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Pass The Popcorn: 'How To Make Money Selling Drugs' [Review + Trailer]

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.How To Make Money Selling Drugs

Interested in learning how to make money selling drugs? Of course you are - and so was Matthew Cooke, the filmmaker behind How To Make Money Selling Drugs, a new documentary that shows you, well, precisely that. The premise is simple enough: in ten steps, the film will show you what the title suggests - how to rise to the top of the drug game, and if you’re lucky, make quite a deal of cash along the way. Through interviews with current and former drug dealers, DEA agents, criminal lawyers, and celebrities of many genres (Russell Simmons, Susan Sarandon, David Simon of The Wire to name a few), “How To Make Money Selling Drugs” is a candid, entertaining, and unsentimental exploration of America’s complex - and often unsettling - relationship with drugs, crime, race and class.

The subject of the US War on Drugs is no stranger to the big or small screen - its effects have been well-documented in a myriad of academic and pop culture treatments. But where How To Make Money stands out as a film and as social commentary is in its structure. Designed quite literally as a “Drug Game For Dummies”-style tutorial video, the documentary brings the audience from the street-corner rock hustle all the way to the highest levels of international cartel dominance in an hour and a half - something even The Wire in all its excellence took five seasons to accomplish (we know, its still the GOAT, but we’re not here for that right now). For Cooke, who wrote and directed How To Make Money, the idea of writing a “cliff notes” style guide to the complex issue of this War on Drugs was 15 years in the making before coming to development: “My intention in making the film was always wanting to speak to an audience that doesn’t normally watch documentaries and to speak to an audience that is excited about the human experience.” And speak to the human experience it does - the film, co-produced by Bert Marcus and Adrien Grenier of Entourage, sheds light on an oft-discussed but seldom understood issue that has now been plaguing the American justice system for almost half a century.

In the 40 years this war has been taking place, over $1 trillion dollars has been spent on the policing, investigating and mass-incarcerating involved in fighting this war. While the United States only represents 5 percent of the world’s population, we lead the planet in incarceration rates (both per capita and in total numbers in prison) with a staggering 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population locked up in our prisons. Between 1980 and the present time, drug law violations have risen from 50,000 to more than half a million - an increase of 1100%.

With this added perspective, it is no shock that the War on Drugs is America’s longest running, most costly, and one of the most destructive - but its destruction has not hit all communities equally. While the term has been in the public lexicon for almost four decades - Richard Nixon coined the term in 1971 amidst growing concern over the heroin usage of Vietnam soldiers - the so-called “War on Drugs” could just as accurately be titled the “War on Poor Black and Brown Communities” as those have taken considerably more fire in this war than the most egregious perpetrators of the drug trade. Despite comprising only 13% of the total US population and 13% of drug users in this country, African Americans make up 38% of those arrested for drug law violations and 58% of those incarcerated for drug law offenses. “I think people really think the War on Drugs is a war on drugs,” says Cooke. “But the War on Drugs is really a war on people.”

With all that being said, we still haven’t answered the original question at hand: how does one really make money selling drugs? How To Make Money Selling Drugs answers this question in a few ways. If you’re anything like one retired trafficker interviewed in the film, you hop a plane to Colombia and smuggle a little of that white girl back in a cigarette box, and you’re good to go. Even if the international transport thing isn’t your game, there are of course other career paths. Maybe if you are young, poor, and black, you start off by having few other options by way of economic opportunity. Maybe, as the film explores through the professional advice of one identity-obscured cocaine dealer, you are all of those things, and also happen to live in a city like Detroit, MI, where the collapse of the auto industry helped pave the way for the widespread drug economy - and the violence and petty crime that comes with it - to take over in its place.

Of course, this visage of the black inner city crack dealer is not the only profile of the average American drug dealer or user - statistically speaking, blacks use drugs as roughly the same rates as other racial groups and the diversity of stories explored in How To Make Money Selling Drugs certainly mirrors that reality. In one particularly striking interview, rapper Eminem candidly discusses his ongoing struggle with prescription pill addiction. But as any quick survey of local news and national news will tell you, there is no escaping its prevalence as the dominant media narrative around drugs over the past 30 years.

As the film explains in clear detail, it should not be a surprise that the War on Drugs has had such a particularly gutting effect on the marginalized citizens of color in America - it was set up at least in part, to do this from the jump. In early years of the War on Drugs saw the passing of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, a series of statutes concerning the sale of narcotics in New York State. Going into effect in 1973, the mandatory sentencing clauses of these laws (named after then-governor Nelson Rockefeller) provided that offenders charged with the distribution of crack cocaine would generally receive much harsher sentencing than those with powder cocaine, helping to solidify in the public’s eye a view of crack as a harbinger of crime and social disorder unlike anything we’d seen before. Combine crack cocaine’s relative cheap cost and the media’s singular portrayal of black inner cities as the hotbed of crack violence, and the racial disparities in our present-day prison system come into much clearer focus.

