"Square grouper," if you're not aware (and I sure as hell wasn't) is a slang term for a bale of marijuana, tossed overboard or out of a plane; if you happen to find one floating, or washed up on shore, well, looks like you caught yourself some square grouper today. They mostly use the expression down in Florida, and that's where director Billy Corben finds the three stories that make up his new documentary which bears its name.
Corben came to documentary fame with his Cocaine Cowboys films--also tales of drug dealing in his native Florida. But he's dealing here with very different kinds of criminals: ganga-smoking priests, laid-back fishermen, easygoing folks just trying to make an easy (or seemingly easy) buck.
He first looks at the Zion Coptic Church, a fundamentalist Christian sect that settled on Star Island in Miami. With their anti-gay, anti-feminist views, the group sounds like a strict evangelical church--but they espouse those views from behind a thick cloud of marijuana smoke. Ganja, you see, was their sacrament. The church was formed in Jamaica, and the Florida sect began a massive--and lucrative--exporting operation, leading to a fierce court battle over religious freedom, and questions over how much of that religion was a front for selling and smoking lots and lots and lots of pot.
The second segment concerns the "Black Tuna gang," led by pitchman-turned-middle-man-turned smuggler Robert Platshorn, who used his Miami used car dealership as a front to smuggle in pot from Columbia. Caught in a joint sting operation between the DEA and FBI, he ended up serving thirty years--the longest imprisonment ever for a nonviolent marijuana offender.
In the third section, Corben looks at folksy Everglades City, where growing fishing regulations around Everglades National Park turned a whole village of fishermen into "pot haulers." This segment may be the most successful; before even getting into the operation, the colorful interview subjects go a long way toward establishing what this place is and what it was like to be there; there are also some really funny stories, including the priceless tale of what happened to one boat that was confiscated and then resold to the same pot-hauling owner.
Corben, who also directed the first-rate ESPN 30 for 30 film The U, is a real stylist--his films move fast, and he's one of the few documentary filmmakers who tries to do something interesting in his interview footage, working out ingenious framing and movement to keep them from degenerating into a series of talking heads. But in spite of his cinematic subjects and aesthetic ease, his films aren't dumbed-down; there's a flurry of information to keep the picture from being merely empty flash.
He's also helped by the charisma of most of his subjects (most; the Coptics are pretty much insufferable); Platshorn, his partner, and the Everglades City fisherman are good storytellers and fascinating individuals. Square Grouper's only got one genuine flaw, though it is a big one: the film's vignette nature requires it to keep starting and stopping, and the general arc of the last two stories end up making the picture a touch repetitive. Corben, try as he might, doesn't get the kind of hysterical momentum going that his other films have. But Square Grouper is still well worth your time; it knows its territory, and takes the viewer there with the expertise and confidence of a well-versed tour guide.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.