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Blu-ray Review: White Boy Rick

January 8, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Ronald Reagan is never actually mentioned by name in White Boy Rick, but his figures often looms large behind the story, which details the human impact that the 40th President’s so-called “War on Drugs” had upon poor and minority communities.

The film is based on the true story of Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt), a poor teenager growing up in Detroit in the 1980s, with a grifter father (Matthew McConaughey) who buys firearms at gun shows to modify and sell to the local gangs, and a sister (Bel Powley) who is addicted to the drugs these gangs are selling.

At the age of fourteen, Wershe Jr. gets recruited by FBI agents Alex Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Frank Byrd (Rory Cochrane), who are working alongside undercover cop Mel Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry), to act as an informant. Rick’s job is to infiltrate and gain the trust of the Curry Boyz, a gang made up of brothers Rudell (RJ Cyler), Johnny (Jonathan Majors) and Leo (YG), with the trade off being that he gets to keep the money he makes supplying them with cocaine.

When Rick is dropped by the FBI and decides to start dealing on his own, desperately needing money to support his family, this leads to his downfall. The tragedy of Wershe Jr.’s story is that he only got into drug dealing as a sort of plea deal with the FBI, who were after his father at the time. He was essentially used by them as the fall guy for their own sting operation so the bureau wouldn’t have to take all the heat, resulting in a grossly unjust life sentence being handed to him when he was seventeen.

The film paints Rick Wershe Jr. as neither hero nor villain, instead depicting him through shades of grey. Yes, he did fall in with the wrong crowd, and White Boy Rick doesn’t gloss over the fact that he was guilty of these crimes, but the film also shows that he was faced with systemic poverty and acting out of desperation and perhaps youthful naiveté, with the sentence he received being wildly disproportional compared to what he did.

The film is particularly fascinating in this current landscape of ’80s nostalgia, because it dares to show the dark side of the decade. Yes, the governance of Reagan led to a rebirth of the American Dream for some through his optimistic style and certain economic policies, but it also led to the downfall of it for others, with the mandatory minimum sentences that were brought in for many drug offences largely targeting underprivileged communities and having untold consequences.

The hair, the clothes and the music that continue to define the ’80s are on display in White Boy Rick, but there is also a grittiness and sadness to how the decade is portrayed here. This is heightened by the film’s backdrop of a rapidly decaying Detroit, a once-booming manufacturing town that got left behind when the auto industry started moving overseas and was already deep in decline at the time.

Director Yann Damange, following his intense Northern Ireland thriller ’71 which kinetically unfolded over a single night, employs a more low-key tone throughout White Boy Rick. While the subject matter of a young man becoming a drug kingpin is vaguely similar to classic crime sagas like Goodfellas and Scarface, the film plays more as a quiet character drama than it does a thriller. It’s an approach that I think works thanks to the finely etched screenplay co-written by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller, and the excellent performances of its ensemble cast.

Merritt, a high schooler from Baltimore who had never acted before being cast, does an excellent job of carrying the film, more than holding his own alongside the screen veterans that he is partnered with, including McConaughey, who is in top form here. The final few scenes of White Boy Rick take on an emotional quality as the walls close in on Rick Wershe Jr., ending the film on a moving and deeply sad note. The result is an engaging and often enraging look at the human cost of the War on Drugs, and how these unjust mandatory minimum sentences have effectively taken so many lives.

The Blu-ray also includes an optional trivia track that plays during the film, six deleted scenes (She’ll Be Back, Got a Slice for Me?, I Seen You Around, You Don’t Know Your Place, I Was Hoping and Bring Him to Come See Me), as well as the three worthwhile featurettes The Unknown True Story of Rick Wershr Jr., The Making of White Boy Rick, and The Three Tribes of Detroit: The Cast.

White Boy Rick is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 111 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: December 26th, 2018

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