 1980s ticking by on screen. By 1987, Rick Jr. has long since stopped his work as an informant, having helped put behind bars some of the biggest drug pushers in the city. But there’s only one thing anyone could do with the skill set learned from buying and selling drugs for the government: go into the business of buying and selling drugs. This, we know, turns out to be his undoing; without the FBI to literally bail him out as they once did, being caught in possession of 600+ grams of cocaine equates to a life sentence thanks to Michigan’s strict drug laws. Despite all he did to aid the authorities in their battle against gangs and violence and drug trafficking, Rick Jr. is left out to dry on these charges, ultimately serving more time than any of the actual criminals—gang members and corrupt cops alike—who he helped put away.
Wershe’s story, and its broader implications in America’s failed war on drugs, is no doubt a story that should be known to anyone with an interest in actual justice versus bureaucratic and often arbitrary iterations of it. A 60 Minutes news segment or extended NPR piece could probably do it justice. What Demange and his writing team do then, with the help of layered, illuminating performances from both McConaughey and Merritt, is skillfully marry this necessary social commentary with a slick, gritty crime drama. For his part, McConaughey sheds his goofball celebrity persona to fully inhabit a well-meaning if slippery family man who, in his most honest moments, just wants what’s best for his kids. Whether this is reflective of the real Rick Sr. is immaterial; here, it’s essential to convincing us we should care about a kid from Detroit who gets caught up in a bad scene. Watch for the moment he meets his grandchild in particular.
As the film winds down and everything we’ve just seen is thrown into stark relief thanks to that epilogue, Rick Jr.’s story comes into focus. As a gangster flick, White Boy Rick doesn’t hold a candle to the films it aspires to be. And in some ways, that’s OK. Solid performances carry us through a narrative that’s just one needle in a massive haystack of lives lost to the criminal justice system. The “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980s wasn’t that long ago, after all, and it’s important to remember that people caught up in the crackdown of that era are still paying the price today, justly or not.
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