In memorable scenes from the TV series The Wire, an ambitious CFO to a Baltimore drug kingpin ran business seminars for his middle-management dealers to explain how to maximize the criminal organization’s profits. Debut director Matthew Cooke uses these and other excerpts from the series and the insights of its creator David Simon—alongside actual former dealers (including rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), narcotics cops, and lawyers from around the country—for a cynical primer on why the war on drugs is futile and institutionally corrosive.
Animated charts provide ironic lesson plans. “Level 1—Getting Started” offers the helpful advice on how easy it is to get customers, in which former dealers recall getting started as teenagers selling to their classmates. Other entrepreneurial investment guidance, besides “weed makes friends”: “People will front you if you pay them back” and “Be fair with customers.” They still envy their retail revenue of up to $10,000 a day to achieve the American Dream, and not all were from abusive, violent homes in neighborhoods with no other employment options.
Even as they brag about the money, warnings start popping up about having an exit strategy, because it looks like none of them could resist getting hooked on the products they sell. Having a protective gang behind you starts to look useful, amidst statistics (with snazzy graphics) on the growing prison population and how the legal system ensnares more blacks than whites. But the film goes further, in the most effective testimony, by showing the insidious impact on law enforcement of all that drug money: the abusive and aggressive searches, bribe taking, and manipulation of snitches—and these admonitions come from ex-cops who are now supporting legalization. (One example of a murder was so like a New York case that I thought I was going to have to remove myself from the jury pool until the film’s Maryland location was identified.)
The descriptions of the higher levels of drug operations, through domestic distributors and international smugglers, sound a lot like episodes of Border Wars, with the former dealers regaling the audience with their tales of hiding drugs from inspectors and competitors. (Chortled memories of hiding drugs from Colombia to Miami via the Bahamas are particularly colorful.) As the descriptions move up the ladder to drug kingpin. The accompanying footage from The Godfather and clips about Pablo Escobar are too familiar, though they may be less so to the intended teen audience.
After establishing the power of profit that keeps drugs flowing over the border and into U.S. streets and schools, the tone of a facetious PowerPoint presentation is left behind for additional arguments for legalization: an heir to the Reynolds tobacco fortune lectures on how cigarettes kill more people and praises restrictive tobacco sales as a model of regulation. The quick concluding listing of how much time each of the featured dealers served and how they have successfully beaten their addictions to counsel others is, unfortunately, less of a convincing example than their nostalgic remembrances of their bad old days.