Directed by Bill Corben, the same documentary filmmaker responsible for Cocaine Cowboys, 2011's Square Groper (named after a bail of marijuana floating in the ocean after being dropped by a smuggler!) takes a look at the pot smuggling scene that was prevalent in Florida during the seventies and eighties. The film tracks down a large number of people who were not only present but actually involved in running or combating the operations and, if the end result is a bit biased, it's no less fascinating.
Basically broken into three chunks, the first segment explores the details behind the The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church or, as they refer to themselves, Coptics, who were basically a segment of Rastafari who used pot for religious reasons. Based in Jamaica, the sect eventually wound up with a Florida base on Miami Island, a very well to do area, much to the dismay of the other residents who lived around the Coptic's compound. While various members of the church are interviewed and talk about their peaceful intentions, facts and figures are tossed at us that shed some light on the truth - the Coptics were running a massive pot smuggling operation, bringing in weed from Jamaica and sending a lot of the money back there where the founders were basically running the entire country.
The second segment of the documentary follows the exploits of the so called Black Tuna Gang, named after necklaces that this small but prominent group of smugglers wore around their necks. These guys started off very small time but quickly realized they had a good thing going and since they figured pot was going to be legalized any way, they went ahead and took things to the next level and wound up with one of the biggest drug smuggling operations in the history of the state. The cops caught on, however, and though it looks like they were set up by some local politicians for various reasons, the men behind the Black Tuna Gang wound up doing record stints in jail for their efforts - quite literally doing more time for pot smuggling than some have done for murder.
The third segment brings us to the Everglades in the 1980s where the local government has started restricting where the locals can fish and in turn causing a fairly sizeable downturn in the economy. The solution? Smuggle pot off of Venezuelan cargo ships docked outside of American waters and get them through the swamp to the mainland to reap large cash rewards. All of a sudden everyone in town has gone from low income fisherman to drug dealer and has the house and car to show for it. It didn't take too long for the government to notice this and crack down on it, at which point a whole lot of people got arrested and went to jail.
Regardless of how you feel about the legalization of marijuana, this is an interesting documentary. The very fact that some of these guys were so bold about what they were doing is fascinating in and of itself, throw in some interesting stories about how they did what they did and evaded the law while they did it and you wind up hanging off of each interview, wanting to know how it's all going to play out. Well researched though tending to lean on the side of the pro-pot crowd, the documentary uncovers all sorts of interesting facts and humorous observations (the Feds in charge of cracking down on these guys couldn't get the government to help them out with a subscription to High Times for research purposes!) and if nothing else, if you're like me you can tell your mother that, yes, listening to Jimmy Buffet can lead to a life and career in pot smuggling.
The film is presented in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen and the transfer quality is, because of the different archival sources used, understandably erratic. The newly shot interview footage looks great - nice and clean and clear and colorful and everything you'd want it to be. The archival footage? It varies a lot depending on the clips in question. Old 70s and 80s era news casts tend to be taken from tape sources and as such, they're soft and worn out looking. Overall though, things are fine. This isn't going to blow your mind with the utmost in video clarity but it looks good enough.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track is provided, both in English, with optional subtitles provided in Spanish only. The clarity of the track is fine, with the music spread out rather well between the different channels in the mix to make for a fairly immersive experience. Again, the same problem applies here in regards to the archival clips in that some of the older ones aren't in the best of shape, so there's some hiss and some level bumps here and there. Overall though, the mix is fine and it gets the job done without any serious issues.
Extras start off with a good commentary track from director Billy Corben and producer Lindsey Snell who have no qualms whatsoever about discussing the nuts and bolts of this project. They detail the research they did and where the idea for this project came from and also discuss what it was like working with the various participants that we see on camera in the movie. It's a well paced and informative track that's a good way to get some extra mileage out of the disc.
Also included here are roughly seventeen minutes worth of deleted scenes, most of which are interview clips that simply elaborate on what is covered in the film itself. The film's music is covered in a five minute featurette called Scoring Square Groper and there's a music video included here as well. An interesting featurtte called Touring Ten Thousand Islands is a quick guided run through the Everglades area featured in the third part of the movie that does a great job of showing just how easy it is to hide out there. Rounding out the extras are a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Magnolia properties, menus and chapter stops. A pretty solid array of extra features overall.
Square Groper is a fantastic firsthand account of the marijuana smuggling scene that once was that is as interesting as it is both amusing and entertaining. Well researched and full of interesting facts, stories and anecdotes, it'll appeal not only to hemp hounds but to anyone who enjoys those moments in history that truly are stranger than fiction. The audio and video quality is as good as the source will allow, while the extras are interesting and plentiful. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.