Canadian documentarian Ron Mann, who previously examined aspects of pop culture in Comic Book Confidential (1988) and Twist (1992), takes on a broader and more controversial subject in Grass, a history of America's second-favorite smokable substance. As he has done before, he provides a sugarcoated crash course on a huge subject in roughly 80 minutes. Also, as in his earlier efforts, the necessary omissions can sometimes frustrate viewers and leave them hungry for more.
The movie opens with a clip from a black-and-white film unbelievably identified as Marijuana: Threat or Menace? (reminiscent of the National Lampoon's Homosexuality: Disease or Illness?). It then proceeds to give a quick history of the drug and its suppression in the United States during the first half of the century. The star of the film's first third is Harry J. Anslinger, the first American drug czar, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 through the early Sixties. This overzealous, prevaricating prohibitionist was canny in his manipulation of the media, thanks to which director Mann has a huge body of photographic and cinematic propaganda to loot for the movie. We also are treated to a few examples of precode Hollywood's last-gasp acknowledgment of the existence of the weed's lighter side: Cab Calloway singing Reefer Man from International House (1933) and Gertrude Michael doing Sweet Marijuana from Murder at the Vanities (1934).
Because of constitutional objections by the states to Washington's control of drug laws, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics cleverly came up with the 1937 Drug Tax Act, which levied a tax on grass and made it a felony to possess the substance without an official tax stamp -- stamps that were never issued. Voilà! Instant abolition in the form of federal tax legislation.
Anslinger may be the prime villain here, but almost no politicians come off very well. (Big surprise.) The exception is Fiorello H. La Guardia, who commissioned an independent medical study on marijuana in 1937 (the completed report was published in 1944) and did not back down when the results showed the drug to be essentially harmless. Compare Laguardia to Richard Nixon, who commissioned a similar study in the Seventies, then threw the report into the trash and disavowed it publicly when it failed to say what he wanted. This revocation of a promise of independent investigation prefigured his similar firing of Archibald Cox as independent prosecutor for the Watergate scandal.
The cravenness of politicians about this issue doesn't break down along party lines. The only vaguely laudable ones in the film besides Laguardia, a sometime Republican, are LBJ and Jimmy Carter, both Democrats. On the downside are not only Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush, but also Franklin Roosevelt, who signed the 1937 Drug Tax Act without hesitation; JFK, seen praising Anslinger to the skies on his retirement; and the Clinton administration, whose drug policy has been no better than that of its Republican predecessors.
As Mann proceeds to recount the ups and downs of marijuana's legal and cultural status through the rest of the century, he juices up his presentation of archival footage with tons of pop tunes and some amusing animated sequences by art director Paul Mavrides.
Fun though that is, the heart of the film is the archival stuff. Mann has managed to find what appears to be the raw footage for some of this: We get Anslinger bloopers and Nixon outtakes. A 1955 TV show includes as its expert witness the police chief of Culver City, California, whose affect and delivery suggest a derangement more subtle but just as scary as that displayed by the marijuana victims in such camp classics as the Anslinger-approved Reefer Madness (1936).
It all makes for a wonderful story.
Still, one wishes Mann had gone even further: While the politics of marijuana's history are at the film's center, Mann either misses or doesn't have the time to really probe the broader political implications of the war on drugs, particularly in its more recent phases. He correctly identifies it as a convenient scapegoat, used by media-savvy politicians, just as the Cold War was, to rally voter support; yet he fails to examine an even more insidious problem: the extent to which this sensationalist threat is employed as a bludgeon against the Bill of Rights. Like commie brainwashing and the apparent legions of liberal perverts poisoning the minds of The Children, this threat continues to be used by powermongers as an excuse to override constitutional protections against -- you guessed it -- exactly that kind of powermongering.
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