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In my last review, I started off by saying “One of the dangers of making a film ‘based on real events’ is that life isn’t always as exciting as Hollywood would like for the film based on it to be.” In case you haven’t caught a trailer for White Boy Rick, we now have the exact opposite: the real events were plenty exciting, but we have a case of the creators injecting just a bit too much OOMPH into a film that didn’t need it.
I was able to attend the Metro Detroit premiere of the film, which was great in that the movie is based on a well-known true story in Detroit, but somewhat odd in that the premiere wasn’t actually in Detroit, it was in Novi, a suburb northwest of Detroit and far removed from the protagonist’s old stomping grounds. That being said, it was an evening worth remembering, so I’ll split this into two parts: my recounting of the premiere, and a completely separate review of the film itself.
So first, the event: as I mentioned above, the precautionary tale of “White Boy Rick” is a well-known one in Metro Detroit, especially since local media has followed the case for years. Fourteen-year-old Rick Wershe, Jr. was recruited to be an informant on the drug trade in 1980s Detroit by the FBI, which gave him the blow and the money to establish credibility, then ended the deal when it came to light that Rick was (duh) underage and therefore should not have been recruited in the first place (DUH). Unfortunately this decision was too little, too late, and Rick was already addicted to the money that selling drugs could earn. When he was popped with eight kilos of cocaine, it earned him a life sentence under state law at the time, despite being non-violent convictions.
Have I (or the film’s title) mentioned yet that Rick was a kid?
I’m not trying to make excuses for poor decisions, and Wershe himself has admitted that he screwed up, royally. Was it enough of a screwup to earn a life sentence, when murderers walk free in a fraction of that time? Therein lies the controversy, and the continued diligent efforts of family, local media, and others to have his sentenced reduced. Considering the political entanglements of the case (Wershe was convinced, again by the FBI, to implicate then-Detroit-Mayor Coleman Young’s niece), one has to wonder if the verdict and continued efforts to keep Wershe behind bars had less to do with his crimes back in the 1980s and more to do with getting on the very wrong side of the powers that be in Detroit. Even after being released from prison in Michigan, Wershe was promptly shipped off to Florida to serve more time behind bars for his thin involvement in a stolen-car ring.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Detroit premiere of the film brought out a mix of people very close to the case: Rick’s sister and unwavering advocate, Dawn Scott, his old friend, mentor, and former drug boss Johnny Curry, and in a more low-key appearance, Rick’s son.
Before the screening, I asked director Yann Demange if we’d see Wershe portrayed as an anti-hero in the film, as he’s often viewed locally, and he had this to say:
“I don’t really think in those terms…if I was to re-frame it, I just hope that in a time where people are really busy judging one another, I hope that this is a film more about empathy and identifying with different points of view, identifying with people leading different types of lives, and trying to understand the choices they make under the circumstances they’re living.”
At the time, I thought it was a deftly-handled answer from a director not wanting to commit himself to one side or another of an issue that has widely become both emotionally and politically charged. It turns out he gave me a completely honest answer, at least from his point of view as a filmmaker, and from mine as a critic (more on this later).
During the film screening itself, Dawn Scott became (understandably) upset at seeing her life, and her family’s, as it was portrayed on the big screen, often sobbing out loud. It was after the film ended and the Q&A session with Demange started that the dam broke. Scott stood up in the audience and let fly at the panel.
“None of you have come to me from day one…besides that, who’s got my money? Where’s my money?” Scott shouted. As she became more upset, ranting at Demange and local news reporters Lee Thomas and Kevin Dietz, a studio representative moved in and advised that she would be asked to leave, which just escalated the issue. Demange, on the other hand, could be heard saying “No one is asking you to leave…I’m certainly not asking you to leave!” After Dawn exited the theater, there was some brief discussion before the Q&A was canceled…but not before Demange (who appeared genuinely concerned and distressed at Dawn’s reaction) said “I do have to face this…I came to this story with an outsider’s eyes and I started to engage with what it was like in Detroit in the mid-eighties, I was heartbroken, I had no idea, it was a different world…I just want to humanize everybody.”
As we waited for the red carpet interviews before the screening, I’d mentioned to fellow members of the press that we all knew this film would screen differently here in Detroit than it would anywhere else. That being said, I certainly didn’t think that the night would end with that sentiment as a decided punctuation mark.
And now for the actual film review…this is a review strictly of the film on its own cinematic merits, completely aside from whether or not it is 100% true to life.
