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NEW YORK — Getting up to your neck in the drug war is as easy as A-B-C in Matthew Cooke‘s How to Make Money Selling Drugs, a doc whose facetious instructional conceit allows it both to avoid the hand-wringing tone of many similar docs and to aim its message at the young viewers it hopes to galvanize. Offering well chosen interviewees at nearly every level of “the game,” the doc has a shot with those viewers on small screens, even if it holds few revelations for moviegoers who’ve seen its more grown-up cinematic cousins.
Though the title suggests a 1970s self-help paperback, Cooke’s film treats the subject more like a video game, coaching viewers on the perils and payoffs of each “level” of involvement — from on-the-corner pawn to cartel chief. (Old-school game sound effects underline the joke.) Using been-there interviews with former dealers who went on to pop stardom (50 Cent) and with higher-ups whose adventures could fuel feature biopics (Freeway Rick Ross, who was at one point making a million dollars a day), it suggests a seductive if challenging path from selling the occasional joint to shipping kilos of cocaine through Miami.
The stories are familiar from decades of film and TV fictionalizations; in fact, Cooke uses multiple clips from The Wire to make his points. (Creator David Simon pops up late in the film to lament the way street-level policing has been weakened by federal policymaking.) But they’re engagingly presented in first-person fashion, with no screenwriter’s pen intervening between viewers and the men who lived these stories. (With one or two exceptions, like the unseen Detroit interviewee called Mister X, they’ve left drug dealing behind.)
In his path up the food chain, Cooke takes a lengthy time-out to look at a “secret level”: One of the best ways to make money from drugs, he reveals, is to be on the side of law enforcement. The scandalous stuff here (revolving around forfeiture laws, mandatory-minimum sentencing, and US incarceration rates) has been well investigated elsewhere, but may be news to some of this film’s viewers; it also pairs well with the testimony of Barry Cooper, the onetime cop whose Road-to-Damascus conversion turned him into a leading opponent of the drug war.
The film’s point-of-view gets a bit muddled toward the end, as it combines a critique of deadly-but-legal drugs tobacco and alcohol with visions of a post-prohibition society. Proposing realistic solutions, one concludes, is a good deal more difficult than finding clever new ways of saying “The system is broken.”
Production Company: Bert Marcus Productions
Director-Screenwriter-Director of photography: Matthew Cooke
Producers: Bert Marcus, Adrian Grenier
Music: Spencer Nezey
Editors: Matthew Cooke, Jeff Cowan
No rating, 94 minutes
Below, watch THR’s TIFF video lounge where Director Matthew Cooke reveals how he came up with the idea for his documentary How to Make Money Selling Drugs.
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Tracee Ellis Ross