Magnolia Pictures // 2011 // 101 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // May 7th, 2011
The incredible true story of the 1970s pot smuggler culture.
The marijuana trade had already been big business for decades, but in South Florida during the 1970s, the business exploded. The massive quantities of drugs being smuggled in was almost mind-blowing, especially considering the people bringing the stuff into the country. In Square Grouper, director Billy Corben (Cocaine Cowboys) brings us to South Florida to talk to some of the people involved in the biggest smuggling rings, as well as the law enforcement officers who brought them down. While this film, with it's mellow, stoned vibe, doesn't have the visceral energy that his previous film about the white stuff had, there are three fascinating stories here.
We start with the story of the Zion Coptic Church, a fundamentalist Christian sect out of Jamaica, hardcore conservative in every way except their use of ganja as sacrament. They smoke the stuff fiendishly and chant when not covering the heads of their wives and making them do all their work. With tax exempt status from the IRS, they built both their religion and a massively profitable marijuana import business. Drug running frauds or a First Amendment protected group of the faithful? The people involved in the church and the head of the investigation against them give us both sides.
Second is the tale of the Black Tuna Gang, started by a pair of Philly transplants into Miami who fell into the business. After a single big dollar transaction, they were hooked, importing larger and larger quantities of pot from Columbia. Running an extremely sophisticated communications network, they stayed ahead of law enforcement for years. When they were finally apprehended, though, their story demonstrates the relative injustice of the war on drugs.
Finally is the story of Everglades City, the boonies of the boonies on the Florida coast. They were almost exclusively a fishing village until the National Park Service began appropriating the land for preservation. This leaft the residents in a financial lurch, and they began smuggling drugs to survive. Soon, it became less a matter of subsistence and more a matter of luxury as the entire town became extremely rich extremely fast. When the law finally caught up to them, they found a city consumed with smuggling, but can you arrest an entire town?
The stories are entirely independent from one another, so Square Grouper feels more like three short related documentaries rather than one feature. Even though the individual tales are interesting, the lack of an overarching theme detracts from the film. Cocaine Cowboys is a very similar film, but there we have the idea that cocaine was the economy of Miami, funding massive construction projects and securing thousands of jobs in both legal and illegal sectors. While marijuana actually contributed quite a bit to these same coffers, there's no such narrative here. It's just talking heads telling their stories over archival footage.
Still, these stories are a lot of fun and filled with nutty characters. The film is at its best in the first segment, where the people are the most strange and the legal questions are the most ambiguous. It's not that I doubt they were using their tax-exempt status to run drugs into the US, but I can easily see a lawyer trying to make a case for their "sacrament." The other two are more clear-cut cases of smuggling, although they're very different from each other. The Black Tuna Gang seem like a bunch of grandpas on some Carnival cruise, while the rednecks from Everglades City really were just doing what they had to for survival. Neither of their cases is defensible, really, but Everglades City's employment problem was very real and, while the Black Tuna Gang has no excuse but greed, the sentencing handed down to them for their crimes were a judicial tragedy. Corben makes a good case for all three stories and the film is very much worth watching, even if it's not nearly as exciting as some of his other efforts.
Square Grouper is given an excellent treatment by Magnolia Home Entertainment. The image is as good as it could be but, given the mix of talking heads and archival footage, that varies greatly. It's never too bad, though, and the transfer is perfectly acceptable. The sound mix is much better. The music, written specifically for the film, comes through nicely in all channels and the dialog is all clear and bright. The extras are the highlight here, however. We get much more than usual for a documentary, starting with an excellent commentary with Corben and producer Lindsey Snell. As Floridians, they give a ton of background about all three subjects and tell some funny stories about how they got access to so many of the people involved. Snell's stories about getting in with the residents of Everglades City are especially choice. A few deleted scenes give more details, including some instances of violence that are virtually absent from the finished film. We get three short featurettes, though only one is worth very much. Two are about the music for the film, none of which I'm that big a fan of, but the third is very good. A boat tour of the "thousand islands" of the Everglades, this really drives home how easy it would be for a non-native of the coast to get lost forever in the maze. It's no wonder the residents were able to avoid detection for so long. A couple of music videos and a trailer round out the disc.
Square Grouper is an interesting, if not always terribly exciting, journey through the Miami pot trade. Though the stories are great, the tone is sleepy and it's easy to lose attention at times. With the excellent DVD presentation, however, this documentary is easy to recommend.
Review content copyright © 2011 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Video
* Official Site