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In Theaters: WHITE BOY RICK (2018)

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WHITE BOY RICK
(US - 2018)

Directed by Yann Demange. Written by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Piper Laurie, Bruce Dern, Brian Tyree Henry, Rory Cochrane, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Taylour Paige, Raekwon Haynes, YG, Kyanna Simone Simpson. (R, 111 mins)

The story of teenage street hustler Ricky Wershe, Jr., aka "White Boy Rick," is known by anyone who lived in Detroit in the 1980s, but in bringing that story to the screen, WHITE BOY RICK comes up short. Part of the problem is that the film feels rushed at best and incomplete at worst as it tries to tell too much in under two hours. There's obviously pieces of the story either cut out for time or never shot at all, but the bigger issue is its insistence on shaping the events to engineer the maximum amount of sympathy for both Ricky Jr and his "broke-ass" criminal dad Richard. This is particularly egregious when it comes to the depiction of Richard, played here by Matthew McConaughey in a fine performance when judged solely on what the screenplay is asking him to do. It's not McConaughey's fault that Richard Wershe was, according to Detroit reporters and cops who worked the case, an unrepentant shitbag that the film feels the need to present as some pie-in-the-sky dreamer and single dad selling modified AK-47s out of the trunk of his car because he just wants a better life for his kids by using the profits to open his own video store, which we see exactly one time and where he never seems to be after that.






That's the kind of checklist storytelling WHITE BOY RICK devolves into in its messy second half after a reasonably compelling first hour. 17-year-old newcomer Richie Merritt brings a sort of mush-mouthed, streetwise grittiness to his portrayal of Ricky Jr, who's 14 as the film opens in 1984, unloading some modified guns and homemade silencers on a gang run by Johnny "Lil Man" Curry (Jonathan Majors), who's an underling to his older brother, high-powered Detroit crime lord Leo "Big Man" Curry (rapper YG). Dubbed "White Boy Rick," he ingratiates himself into Lil Man's all-black crew, where he manages to stick out like a sore thumb and immediately captures the attention of FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane), and Detroit vice detective Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry). They're looking to bust up Lil Man's operation, which is being shepherded by corrupt cops and has tangential ties to Mayor Coleman Young, thanks to Lil Man being engaged to Young's niece Cathy (Taylour Paige). Deciding to use a little fish to catch a bigger one, they badger Ricky Jr into working as a paid informant by threatening to nail Richard on gun charges. White Boy Rick starts with small drug buys that escalate, and finally has to start dealing when Jackson and the Feds want him to get closer. It isn't long before Lil Man realizes there's a snitch in his crew, with White Boy Rick obviously drawing the most suspicion.





So far, so good. But director Yann Demange ('71) tries to juggle too much in the second half: Richard valiantly trying to keep his family together; White Boy Rick's crackhead older sister Dawn (Bel Powley); falling in love and having a baby with Brenda (Kyanna Simone Simpson); recovering from an attempt on his life; hooking up with Cathy, etc. Broke after barely surviving a gunshot wound to the gut, White Boy Rick voluntarily gets back in the crack dealing business, bringing in tons of cash and getting cocky and stupid, still living with his dad in the city's dangerous east-side with a Mercedes parked outside sporting a vanity plate that reads "SNOW MAN." WHITE BOY RICK makes a point of mentioning how the Feds' interest in him was a way of exposing a ring of police and municipal corruption in the city (there's a few passing mentions of famed Detroit homicide inspector Gil Hill, best known to moviegoers as Eddie Murphy's ass-chewing boss in BEVERLY HILLS COP, but he never figures into the narrative beyond that), but this is all glossed over, more or less an afterthought. Rushing through the story leaves several characters abandoned, such as Art Derrick (Eddie Marsan), a flashy Motor City drug kingpin, and Richard's crotchety parents (Bruce Dern and Detroit native Piper Laurie), who disapprove of all the crime shenanigans but passively enable whatever their son and grandson are up to. The period detail is hit or miss and not much attention is paid to pop culture timelines (Dawn is watching the legendary Luke and Laura wedding on GENERAL HOSPITAL in a scene set in 1986, five years after the episode aired), though some more rundown areas of Cleveland do a suitable job of playing mid '80s Detroit.





The things that work in WHITE BOY RICK do so largely because the actors are up to the task (and, for DAZED AND CONFUSED superfans, a 25th anniversary reunion of McConaughey and Cochrane). There isn't a weak performance to be found here, with Powley being a real standout, but the film seems hellbent on bending over backwards to make the Wershes as likable as possible. White Boy Rick got back into dealing on his own volition before being busted and was ultimately sentenced to life in prison without parole, even after being promised by the FBI that his sentence would be reduced if he cooperated. He did, and got the life sentence anyway. There's an injustice there, especially considering the cops and the other criminals (including Lil Man) nabbed in the resulting investigation have been out of prison for years (the real Lil Man actually attended the film's Detroit-area premiere). If the filmmakers wanted to make a statement about mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders, that's fine, but by this point, WHITE BOY RICK is just bum-rushing through plot points. None of this ever resonates because it never bothers to really explore how White Boy Rick's case tied to the police corruption scandal, other than a few comments about Cathy being the Mayor's niece. We never even see the corrupt cops in the context of the story. But the worst part of WHITE BOY RICK's fast and loose historical contortions comes at the end, when onscreen text says White Boy Rick was ultimately paroled in 2017. Yeah, for the drug dealing charges. There's even a recording played of the real Ricky Wershe Jr talking about how great it is to finally be released after all these years. But the film doesn't mention that he was paroled and immediately transferred to a Florida prison for his involvement in a stolen car ring while behind bars, instead giving WHITE BOY RICK the Hollywood happy ending that Detroit's Ricky Wershe, Jr didn't get. He's scheduled to be released from his current prison stay in 2021, but you'd never know that by watching the consistently misleading, cherry-picked WHITE BOY RICK.


The real Ricky Wershe, Jr upon entering prison in 1988. 


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