White Boy Rick
If we have to send drug dealers to prisons for long terms, why are drug companies allowed to make billions while feeding the opioid crisis that is killing thousands of Americans?
White Boy Rick, directed by Yann Demange, is a movie made for those of us who have dedicated a lifetime to our role as criminal defense attorneys. Nearly every case involves some type of human tragedy and you quickly learn that your client’s agony becomes your own.
Based on a true story and taking place in Detroit during the 1980’s, White Boy Rick describes the struggle of a working class family fighting to find some meaningful enjoyment in life. Richard Wershe, Sr., played memorably by Matthew McConaughey, is a single father who supports his two teenage children with a gun business out of his home. With his daughter Dawn a drug addict, his son Richie is forced to become an informant by the FBI where he hopes to make a few bucks.
You will never forget the performance of Richie Merritt as the son soon known as White Boy Rick who learns the cost of being an informant. White Boy is soon targeted for retribution by his black drug friends after his work with the FBI is revealed, and he is left for dead after being shot in the stomach.
Though White Boy recovers with the requirement that he use a colostomy bag for the rest of his life, he and his dad soon decide that the only hope for any type of financial gain is to become drug dealers. Despite enjoying some success over a couple of years where he fathers a bi-racial daughter while helping his sister overcome her addiction, everything collapsed with his arrest.
Facing life in prison, he succumbs to a federal agent’s request that he again become an informant. Without apologies, the police agents turn their back on him and he is eventually sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17.
What this movie demonstrates is the racial disparity of our criminal justice system where our jails become another form of a modern day plantation system. In that sense, Rick was an exception where one set of laws apply to blacks while whites are treated far more favorably. The reality of this film is that a 17 year old boy was sentenced to life in prison for a non-violent drug offense and no one, and I mean no one, in the judicial system remotely cared.
Matthew McConaughey’s father Rick learned the cost of being in society’s lower rung where he is left fighting to make a living. Helping to raise his son’s daughter, he repeatedly confronts the agents, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, and Brian Tyree Henry, to honor their word after betraying his son. Though his son was sentenced in 1987, he was not paroled until 1987, three years after his father’s death. At that, you get the strong feeling that the parole only came when this movie was being made.
Before going further, let me point out the small but caring performance of Bruce Dern as Ricky’s impoverished grandfather and Bel Powley in her jarring role as his drug addicted sister. On top of that, Jonathan Majors, YG and RJ Syler are also compelling as Johnny, Leo and Rudy Curry, three black drug dealers who are trying to find a way to prosper regardless of the risks.
Having practiced as a criminal defense attorney for over 40 years, I have witnessed many of my own “White Boy Ricks” be sentenced to lengthy terms in prison. Though I am proud to say that I have saved many, I will never forget the time in 1994 where I personally watched a client become the last Hoosier to die in the electric chair. That client’s name was Gregory Resnover, and even the two prosecutors who handled his trial joined our defense team in requesting that the death penalty be set aside because of the obvious errors made in the appellate process. But just like with White Boy, I watched Mr. Resnover literally burn to death as the smell of his scarred flesh filled the observation room.
I have a small card given to me from his prison cell shortly before his death which says in part “Words cannot begin to describe what the years of knowing you have meant to me so I won’t try. I am grateful to the Almighty Creator for permitting our paths to cross!”
While injustice continues to exist in this country, I have pledged to go to my grave fighting it. White Boy Rick and Gregory Resnover are a reminder why.