The location is Detroit, the time period the mid-80s, and 15-year old Rick Wersche Jr. is navigating his way through a gun show. Rick approaches a booth to engage in conversation with the manager about the Russian AKs that he is selling. Rick messes around with the guns and can clearly tell that they are fakes. He begins spitting out facts about them like the expert his father trained to be. Once he snags a deal with them, given that the manager of the booth can’t deny the truth, Rick and his father go home with the plan to resell the guns to drug dealers, their biggest clients.
It is alarming to see a teenage boy carrying around a gun, and even more alarming when he clearly knows what he is doing with it. In “White Boy Rick,” a true story and film directed by Yann Demange, these sort of shocking images become the norm throughout the film. With the dizzying array of drugs, alcohol, money and addiction depicted, the movie truly transports viewers back to a sad time in Detroit.
As Rick continues to stay involved with his father’s business, he befriends members the drug-dealing community. Rick eventually falls into the dark spiral of selling drugs on the black market. While one may think that the reason behind this is the influence of Rick’s new friends, the audience will be surprised to find that the FBI forced him into this business. When the FBI comes knocking on his door one day to bust his dad for illegally selling guns, without which he would go bankrupt, they decide to make a deal with the Wershe family. They force Rick Jr. to become an undercover spy. They want Rick to get closer to the drug dealers to procure more information for the FBI, all so his dad will not be sent to prison. Obviously Rick complies, but he later becomes seduced by the glamour of the business and the riches it provides his poor family. The manipulation of a young child that is depicted, especially in terms of being involved in an industry as dark as the dealing of drugs, is sickening but draws the viewer into the film more and more with every sordid twist and turn.
One of the highlights of “White Boy Rick” is the strong importance of family throughout. Rick Sr. and Rick Jr.’s relationship is touching to witness, as they go through good and bad times. Rick Sr. consistently struggles to make ends meet, even when selling expensive guns, but Rick Jr. stays by his side helping out in any way he can. While Rick Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) makes some questionable decisions as a parent, including allowing Rick Jr. to leave school at fifteen, his love for his kids, Rick and Dawn, is never in question. He consistently mentions his ambitions to open a film store and provide an honest living for his family. Although Rick Sr. had the best intentions and wanted to protect and provide for his children, their lives are out of his hands.
The film also has strong social implications. This movie touches on many sensitive issues that are evident in our country today: recurring conversations around the prison system in America, corrupt police officers and mass incarceration. In addition to making Rick Jr. complicit in the illegal industry of drug dealing, the FBI continuously puts his life at risk. They give him the drugs to sell, they threaten him and when he eventually gets caught, they do nothing for him in court. They do not mention their involvement in his experiences and pretend as though they never had a deal, which brings the film to an agonizing end.
While race may not seem to be a significant theme of the film, the many details combine to make it an important underlying part of the movie. The group of dealers that Rick befriends are all black, hence the nickname they gave him: “White Boy Rick.” Throughout the film, unless Rick is with his family, he is the only white person present on the screen. One message clearly conveyed throughout the film is that the only option some black people have in order to rise up from poverty is by dealing drugs.
The reality that people of color in urban communities often lack opportunity is ubiquitous in the film. Drug dealing becomes their way out of the cycle of poverty. One of the most memorable scenes in the film depicts Rick and his new friends walking down the Las Vegas Strip. They each sport gold chains and large fur coats. Johnny’s (the main drug dealer) wife makes the point that the money and success aren’t worth anything unless you have someone to share them with. The dealers, however, are eventually caught, leaving their wives and families to fend for themselves.
“White Boy Rick” is a film that everyone should see. It does an excellent job at making the viewer reassess the society in which we live, especially when it comes to the issue of justice. While it may be a little daunting and sad to watch, there are some points of comedic relief too. It is also visually stunning and accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack. There are many reasons to make the trip to see “White Boy Rick” on the screen, whether one simply wants to be entertained or is curious to learn about a story of injustice and tragedy that has been swept under the rug by the FBI for years.