Poor White Boy Rick can’t help being behind the times. Pop culture has already moved past the simple exoticism of filmmakers who pity blacks as socially disadvantaged creatures and then romanticize whites who imitate blacks as fascinating hipsters. In the Black Lives Matter era, blacks are encouraged to exploit their own cultural status: Political Fetish Objects Matter. Consequently, race envy is all that the barrage of street lingo and ghetto fatalism in White Boy Rick “represents,” which makes the movie totally out of fashion.
The based-on-a-true-story plot about 15-year-old white Detroiter Rick Wershe Jr., who got a 22-year prison sentence for drug dealing in 1987, combines urban poverty, culture-mixing, and corrupted innocence as if to further examine the mythology — and the punishing realities — lost to the media’s overzealous enthusiasm inspired by white Detroit rapper Eminem’s command of hip-hop’s ethos in the 1990s. Rick (played by newcomer Richie Merritt) is a proto-Eminem figure whose curly hair and wide face join Dick Tracy’s Flat Top with Family Guy’s Stewie, both cartoon sociopaths. Rick is, indeed, victim of a cultural experiment: the hip-hop fascination that seduces pitiable white youth into the reckless desperation of their swaggering, yet equally misguided, black peers. Rick doesn’t heed the early warning about the difference between doing “white time” and “black time” in the criminal-justice system. (It’s what the Safdie brothers celebrated in last year’s Good Time.) Had he listened, there’d be no movie in which producer Darren Aronofsky and director Yann Demange could fabricate their existential fatalism.
Instead of portraying Wershe’s tale, and hip-hop’s race-mixing phenomenon, in political terms, the filmmakers take the sociological details of Wershe’s story for granted. It’s more Detroit-set ruin porn, showing the former industrial capital — the blasted aftermath of Sixties riots — as post-apocalyptic America. The city’s ethnic conclaves juxtaposing black and white residents who have not escaped to the suburbs are a particular urban aberration that, through Aronofsky and Demange’s benign neglect, goes unexplored. They also omit Detroit’s legacies of corporate indifference, which eliminated urban livelihoods, and the spiritual desolation fostered by decades of Democratic mayoral mismanagement. This background matters because Rick’s fate is set in motion when he and his black friends attend a party at Mayor Coleman Young’s mansion.
Issues of urban corruption have advanced beyond Hollywood’s usual do-gooder, social-justice perspective. Al Pacino’s Serpico plays unnoticed in the background as a clue to the movie’s self-serious sentimentality. (Why not Scarface?) Yet the makers of White Boy Rick aren’t prepared to accept the complex moral confusion hip-hop has brought to American lowlife by its glamorization of the drug trade, gang war, and family conflicts — a confusion that our cultural and political institutions have all exploited. The opening scene of Rick and his father, Rick Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), at a gun show where they deal in illegal weaponry (imported AK-47s preferred by drug gangs) sketches a mostly white subculture — Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Edwin Starr’s “S.O.S” on the soundtrack add unhelpful cultural irony.
French director Demange observes American male behavior from a distance, yet he doesn’t employ the ironic detachment that might penetrate the sullen, profane manners that make Rick’s story a classic example of hip-hop tragedy. (Director Curtis Hanson also missed it in the Eminem fantasy bio-pic 8 Mile.) Scenes in which Rick struts through Las Vegas surrounded by fur-coated black gangsters merely show how the white-underclass Rick is seduced by black audacity and sensuality. He hangs out with petty criminals and can’t take his eyes off the sexy girlfriend of local gang leader, Boo Curry (RJ Cyler), the one who gives orders and confronts Rick with the film’s essential point: “You good at talking like a n[****]r, but you don’t know the first thing about living like one.”
From that provocative line — the film’s thesis statement — you might expect White Boy Rick to be a Midwest Goodfellas, which a famous critic once summarized this way: “It’s about being a guy, and guys getting high on being a guy.” But although the title White Boy Rick gives off the frisson of vicarious thrills, the movie is dishonest about the essential problem of social deprivation that makes underclass whites no better off than their ghetto cellmates: McConaughey’s widowed-father role is a sentimentalized loser, as is the crack-addict sister (Bel Powley); the grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) represent the enfeebled older generation; and the team of FBI agents (headed by Jennifer Jason Leigh) are callous manipulators. Ricky’s family and his social-support system are irreparably broken.
In 2005’s Standing Tall (La tête haute), director Emmanuelle Bercot focused on a white at-risk French youth (Rod Paradot), who fell into the same social traps as the immigrant boys from the banlieues. His fate was movingly connected to the West’s at-risk future. That film’s original title actually translates as “Head’s Up,” a social warning and a personal encouragement, but White Boy Rick rejects both.
Poor white-boy Rick seems on the Aspberger’s spectrum; it’s impossible to read his intelligence. In the film’s only attempt at humor, Rick Sr. chides his son’s clueless choice of Vegas bling — a gold Star of David necklace that conspicuously complicates the story’s all-American race envy. This film’s view of the social demoralization felt by no-hope white youth who follow the luckless moves of disadvantaged black youth is condescending. It makes fetish objects of them all.