As a criminal defense lawyer, my pal, Stewart Hanlon, represented for many years his client, Black Panther Party icon, Elmer Geronimo Pratt. “Geromino” served 27 years in prison, eight of them in solitary, before his release in 1997. As a kid, Hanlon wanted little, if anything, to do with any Blacks. “Growing up, I was afraid of Black men,” Hanlon told me the other day.
What the new, bold, cannabis documentary, Smoke: Marijuana + Black America, makes abundantly clear is that the U.S. government’s propaganda machine demonized Black men at the same time it demonized marijuana. According to the myth, African-American males on dope would assault white women. For decades, way more Blacks than whites have been arrested for possession of small amounts of pot and sentenced to big prison terms.
Smoke (BET.com) tells a very American story with indelible images and memorable voices, plus archival footage (from Reefer Madness, for example) and contemporary clips of Kamala Harris, the Vice President–elect, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker who gently chides Joe Biden for failing to endorse the legalization of marijuana. Maybe Joe will wise up, aim to redress the “sins of the past,” and help bring “restorative justice” to the nation.
Part of the appeal of Smoke is that it includes a cross-section of Black Americans: senators such as Booker, congresswomen such as Oakland’s Barbara Lee, plus convicts, dispensary owners and hip-hop artists who helped spread the “gospel of weed” through music, lyrics and their own outsized personalities.
The cannabis documentary begins in the present and dips into the past, making mention of performers such as Cab Calloway, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh, and drug warriors such as Harry Anslinger who started the assault on marijuana in the 1930s when the Prohibition of alcohol ended and G-Men wanted jobs. Some viewers of Smoke might be surprised to hear that the War on Drugs, which President Nixon began in the 1970s and which intensified under Bush I and Bush II, continued under Clinton and Obama.
The film could be depressing, but the music, the narration, and the big, beautiful faces of Black men and Black women provide a sense of joy. On camera, Senator Booker sounds heroic as does Kimberly M. Foxx, the State’s Attorney for Cook County, Chicago, who changed course dramatically after prosecuting Black teens for years. She saw the light.
Also, it’s not possible to listen to Corvain Cooper without a sense of outrage. Cooper was sentenced to life without parole for violating the federal marijuana law. He prays Donald Trump will grant him clemency and that he’ll be a free person again. If you aren’t yet sure if Black lives matter, watch Smoke and get smoked, too.
Jonah Raskin created the story for the marijuana feature, “Homegrown.”