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White Boy Rick

“You can waken men only by dreaming their dreams more clearly than they can dream them themselves."

—Alexander Herzen

There's a certain beautiful sadness to the Northgate Mall, a mostly deserted collection of modest shops and restaurants featuring the requisite American staples: discount knitwear in 17 shades of pink, three-pound honey-soaked gluten-free cinnabuns and Ethiopian espresso by the jug, kiosk islands dedicated to repairing cracked iPhone screens while you wait, a video game store front displaying the latest vamped-up cartoon princess death-mammas toting laser-guided plasma cannons and titanium nipple bombs, and a few dozen stalwarts like myself, shuffling in blissful catatonia beneath the piss-pop muzak and happy shouts of toddlers climbing aboard the plastic trains in the FunZone, while the ironically smiling kid opens up the Mini-Bungee Jump, conveniently ringed by Wonder-Pretzel, Cookie-Heaven and Monsieur Pizza's By The Slice, free refills on sizes jumbo deluxe and up...

Up, sideways, down… What's a well-meaning consumer of Made in China patriotism to do? Jump, jump! Let's all close our eyes and leap from the existential belly of this careening C-130 circling on auto-pilot through the choking smog of toxic angst and bitter despair, i.e., go to the movies. Have some popcorn. Sit in the dark with three strangers (four counting yourself) while the digital hallucinations club your cerebellum back into the viperous pit of comfortable disbelief. Strap in your popcorn and soda and extra clips of ammo because we're going to the picture show, and hopefully it's not the last.

But unfortunately progress, like the narrative drive of the movie "White Boy Rick," is mostly a Darwinist/DNC plot, aspirational and well-meaning in theory, but soul-stealing and tedious in reality. Hollywood's most recent "based on true events" story is this: in the Reagan 80s, a down-and-out white kid in war-ravaged inner-city Detroit starts selling crack cocaine with a notorious and deadly crew known as the Curry brothers. All of 14, White Boy Rick becomes a legend for his street savvy, knowledge of guns, and because he runs with an otherwise completely black crew of thugs, pimps and kindred parasitical degenerates driven (the overworked social worker argues) to their Faustian fates by the cruel and racist policies of the Rothschilds, Nancy Reagan and General Jeb Stuart. (Note: the internet was but a gleam in Al Gore's eye in the mid-80s, so the tragedy of the American underclass could not yet be blamed on Reptilian overlords from Nibiru, gender specific lavatories, or Christmas.)

Complicating White Boy Rick's journey is the odd but true fact that he was also a paid FBI informant, a dangerous gig his gun-dealing and part-time stoolie dad, Big Rick, had arranged. Their youngest informant ever, the FBI hoped White Boy Rick would help net Motown's bigger rotten fish, a resilient web of corruption that included renegade police officers all the way up to Mayor Coleman Young. Throw in a drug-addled sister whose performance recalls the more frightening moments of "The Exorcist," a set of grandparents trying to live out their golden years with a semblance of dignity, a deadbeat dad in Big Rick, an absent mom vaguely accused of abandoning her dysfunctional nest, beautiful photography of the crumbling urban hellhole, drugs, guns and a short trip to Vegas for a Tommy Hearns fight, and that's your basic no-frills landscape, sirens, derelict smokestacks and teenage pregnancies included.

Of course every American audience worth its Scarface posters knows that neighborhood drug lords, however soft their fur lapels and shiny their brand-new Cadillacs, are as transient as ketchup on an In-N-Out Burger condiment bar. Sure enough, the feds eventually take some crack dealer scalps, paranoia abounds, and White Boy takes a bullet in the gut. Enterprising youth that he is, our pale-faced wunderkind returns to the life of crime, though it's unclear whether with the FBI's blessing or not.

And herein lies the problem: the movie is frustratingly ambiguous, starting with the actor portraying White Boy Rick, who comes across as sullen and one-dimensional, lacking the flamboyance expected from a teenage drug czar swimming with sharks. The actor has about as much charisma as cold, slightly soiled dishwasher with shards of broken spork lurking beneath the oily film.

White Boy Rick's mumblecore acting is punctuated by a brilliant and electric performance by Matthew McConaughey. His work is nuanced and devastating, and the story might have been riveting if told through his eyes. Bruce Dern as White Boy Rick's grandfather likewise exhibits life and vital humor. The criminals in their gold chains and ghetto strutting are adequately portrayed, though nothing to write your probation officer about. 

The only other positive is that White Boy Rick's zombie-eyed sister, Dawn, is rescued, by force, from a crack house, then locked into a room until addiction's black tentacles have loosened their grip around the throat of her soul. She is also a teenager but looks like a half-buried Black Death cadaver. Dawn's rehabilitation is one of the film's high points, in an otherwise dreary march into hopelessness, tragedy and roller disco.

As it turns out, the true story of White Boy Rick is more interesting and tragic than the Tinsel Town version. The one-time street legend is still in prison, the longest serving inmate for a non-violent crime in Detroit history. Crooked cops set him up, according to White Boy Rick and others who knew him, including hitmen and FBI agents. One tantalizing theory is that White Boy Rick's cloak and dagger hijinks got too close to Mayor Coleman Young and the degenerate intersection of politics, money and control. Either way, I left the theater angry at the injustice of the story, an honest burn multiplied by the inadequate artifice of its telling. In the end the only sympathetic character was Matthew McConaughey's Big Rick, a marginal gun runner with dreams of a big score and a naive faith in family. Such are the failures and victories of profit-driven art.

Back outside, in the mall's womb of antiseptic safety, the mini-bungee jump is deserted. A hand-scrawled sign reads: "Back in Ten." There's no reason to doubt the kid, but I keep walking just the same. 

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