Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja Reviews
Billy Corben's documentary Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja is all of these things, but that doesn't make this a bad film. It is an interesting film but not a great one. It is sort of fuzzy on its purpose but works well on storytelling. Whether Corben is pro-marijuana or not, I have no idea. What I do know is that he is very interested in focusing on some very odd and fascinating people whose lives have been touched or destroyed by marijuana, not in using it, but in the legal fury brought down on them by their association with it.
Square Grouper - which is a term used to describe bricks of marijuana dropped from planes into the water during potential busts by the Coast Guard - is divided into three parts with the common thread of dealing with the marijuana trafficking in south Florida during the 1970s and early 80s. The first story is the most fascinating, it deals with a group of people that not only made excuses for using marijuana, but tried to get around the legal problems by joining a sect that turns their pot smoking into a Christian denomination.
Begun in the early 1970s in Jamaica, members of The Ethopian Zion Coptic Church believed nothing more or less than any other Christian denomination. Despite their long beards and hazy eyes, these were not hippies. They preached from The Bible and their views were (despite their recreation) radically conservative. They believed in monogamous relationships and spoke firmly against homosexuality and free love. They believed solidly in the word of God, but with one slight difference: Their belief system offered the notion that marijuana was a sacrament, a holy rite that they had affirmed by God through the words of Genesis 1:29, which stated: "And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed."
The group made no efforts to remain hidden. They made their views known and even published their own professionally-made newspaper. We see them over and over in old news videos, lost in a cloud of thick white smoke as they puff on pipes that look like pepper griders. They were proud of their region, and their herb, and they defended it. This was not a view shared by law enforcement. The Coptic Church settled on a small man-made island called Star Island and their drug shipping business became such a profitable money-making business for the island, where they established a livelihood for the otherwise dirt-poor population of Jamaica. They gave back to their community, creating jobs and opening businesses with the vast amounts of money they made from shipments of marijuana.
When it became known that the children on the island were also using marijuana the public relations broke down and the law moved in. At one point, The Zion Coptic Church (who set up a base in Miami in order to establish an ambassadorship) came under investigation by no less than The Miami Police, The Dade-County State Attorney, The Miami Beach Zoning Department, The Florida Department of Health & Rehabilitative Services, The Florida Department of Criminal Law Enforcement, The Coast Guard, The U.S. Customs Service, The D.E.A., The I.R.S., and The F.B.I. It was widely believed at the time that there were more agencies investigating the Coptics then those tracking the criminal activities of mobster Meyer Lansky.
The second story deals with the sad legacy of two childhood friends Robert Platshorn and Robert Meinster, ordinary kids whose lives before getting into drug trafficking seemed to contain nothing of significance. Platshorn sold appliances, and was approached on day by a colleague who asked if he had ever smuggled marijuana. The political climate of the times and the assumption that the drug would eventually become legalized (Jimmy Carter stated publicly that he wouldn't be opposed to legalizing it) led them to believe that beginning a career smuggling grass could be a lucrative enterprise. It was, and it made them millionaires. The problem was that it was at the height of their success that the FBI decided to start a drug war, with South Florida being their first major target. Their drug trafficking operation was so successful that when they were caught, the press labeled them The Black Tuna Gang, even though they themselves had never used those words. Platshorn and Meinster's operation fell apart, so did their friendships and their marriages and would leave the gang with a jail sentence of 54 years, the longest standing sentence imposed on a non-violence drug smuggler.
The third deals with no less than marijuana smuggling operations that involved virtually every citizen of the small town of Everglades City. Known, chiefly as a fishing village, when the drug poured into the region, dirt poor citizens couldn't resist the money to be made and the operation became so widespread that when law enforcement came swooping in to break up the operation, fully 80% of the town's male population was sent to prison on drug trafficking charges.
The point is made over and over again that every branch of law enforcement who tried to break down the marijuana trade overreacted and wrecked personal lives in their pursuit of ending the traffic of a drug that the smugglers don't feel is a major threat. Corben doesn't seem to have gone out and shot anything for this film, and much of it feels like a documentary made for television. There doesn't seem to be much here that merits a feature documentary.
The entirety of the film is seen through interviews with the key players, and the rest is seen through old news reels, in particular an extended news piece from Dan Rather about the Coptic Church. What works here is the editing. It is interwoven into the interviews to tells a cohesive story that has a line of drama that draws us from beginning to end. What bothers me is that the three stories don't really connect. Yes, they are all about the battles of smugglers and law enforcement, but there's nothing else to it. I'm caught between recommending the film on the basis of the storytelling and rejecting it for the end result. As individual stories it is interesting, but as a whole I was left wondering, what was the point?
Billy Corben took the formula from his previous film Cocaine Cowboys, and placed it in Square Grouper. What Cocaine Cowboy was; Square Grouper was, but with marijuana instead of cocaine. It worked to varying effects here. I say varying because the movie is split into three stories and only one is really engaging(I'll talk about all three a little later). What this is though, is an interesting, if not always compelling work. It isn't technically well made either. Corben isn't known for his amazing technical work, but instead for his ambition and workmanlike mentality for putting these stories together.
The first story the film tackles is the story of a religious group that began smuggling weed into Florida via Jamaica. The religious group known as the Codiac, were hardcore religious. They believed everything that hardcore, conservative, religious folk did, but they also believed marijuana was not a drug, but something natural, of God. The DEA, F.B.I, etc. didn't think of it that way though. This part of the film was the least interesting to me. It wasn't that it was terrible, but the story was just the least engaging in my opinion.
The second story is about the Black Tuna Gang. They were a "gang" of fine, young men who began smuggling marijuana as a way of getting rich. They believed it was going to be legalized soon, so they tried to take advantage while they could. This is probably the most infuriating story of the three because it is also the most ridiculous. The Black Tuna Gang actually ended up getting the longest sentence of any marijuana smugglers ever; all based on an assassination plot that wasn't true.
The third and final story is about Everglades City and is easily the most fun to watch. We go into a maze of swamps to find Everglades City and that is what makes it the perfect smuggling spot. Nobody can find the smuggles who have lived there their whole life and know the mazes like the back of their hands. Most of the smugglers were ex-fishermen that were hurt by the Everglades being made into a national park. They were asked to find new ways of making money; so they did. These smugglers are all down south, rednecks, that began living it up as they made their millions.
Square Grouper is an interesting and occasionally fun look at marijuana smuggling in the 70's and 80's through Florida. If you are at all interested in the topic, this is a decent movie to watch, but it doesn't really go as deep into the issue as I initially thought. Still, Billy Corben makes it more than just watchable through his willingness to go get any interview. He interviews all the smugglers and the people who arrested them in some cases. It may not be an amazing documentary, but it is a decent one.
The government wont legalize this stuff because they haven't figured out a way to regulate it and profit from it. Cigarettes and Beer kills millions and millions more but they've got there claw in those businesses so let the production thrive! But enough about my beliefs, this is an easy watch and its format makes for some great story telling. If you enjoyed the 'Cocaine Cowboys' series your sure to be entertained by this.
to the Church's history and Ideals I found it superficial and lacking real insight. In fact the doccie incorrectly states that the Church's leader at the time Nia Keith was killed when in fact he died of natural causes. I was not moved at all. Access makes for good documentary making. Billy Corben has none