Around the same time that a 14-year-old Marshall Mathers was cutting his teeth in Detroit’s rap scene on his way to become Eminem, another teenage “white boy” was immersing himself in a different aspect of inner-city culture: the crack wars.
As the tagline for the new movie “White Boy Rick” puts it, Richard Wershe Jr. “was a street hustler, a drug kingpin and an FBI informant — all before he turned 16.”
Well, “kingpin” is a bit of an overstatement. But there’s no question that Wershe’s story makes for a compelling true-life drama in the film directed by Yann Demange and starring Matthew McConaughey as the title character’s father, who loves his kids, even if he can’t quite do right by them.
Compelling, yes, and also troubling, both in a good way — it aims an incandescent spotlight on failures in America’s justice system — and a problematic one that renders “White Boy Rick” even more complicated when you try to untangle its racial politics.
But purely from a standpoint of craft and storytelling, it’s a good flick, although maybe not well attuned to the bombastic times. (Despite the R rating, it doesn’t luridly play up sex and violence; it’s not “The Wire.”)
There’s breakout performance buzz about Richie Merritt, who was hired as a high-school student with no acting experience to play young Wershe. It’s a terrific, low-gear performance; you can see the wheels turning behind the actor’s baby face as his character tries to negotiate the landmines of growing up in a dysfunctional family and on the wrong side of the tracks.
Raised by a small-time gun dealer whose clients include the neighborhood gangsters, Rick knows the difference between a Russian-made AK-47 and an Egyptian knockoff, but he doesn’t know that a six-pointed star is a Jewish religious symbol. He’s not dumb, but his conceptual horizon is short, and it ends up costing him dearly.
As for McConaughey, he’s the actor we hate to love. That Oscar speech, insufferable. And those car commercials, ugh. But the man can act when he really needs to (“Mud,” “Dallas Buyers Club”), and he’s pretty great here as a pretty terrible parent — but the only one who stayed. Adding to the list of Oscar bait is Bel Powley (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) as the junkie sister.
The based-on-facts film comes with a strong message about the American justice system, and it’s here, where the narrative intersects with the real world, that some interesting questions arise.
Outsider stories are inherently dramatic, but with race front and center in the movie title, it’s fair to ask whether Wershe’s case is the best lens through which to examine social-justice issues.
There are plenty of juicy roles for African-American actors – from a high-strung drug dealer (Jonathan Majors) to a tough, not entirely sympathetic cop (Brian Tyree Henry). But as secondary roles they are unavoidably less developed; it’s only the three white leads who emerge as richly human enough for us to empathize even with their worst decisions.
(Caution: spoiler ahead.)
The problem that “White Boy Rick” eventually gets around to addressing is mass incarceration, and there’s an obvious reason Wershe was selected as a poster boy. Sentenced under a law that made possession of 650 milligrams of cocaine trigger a life sentence, he was the last of 220 suspects to be released from prison, in 2017, after the law was repealed nearly two decades earlier. He is the longest-serving nonviolent juvenile offender in Michigan’s history.
Nonetheless, it is striking that laws disproportionately affecting African-Americans are being challenged in a film that centers whiteness — the outsiders in an overwhelmingly black community. It suggests that white Americans need a safe, familiar face in order see injustice fully.
Sadly, many of them do. But is Wershe’s case really the most egregious out there? Yes, the sentence was harsh, but he sold not just drugs and but also — if the film is accurate — guns that helped fuel an epidemic of violence.
As a character study, “White Boy Rick” is fascinating. But as a symbol, it raises more questions than it answers.
‘White Boy Rick’
Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Yann Demange and written by Andy Weiss and Logan and Noah Miller. Rated R (for language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references and brief nudity). Running time: 111 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.