Perhaps no case was more telling than the tragic story—also explored in How To Make Money--of Len Bias, the college basketball sensation headed for the NBA as first round draft pick for the 1986 Boston Celtics. Two days after being selected, the 22-year-old died of a cocaine overdose in his Washington, DC dorm room. Although the exact form of the drug - rock or powder - that claimed his life was indeterminable at the time of his death, the national media swept Bias’ death into the existing portrayal of drugs. Congress wasted no time in using Bias’s death to usher in a new series of anti-drug laws that vamped up the fight even more. But Bias’ death is just one example of how the mainstream media took these stories and framed them in a racial-ized and sensationalized way that spoke to the American public’s fears—and drove ratings. “Unfortunately with the mainstream media, what we have is just a bunch of...(read more)

How To Make Money Selling Drugs is playing in select theaters nationwide, and is available to watch online via iTunesAmazon Video on DemandGoogle Play, and Vudu.

...spokespeople for government policy,” explains Cooke. “For the most part, the mainstream media have acted as nothing more than the PR arm of the status quo.”

But don’t get it twisted--and How To Make Money Selling Drugs hardly allows much in the way of twisting room - this framing of black inner cities as the breeding ground for drug crime by the mainstream media did not begin here. “As early as the turn of the twentieth century, you had newspapers like The New York Times warning readers of ‘cocaine-crazed negroes’ attacking white women in the streets - this was a time when cocaine was legally prescribed, and most users were middle-class white people,” says Cooke. In one of the few laughable moments of the film, the first commissioner of DEA-predecessor the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry J. Ainslinger warns America, “Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others.” (Maybe he was onto something?) As hysterical as these pre-drug war theories sound to us now, Cooke finds it necessary in the telling of these stories to include the social context from which the even more insane War on Drugs emerged, including the racial myths that have always run as a thinly veiled undercurrent.

If we have known for this long how costly, destructive and ineffective this War on Drugs has been, the next logical question is: Why let it continue? For producer Bert Marcus, the answer lies in the profitability of the prison industrial complex itself: “I think the reason this continues, and we know it continues, is that it is big money, for many, many people. That’s one of the reasons we wanted this film to not just follow an individual story or person, but to follow the money.” As Detective Freeman famously laments (okay, just one Wire reference), “following the money” of the drug trade gets you much higher than any street level examination will get you - but you’ll have to see the film to get those answers yourself.

Between the “negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians and entertainers,” the parallels to hip-hop write practically draw themselves - and Cooke, along with his producers Bert Marcus and Adrien Grenier are keenly aware of them. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Eminem as previously mentioned both contribute highly personal accounts of their lives as affected by the drug world. In addition to including these voices, Cooke also utilized the talents of producer Spencer Nezey to craft a score that more than once referenced the sonic aesthetics of blackness in the 80s and 90s. On a broader level, these combined social pressures of racism, poverty, and socio-economic disenfranchisement arguably helped shape the communities that brought hip-hop into existence to begin with. Countless rappers have glorified their upbringings in the world of hustling, from Peedi Crack right on up to hip-hop’s biggest luminary and crossover success, Jay-Z who’s not about to let anyone forget for one second where he comes from. And while some of these stories could certainly be argued as performances, it doesn’t take a long investigation to see how important hip-hop and the drug game have been to each other, for better and for worse.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of rare hip-hop documentaries from the early days of the culture. During the post-screening Q&A Schoolly D--arguably hip-hop’s original gangster rapper—gave emotional testimony of hip-hop pulling his community out of the destruction crack left them with: “It was almost like the angels knew this crack shit was coming and they gave us this music to bring us through it.” As heartbreaking as the combined effects of addiction and America’s War on Drugs have been on black communities, it’s during moments like that where I can’t help but think of how many more Hova’s or Fiddy’s our world could have if it weren’t for such an unrelenting force of injustice working against the black community for so long. In the wake of the “Not Guilty” verdict of George Zimmerman for killing 17-year-old African American teenager Trayvon Martin, renewed attention is being given to our nation’s justice system and its apparent disregard for the value of black lives. And as deeply upsetting as the whole thing has been, it is my hope that this renewed attention gets channeled into creating new, less heartbreaking stories for the future.

How To Make Money Selling Drugs is many things - satire, self-help guide, tongue-in-cheek commentary, scathing social criticism; but of all these things, it is foremost an attempt to push our nation’s discourses of race and crime in a productive direction. “Our intention was really to keep [the story] real. That’s the kind of history we deserve - our history,” says Cooke. We can’t help but agree.

How To Make Money Selling Drugs is playing in select theaters nationwide, and is available to watch online via iTunes, Amazon Video on Demand, Google Play, and Vudu.