“Square Grouper” Premieres at SXSW
"Square Grouper" was released on April 15, 2011
“Square Grouper,” the new documentary film from Miami’s Rakontur, premiered Saturday at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The movie takes a look at three different tales of marijuana smuggling in South Florida in the 1970s, each of which were major national stories at the time. While the film does not come out and explicitly call for the legalization of marijuana, if “Square Grouper” has an underlying theme that is it. And while none of the stories interconnect, they all make a point of showing the large scale use of resources to battle a fairly harmless industry.
AN AUTHENTIC SOUTH FLORIDA EVENT EXPERIENCE
“I think I had more people at my Bar Mitzvah,” was director Billy Corben’s first comment to the crowd of about 200 at Austin’s Vimeo Theater on Saturday. Indeed, though the film had created a sizable buzz around Miami and in the pot community, the premiere was not packed. Much like many events in South Florida, each attendee could have his or her own row. This was a nice authentic touch, I think, for the audience members not from Miami.
The film begins with a look at the Zion Coptic Church, a Christian fundamentalist sect based out of Jamaica that considered marijuana a sacrament. This first segment uses a good deal of archival footage to tell the church’s story, along with some interviews filmed at Jimbo’s. The story is fairly easy to follow, as the Church infuriates its Star Island neighbors with its perpetual cloud of smoke polluting the island. And the argument for legalization here is made fairly blatant in old news clips of the Church’s leader, Brother Louv, arguing that marijuana is an herb given to us by God, and not a drug. This may be something that resonates in the legalization community, but the DEA apparently saw it differently.
DRUG-TRAFFICKER TURNED TEAR JERKER
The second story is of the Black Tuna Gang, and the only story that had one of the subjects in the audience Saturday. Robert Platshorn, who is the longest serving non-violent marijuana offender in U.S. history, was on hand to see the film’s premiere, and even talked with the audience a little bit afterward. Though the story covers the entire “gang’s” operation, it also features perhaps the most poignant and touching part of Square Grouper. Platshorn, after serving 21 years in prison, is reunited with his ex-wife Lynn and they remarry in Reno. They also are taken through their old house on Pine Tree Drive, their first time inside since both were arrested nearly 25 years ago. The mix of shock, nostalgia and disappointment at what the new owners had done is the most emotional moment in “Square Grouper,” eliciting a few tears from audience members.
After the film Platshorn addressed the crowd by emphatically asking “Who here is for Pot Legalization?!” He stressed the need of getting seniors on board with the legalization movement, since they vote the most and could potentially benefit the most from its medicinal properties. Since he lives in an over-55 development in western Palm Beach County, it seems a logical place to start.
“I wear ‘legalize’ shirts to play tennis every day,” he told me. ‘It gets some looks, let me tell you.”
DANGEROUS WORK PAYS OFF FOR RAKONTUR
The most gripping part of “Square Grouper” is the final segment about Everglades City and its role as a smuggling hub. Though according to Corben the production of this segment was the most difficult and time-consuming (and dangerous – producer Lindsey Snell told a story of having a knife pulled on her by a local female), it showed in the final production. The segment brilliantly captures the swamp and small-town culture of the area, and shows the desperation of the community and why it turned to smuggling. The characters in this segment come across as beyond eccentric, but having met some I can say they are toned down from real life. The Everglades City segment probably could have been a movie by itself. Though I’m not sure the entire crew would have survived a shoot that long.
If you went to “Square Grouper” expecting “Cocaine Cowboys” with weed, you would be sorely disappointed. It’s a different subject that requires a different feel to the film. The soundtrack, by Miami’s DJ LeSpam, is very old Florida, and even features an original song from Raiford Starke. The stories are segmented, and not a single narrative like “Cowboys” or “The U.” But in doing so, Rakontur keeps the audience’s attention while not-so-subtly getting its message across. A lot of people did a lot of time because of marijuana. And maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t all that necessary.
“Square Grouper” will be touring several film festivals througout the year, and will be available on DVD starting - not surprisingly - on April 20.
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