The first act of writer-director Matthew Cooke's documentary How to Make Money Selling Drugs is smooth, seductive, and almost glib as it eases viewers into the big-business world of doing just what its title promises, on a global scale. It almost seems intended to court, uncritically, the folks who have made Scarface a cultural bible and the documentary Cocaine Cowboys a lifestyle guide, especially as it seems to share with certain fans of those touchstones a willingness to turn a blind eye to those narratives' cautionary aspects. Tricked out with videogame graphics and sound effects, kicking off with 50 Cent once again burnishing his mythology as he recounts his childhood days selling drugs, and running on the giddy energy — the high, if you will — that comes with outwitting The Man, the frequently hilarious film is, initially, appalling and magnetic and a little dangerous. That's part of a shrewd strategy.
Produced by actor and activist Adrien Grenier, How hawks decadent possibility — underscoring its allure for those who come from places of struggle — before settling into a historically grounded, wide-reaching critique of America's disastrous drug war, with an emphasis on its racist and classist policies. The desire for power, cheap glamour, and seemingly endless money and sex for the men profiled (50 Cent as well as current and former dealers of all races) is almost always rooted in childhoods marked by violence, economic struggle, or loss — or all of the above. That's not to play the violin for criminality, but it does underscore the fact that most players in the drug game — especially the low-level dealers — are driven by genuine need and a lack of other options.
As it progresses, the film becomes somber without sacrificing its droll humor or righteous indignation, although viewers will feel some deflation at the loss of its frenetic energy. The tradeoff is a lesson in the evolution of attitudes toward drugs in America and the bigoted (both racist and homophobic) propaganda employed to rile the masses against drug use. Between scenes from classic Hollywood films and industrial shorts, experts rip the Rockefeller laws while explaining the double standards that see blacks and Hispanics imprisoned at higher rates and with harsher sentences than whites. David Simon (The Wire) elucidates the disastrous effects of the drug war and its funding on the processes and procedures of police work. The origins of crack and the magnitude of its devastation are laid out by "Freeway" Ricky Ross, the man "credited" with the creation of the drug and its introduction into the hood. The global impact of the war is brought home through gruesome footage from Mexico.
This is unapologetically the work of "Hollywood liberals" (Susan Sarandon and Woody Harrelson even pop up for fairly innocuous commentary). It argues for a radical, compassionate rethinking of the country's approach to not only the drug war but also addiction itself. It's a smart, funny, tough-minded film crammed with data and personal anecdotes, each illuminating the other, each sketching in the staggering costs — and not just financial — of the ways authorities in this country have shaped the drug issue. It's far from glib.