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Non-Review Review: White Boy Rick

White Boy Rick struggles to articulate what it is actually saying.

The basic premise of White Boy Rick is quite clear from the outset. The film is set in Detroit. Barring a coda, the bulk of the action unfolds in the four years following on from 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s second term. Although the President himself is not directly discussed in the context of the narrative, there is an early conversation in which two agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and one member of the Detroit Police Department ruminate upon Nancy Reagan’s famous “just say no” appeal.

Ricked off.

White Boy Rick is an earnest and well-intentioned movie exploring the consequences of the so-called “War on Drugs” in eighties America, and the manner in which that campaign was both fruitless in terms of its nominal objectives and actively harmful to the communities in which it unfolded. White Boy Rick attempts to position itself as a tragedy about a young man – the eponymous character’s age is something of a recurring battle cry – who happens to get wrapped up in something much bigger than his own circumstances.

Unfortunately, White Boy Rick struggles to construct a strong and engaging narrative around this central thesis statement, repeatedly stumbling in trying to graft the character’s arc and decisions to the broader social commentary that it wants to make. The result is a deeply frustrating film that squanders potentially interesting subject matter.

Daddy’s home.

There are a number of fundamental problems with White Boy Rick. The most obvious is the characterisation of Rick himself. The screenplay from Andy Weiss, along with Logan and Noah Miller, is definitely a factor here. Rick is presented as a character who is both extremely passive and extremely dense. The character is a broadly-drawn blank slate. The early scenes in the film establish that Rick knows enough to distinguish Soviet AK-47s from Egyptian knock-offs, but doesn’t understand what a “metaphor” is.

Large portions of the film hinge on Rick standing around passively while things happen around him, while other characters make important and defining decisions. This sort of storytelling can work, often as social commentary; allowing the audience to explore the world through the eyes of a passive observer. However, White Boy Rick doesn’t work in that manner for two core reasons. Most obviously, the central performance from newcomer Richie Merritt is blank without seeming deep, the young actor never suggesting anything stirring beneath a passive exterior.

Not quite movie magic.

This is not an accident. Directory Yann Demange consciously stacks the cast around Richie Merritt so as to emphasise his lead’s lack of persona or presence. Matthew McConaughey receives top billing as Rick’s father, and does good work in a role that largely consists of him unable to do anything to affect the way in which the plot unfolds. The cast is rounded out with veteran performers in stock roles, so as to emphasise Merritt’s inexperience; Jennifer Jason Leigh plays an FBI handler, while Brian Tyree Henry has a small role as a member of the Detroit Police Department.

The other big issue is that the story simply cannot be powered by Rick’s passivity. The moral weight in White Boy Rick hinges on the idea of Rick as a martyr, a victim of a broken system. Early in the film, it is made explicitly clear that the first crack cocaine that he sold on the street of Detroit was given to him by the local police department in order to build up his reputation as a dealer, that Rick began his career as a drug dealer not out of his own agency, but as a pawn in a more elaborate game orchestrated by forces that should never have been playing.

Key details.

This is a potentially interesting angle, but the script brushes against reality here. The time line of Rick’s story requires a gap between that initial experience as a drug dealer at the behest of local law enforcement and the activities that eventually led to his arrest. The continuity between those two drug operations is thematic rather than literal. At a certain point in the narrative, Rick makes a conscious moral choice to become a drug dealer, to bring crack cocaine into the city of Detroit and to sell it in order to support his family. He does it, stops doing it, then does it again.

There are ways to deliver this story beat without undercutting the central theme of skepticism towards the war on drugs. Indeed, White Boy Rick repeatedly gestures towards them; much is made of the squalor in which Rick and his family live, their refusal to abandon Detroit, the need to support themselves in a city that is falling to pieces. It is possible for a film to criticise institutional failures without glossing over the culpability of its central characters, to acknowledge that it can be true that Rick both made some bad choices and was screwed over by a broken system.

A crack team.

The screenplay is reluctant to commit to Rick’s complicity in any of this, and so seeks to anxiously downplay Rick’s culpability in his own crimes. As such, White Boy Rick opts for a very black-and-white morality, presenting Rick as a pure soul with good intentions who got unfairly railroaded by corrupt institutions. In this context, there is something slightly uncomfortable in the emphasis on Rick’s “whiteness” in the context of the story being told, as if to suggest that race is tied to what distinguishes him from other young men subjected to similar institutional violence.

This clumsiness creates a number of narrative problems with White Boy Rick, as the script is so clearly dedicated to presenting Rick as a victim of systemic injustice that it struggles to structure the story that it is telling. The script is constantly changing direction and focus, covering a lot of narrative ground in a very short amount of time. Criminal empires rise and fall in the background of the story, with Rick standing by as a background figure for almost half of a story that is nominally about him.

True blue.

This desire to downplay Rick’s agency in this narrative, so as to minimise any sense of responsibility for what happened, means that the film is in its third act before Rick actually starts making decisions that have any real consequence. The film is almost over by the time that Rick decides to break into the drug trade on his own terms, and is only a few minutes away from the end by the time that he makes himself party to an ambitious drug sting that is targeting the city’s elites.

That is a much more interesting story than anything that comes before. It is certainly possible to tell that story in the context of broader critiques of structural injustice and inequality. These dramatic and character beats are expressed primarily through montage, a rough sketch of a much more interesting and engaging film. White Boy Rick is awkwardly back-loaded in order to downplay any sense of agency or autonomy for Rick as a character, most likely in the hopes of presenting Rick as a purer form of victim.

Drug dealer dealing.

All of this is a shame, because there are some very interesting touches here. There is something very clever in the way that film juxtaposes the local law enforcement’s “War on Drugs” with Rick’s father’s dreams of owning a video store. Both are ambitions that an eighties audience would accept at face value, but which modern audiences approach with a sense of weary skepticism; a deft juxtaposition based up a shared dramatic irony. It is never clear if the characters entirely believe that these plans will work, but the audience knows that they cannot.

Similarly, Demange does good work with the film’s period trappings. The film’s setting is recognisably the eighties, from the soundtrack to the recurring visits to the local “skate and roll” as a nightclub hotspot. There are undoubtedly shades of that Scorsese “period crime movie” influence that can be seen in the work of other directors as strong as Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights or Brian Helgeland’s Legend. However, there is also a sense that Demange is having fun with them without wallowing in them.

Fur and loathing in Los Vegas.

After all, this is a world where Rick’s father proudly proclaims that VHS cassettes are “the future” as he drives through a bitter winter wasteland of mid-eighties Detroit. The story of Detroit is a national tragedy, but the city has a striking presence on screen, as reflected in movies as diverse as Only Lovers Left AliveLost River, It Follows and Don’t Breathe. Demange skillfully uses the city to create a palpable dread or anxiety. In most crime films, crime is the gateway to glamour and glory. In White Boy Rick, it means being able to watch a boxing match in a bar.

White Boy Rick is disappointing, a movie that suffers from a number of fatal mistakes rooted in its perception of its lead character. White Boy Rick undoubtedly has very important things to say about law enforcement and incarceration, but suffers from the fact that it struggles to tell a meaningful story while articulating those arguments.

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