Lemange told me that this was not the story of an antihero, and he was right. Rick Wershe, Jr. (Richie Merritt) is living a hardscrabble life in 1980s Detroit, with an addict sister, crabby grandparents across the street, and a hustling father who fashions silencers for AK-47s in the basement. If you come into the film based off of the trailer, let me be the first to burst your bubble…despite his baby-face, Rick is no babe in the woods, surrounded by wolves at every turn. In the first scene, we see him hustle a couple of fake AKs and a Smith & Wesson handgun from a legal gun show dealer with the approbation of his smarmy dad (Matthew McConaughey).
Well okay, there may be wolves at the door, but they aren’t the black gangs portrayed as the baddies in the trailer…the gangs become Rick’s second family when he earns their respect and friendship. No, the danger comes from the overly-persistent and always-lurking FBI agents that end up pushing an exasperated Rick into making a drug buy for them, promising that his only takeaway would be cash. This was true…for a little while.
Rick continues to settle into teenage minor-league thug life, even scoring an invitation to the wedding of Mayor Coleman Young’s niece. In the meantime, however, his real home life is a mess: his addict sister has left to live with a disreputable boyfriend, Grandma keeps hiding Rick’s guns in the oven, and his dad is grasping at Rick’s popularity (as only an embarrassing parent could) while simultaneously trying to forcibly shelter him from a life he’s already immersed in.
Again, those of you who come in based on the trailer (which features bikini-clad chicks partying on a yacht with Ricks Jr. and Sr., a pimped-out Rick Jr. in a fur coat, and YOUNGEST DRUG KINGPIN EVARRRRR! overlay) are going to be sorely disappointed. There is absolutely nothing fabulous about Rick’s life, and it’s heartbreaking because, as the director told me, this film really is about people making decisions based on the circumstances in which they’re living. Rick Jr. has been infected by the FBI, addicted to that fast cash they flicked so easily in his direction during his informant years. What else would we expect a teenager in these circumstances to turn to when it comes to trying to pull his family back together again?
To tell you that Rick ends up in prison is no spoiler, but the film stomps on any last lingering hope by having the FBI kick in the Wershes’ front door just as domestic bliss seems right at their fingertips. From a filmmaking standpoint, it’s heart-wrenchingly painful to have familial redemption snatched away in such a manner. Poking in at the same time, though, is the reminder of a child being killed by stray bullets during a gang hit…from guns possibly supplied (indirectly) by Rick’s father. No one is truly innocent here, but it’s the repeated exploitation of Rick by the federal government that ignites fury in the viewer.
Despite having only a few scenes filmed in Detroit, White Boy Rick solidly captures a time and place rife with despair and corruption, yet stubbornly buoyed by family. Rick wins an oversized stuffed animal and is carrying it home as a gift for his sister when he’s first approached by the FBI. Later, his father forcibly carries Dawn out of a crack den and patiently nurses her through withdrawal. Grandma and Grandpa turn a reluctant eye to what’s going on right under their noses while trying to serve up pancakes for breakfast. Whether you want to or not, you’re rooting for this scrappy family to make it, to achieve some measure of the American dream. No, they aren’t perfect, and they don’t claim to be. It’s just when it all goes to hell with the FBI wheeling, dealing, then shrugging and turning away that you realize how badly White Boy Rick was screwed over.
If I have to identify one failing in this movie, it’s the weak caricatures of the FBI agents. Yes, their place in the narrative is clear, but I do feel more could have been done. When one of the agents visits Rick in the hospital after he’s almost killed, she brings him a gift more appropriate to his age than anything else in the movie…yet later she shrugs off Rick Sr.’s anger at her having failed to carry through on her promises to help him. We saw a flicker of humanity in what was otherwise a trope (“the man” screwing over the people who helped close the deal), and it would have been interesting to see if there was any regret or remorse there. Instead the FBI is just The Bad Guys, full stop. Were they grasping at any resources at their disposal during a war on drugs in a city clutched firmly in its grasp? Yes, of course. Did they regret it? Per the movie, we don’t know.
I wholeheartedly recommend this movie. Come in reminding yourself that White Boy Rick is just a movie, and judge it fairly. If the movie moves you to look into the real Rick Wershe, Jr., and what the legal system can do after manipulating a minor, I wholeheartedly recommend you do that as well. Both stories are worthy of investigation, contemplation, and discussion.