“Generations of cops have learned how not to police work by policing the drug war.”
With a database of visuals from Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino) and the poetry of language from David Simon (The Wire), Yann Demange had to do very little to make a decent film about the entrapped circumstances of Ricky Wershe Jr. and his predicament between the long-arm of the law and a neighborhood that breeds criminal vocations. And yet, what comes out, is a largely unsuccessful retelling based on the failures to mine the source material for tidbits of compelling commentary on the FBI’s opportunism and the consequences of family in the midst of the drug war.
White Boy Rick tells the story of a teenager growing up in Detroit who became an undercover informant for the FBI during the 1980s and ultimately arrested for drug-trafficking and sentenced to life in prison. A story that took place during a time in American history where the “politicians, the press, and everyday citizens were convinced that drugs were at the root of violent crime,” and the era when mass incarceration and mandatory minimums was the new federal modus operandi. As Michelle Alexander explains: “[d]rug use, once considered a private, public-health matter, was reframed through political rhetoric and media imagery as a grave threat to the national order.”
It is a story about the corruption of the police in some sense, but it was done so poorly and mixed with the parental failures of Ricky Sr. that the audience was left expecting the consequences of free will. A story that packs an emotional weight, wasted on the collective efforts of three writers who failed to weave together a compelling narrative cherry picked for audience reception. As Eric Kohn (Indie Wire) writes:
[I]n Yann Demange’s bland retelling, the kid’s downward spiral has been reduced to a series of crude, unremarkable encounters and the very thing this true story shouldn’t be: poverty porn.
The scenes are scattered; the emotion, stale and poorly packaged; and, the acting, with the exception of a well casted, Bel Powley, largely forgettable. The single scene that does stand out is the scene “when the family patriarch wrests his strung-out daughter [Powley] from a ramshackle house as she’s screaming and kicking him to let go.” This was a poignant moment that complemented well the underlying themes of family and struggle.
The rest of the film proved banal and redundant, driven by thematic tropes and a largely disjunctive narrative. Using cliché invocations of the criminal justice system (white vs. black), the film, in the words of Monica Castillo (Roger Ebert), came out as little else than “a half-told story that only lightly incorporates the deeper issues of systemic injustice.“