'Freeway: Crack in the System': Film Review

Crack in the System Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Blowback Productions

Crack in the System Still - H 2015

This endlessly intriguing true-crime tale is told in exhaustive fashion

Marc Levin's documentary recounts the tale of Freeway Rick Ross, one of the most successful drug kingpins of the 1980s

"I want my name back!" declares "Freeway" Rick Ross at one point in Marc Levin's (Slam, Brick City) new documentary detailing Ross' criminal career, lengthy imprisonment and rehabilitation. He's referring, of course, to rapper Rick Ross, aka William Leonard Roberts II, who appropriated his nickname and persona while making music that glamorizes the criminal life and the drug trade. It's but one of the many compelling stories told in Freeway: Crack in the System, currently receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere at NYC's Maysles Cinema.

"Freeway" Rick Ross, born in South Central Los Angeles, had a troubled life from the very beginning. An early formative experience was witnessing his mother kill his older brother in self-defense when he was only five years old. A natural at tennis, he dreamed of becoming the next Arthur Ashe, but his illiteracy prevented him from going to college. Inspired by the film Super Fly, he quickly latched on to the growing scourge of crack cocaine that began ravaging the inner cities in the 1980s.

"I tasted the American dream, and I liked it," he says during one of the film's many interviews. And he was very good at his illegal trade, becoming a major drug kingpin and reaping endless riches in the process.

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The film tells a complicated story, including the alleged role of the U.S. government and the C.I.A. in bringing drugs into the country, with the profits going to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. A journalist key to exposing the story was Gary Webb (subject of the recent feature film Kill the Messenger, starring Jeremy Renner). The documentary features extensive excerpts of a previously unseen interview with the controversial reporter, conducted just a few days before his 2004 suicide.

Also interviewed are many central figures in Ross' story, including his mother, several of his criminal associates, a Nicaraguan trafficker who worked with the Contras, various law enforcement officials and a politician who says, regarding the harsh laws against crack versus regular cocaine, "I knew that these laws were a mistake when we were writing them."

Ross ultimately spent over twenty years in prison — a previous life sentence was reduced on appeal — teaching himself to read and write during his incarceration. Released in 2009, he's since become — what else? — a motivational speaker and author. In 2010, he sued the rapper who had taken his name, seeking $10 million in damages, but after many legal battles, he ultimately lost the case.

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While the film takes on more than it can handle, dealing with its myriad plot elements —including Ross' being framed by corrupt cops — in sometimes confusing fashion, it nonetheless tells a fascinating true crime tale whose legal and moralistic implications are legion.   

Production: Al Jazeera America, Blowback Productions, ROYAL Interactive Studios in association with Continental Media
Director: Marc Levin
Producers: Marc Levin, Mike Marangu, Guy Logan, Antonio Moore and Neil Harrington
Director of photography: James Adolphus
Editors: Jason Moran, Christopher K. Walker
Composers: Tyler Adams, Co-Stars Ent., Thomas Mansur

No rating, 103 min.