Square Grouper Dir. Billy Corben

[Magnolia Pictures; 2011]

Styles: documentary
Others: Cocaine Cowboys, The Union: Business Behind Getting High

No matter how you feel about the legalization of drugs, it’s hard to deny that America’s complicated love affair with using and criminalizing substances is one of our epic stories. Although marijuana has made some in-roads, we’re still a long way off from Amsterdam (or Hamsterdam). What we do have is a patched-together, highly-hypocritical mixed message: pop culture is Pineapple Express, while policy is mandatory minimums. When the book is eventually written, Florida will have a chapter of its own. Square Grouper, an entertaining new documentary, tackles a small part of that story: South Florida’s pot smuggling operations of the 1970s and 80s. In the smuggling heyday, boats and planes would unload cargo if the situation got hot, leaving floating bales of marijuana in their wake, hence “square grouper.”

The documentary is divided into three sections, each focusing on a different South Florida pot smuggling ring. First is the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, a clannish group that settled on Star Island, off Miami Beach, in the 70s. This Rastafarian movement took on Florida roots when some bearded white guys went to Jamaica to find themselves and instead found Keith Gordon and the ganja sacrament. The Coptics were strangely conservative, forbidding homosexuality or any sex not resulting in procreation, yet they holed up in a luxe compound and smoked copious amounts of weed. The loudmouth antics of leader Brother Louv, plus a 60 Minutes exposé, with vivid shots of young children toking up, pushed the authorities to take action against them.

Second to the party are the Roberts: Bobby Platshorn and Robby Meinster, two well-meaning guys from Philly. With a cavalier “hey, it’ll be legal soon anyway!” the childhood buddies began as middles, then moved down to Miami and up the supply chain. They claimed the Fontainebleau (then the largest hotel in the world) as their HQ for dealing Columbian weed, laundering money through their auto shop and indexing prices in High Times. Eventually, the DEA and FBI teamed up and went after these relatively small fish. The Roberts endured a showboat-y trial (with some seriously questionable moves by the Feds) and were both sent to prison for 20-plus years. The media had a ball with this new War On Drugs, christening them the Black Tuna gang for the embossed gold necklaces they wore.

And finally, on the less glamorous tip, there’s Everglades City, a backwater town of fishermen and smugglers. A handful of families have colonized the area, trading last names and shifty-eyed glances. The long history of smuggling — gators, rum, and pot — means everyone’s in on it. When commercial fishing tanked in the 1970s, the men got into smuggling marijuana, making piles of money until an epic bust cleaned them out. Now they run airboat trips and sing wistful Jimmy Buffet tunes.

The story ends there, rather abruptly. We don’t get any moralizing, or much context, but the story’s got flow and good pacing. The filmmakers corral all the key players for interviews and cut those with photos, news clips, and archival footage. And underneath it all we’ve got a reggae beat, reminding us whence we came.

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