…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.