Seven Sensational Drug Documentaries
Heart-rending, startling and enlightening, here's a selection—complete with clips—of some of the best work on drugs, addiction and policy ever committed to film.
“I think it's inevitable that people will come to find the documentary a more compelling and more important kind of film than fiction,” Albert Maysles—the documentarian who created, with his brother David, legendary films like Grey Gardens and Gimmie Shelter—once famously remarked. He went on to explain that, “When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you're really engaged with a person going through real life experiences. So for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.”
Drug docs (much like addiction memoirs) have become a cottage industry in recent years: flicking around cable TV gives the impression that entire channels are devoted to capturing the minutiae of modern drug culture. The worst efforts feel like a squalid wallow in other people’s misery—an experience as soulless as those infamous Victorian asylums where the public paid a penny to gawp at the inmates. But the best can teach us something, spur us to action and sometimes leave us breathless.
Here are seven of my favorites. I’ve tried to avoid more obvious candidates like Cocaine Cowboys and instead pick out some less familiar examples—which you might enjoy discovering as much as I did.
BLACK TAR HEROIN: THE DARK END OF THE STREET (1999)
This documentary focuses on the lives of a group of young heroin addicts in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, in the mid-to-late '90s. It was produced by HBO, who have form in creating this kind of uncompromising grim-realism—Dope Sick Love being another example. What gives Black Tar Heroin its edge, however, is its characters. Despite their almost unbearably sad circumstances, director Steven Okazaki never once reduces his subjects to junkie stereotypes. You get sucked into their world of scoring, tricking and overdosing as the sense of impending tragedy mounts. The story of Jake—a young hustler who transforms into a hollowed-out, HIV-ravaged shadow of his former self by the end of the movie—is profoundly moving. And a bleak, lo-fi soundtrack by the likes of Cat Power and Tanya Donnelly adds to the stark visuals. By the time the credits roll, you're left in pieces, wondering what on earth will become of these seemingly-doomed youths: as the 2004 update on the special edition DVD confirmed, most of them had little light at the end of their personal tunnels.
Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street (clip: Jake's story)
THE UNION: THE BUSINESS BEHIND GETTING HIGH (2007)
Canadian documentarian Brett Harvey used marijuana prohibition as the starting point for his smart and provocative film—but in the end it was about so much more. A righteous indictment of the futility of marijuana prohibition, it touches upon the ruined lives, civil rights infringements and political corruption that form the true legacy of the modern war on drugs. Featuring interviewees like Tommy Chong, Joe Rogan and Jack A. Cole, The Union explores the myriad political and financial reasons why the US government is so determined to keep fighting an unwinnable war, despite the human and economic costs. And the best part? The whole film is available to watch, for free, on YouTube, with the full blessing of the producers.
The Union: The Business Behind Getting High (trailer)
THE WET HOUSE (2001)
“Hard to watch” is a description often applied to director Penny Woolcock’s hour-long Channel 4 documentary. There’s no denying that this amazing slice of life—filmed inside a British “wet house,” where homeless alcoholics are permitted to live while continuing to drink—is tough going at times. I caught this one when it first aired, and the fact that so many moments have stayed with me over the intervening years is testimony to its haunting power. One man recounts being set on fire by a group of thugs while sleeping rough. One of the few women in the house, “Jamie Dodger,” shakes and twitches while huffing on a bag of glue. Snaggle-toothed old men break into song, their bulbous noses stained purple by broken blood vessels, before collapsing into fits of delirium tremens. Equally incredible is the unblinking professionalism of the facility's staff, as they go about their day administering medicine and cleaning up after their barely-functioning charges. While some may be tempted to dismiss The Wet House as misery-porn, it’s actually a film that humanizes the often-hidden faces of homelessness and alcoholism. The subjects are often seen bleary-eyed, shaking, and making little sense—but once in a while a moment of unexpected clarity shines through the addled confusion. We get a fleeting glimpses of who these broken people used to be before alcohol ravaged them totally, and it’s during these scenes that the real tragedy of their situation is clearest. This is a rare, uncensored look into unchecked addiction’s endgame.
The Wet House (clip)
AMERICAN DRUG WAR: THE LAST WHITE HOPE (2007)
While The Union examined the drug war with a serious, almost scholarly tone, Kevin Booth tackles the subject with the anger and bluster of Michael Moore on crack. An unapologetic slice of rabble-rousing propaganda, Booth’s documentary skewers the American approach to the war on drugs with the help of talking heads like Jello Biafra, Ralph Nadar, Gary Johnson and the ever-busy Tommy Chong—who seems to have been working non-stop to get weed legalized ever since the Bush administration turned him into a political prisoner. On the other side of the aisle, prohibitionists like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Drug Free America’s Calvina Fay are given just enough rope to hang themselves. Yes, some people have criticized this film for being too strident, and others wonder why the opinion of an ex-crack dealer like Freeway Ricky Ross matters. But taken for the full-blooded piece of pamphleteering that it is, American Drug War remains compelling.
American Drug War: The Last White Hope (trailer)