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White Boy Rick’ Looks To True Story Of Michigan’s Longest Serving Juvenile Drug Offender

Photo credit: Columbia

FBI Agent Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, center) coerces the teenaged Rick Wershe, Jr. (Richie Merritt) to sell and buy drugs for the FBI in the new film "White Boy Rick."

Companion viewing

"The Thin Blue Line" (1988)

"After Innocence" (2005)

"White Boy" (2017 doc on Rick Wershe, Jr.)

"The Blood is at the Doorstep" (2017)

The poster for the new film “White Boy Rick” (opening this weekend) proclaims: “In 1980s Detroit, Rick Wershe, Jr. was a street hustler, FBI informant and drug kingpin, all before he turned 16.” It's a compelling story but the question is why this story now?

In "White Boy Rick," Detroit of the 1980s looks like a war zone. Whole blocks look like bombed out ruins and citizens arm themselves with AK-47s. It’s a land of no opportunity for both the blacks and whites entrenched in poverty.

Richard Wershe (Matthew McConaughey) won't leave his native city for greener pastures and tells his son that the "lion wouldn't leave the Serengeti." Reality check: Richard is no lion and Detroit is no Serengeti.

But then Richard probably wouldn't do much better in another city. He's a guy with lots of plans and dreams but not a lot of ability to realize any of them. His daughter Dawn (Bel Powley) is a drug addict who flees the house, and his teenage son Ricky (Richie Merritt) follows his dad's lead and ventures off into illegal gun sales to make ends meet. But when the Feds and local police want to put his dad in jail, Ricky is offered an opportunity to save him if he becomes an informant for the FBI.

FBI Agent Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) convinces the 14-year-old Ricky to buy and sell drugs in some of Detroit's worst areas in order to help the FBI and police build a case against the drug dealers.

Within a few years, Ricky finds himself facing a life sentence for selling drugs for real. The film highlights his case as the longest serving non-violent, juvenile drug offender in Michigan’s history.

Ricky's story is definitely a compelling one. The FBI turns out to be the villain in the film's take on this true story, as agents coerce the teenager into service with little thought or care for what that means for his life. Then when Ricky faces multiple hardships and turns to the only thing he knows — thanks to the FBI's training — the agents have little for him beyond empty promises.

My interest in the film got piqued when I heard that the director, Yann Demange, was being considered for the new Bond film. As a Bond fan, I wanted to see what this director had that might be suited to the 007 franchise.

The film is well acted and casually understated. Demange could have easily tried to pump up the action and tension with a flashier style but he keeps everything grounded in the real world, where stuff like this just happens. Chronicling the Troubles in Belfast in the film "'71" gives him a feel for how life can be in what is essentially an urban war zone.

But the problem I have with the film has nothing to do with the film itself and more to do with the current social climate in which the film is being released. I realize this isn't entirely fair to the movie, but the filmmakers do have to take some responsibility for why they chose to make this story now.

At a time when so much focus is on how law enforcement and the judicial system mistreat and abuse minorities, it’s a bit puzzling why the case of injustice the filmmakers devote their attention and outrage to is a white person. Ricky Wershe's punishment does seem excessive for his crime considering the circumstances that lead to it. But he did commit crimes for which the penalty was life imprisonment.

So, while I cannot really fault the film for choosing this story to tell rather than one that might be more representative of the injustices of the American legal system, I can feel a bit concerned about how the film doesn't reflect the bigger picture of reality here in the U.S.

At one point, a black character who happens to be the mayor's daughter (who was married to a drug lord that got arrested) asks Ricky why she and him managed to stay out of jail when one of the big raids went down. Her answer is because they were smart. But the real answer has more to do with the fact that Ricky was white and that she was connected to power and money. The film's point may be that not even those things can protect you forever.

The poster for the new film “White Boy Rick” proclaims: “In 1980s Detroit, Rick Wershe, Jr. was a street hustler, FBI informant and drug kingpin, all before he turned 16.” It's a compelling story but the question is, why this story now?

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