Midway through the new BET documentary “Smoke: Marijuana + Black America,” we’re introduced to Wanda James and her husband, Scott Durrah — both military veterans and established entrepreneurs — who faced astounding and absurd obstacles on their road to launching and running Denver’s Simply Pure, America’s first Black-owned marijuana dispensary (today, only 4 percent of dispensaries are Black-owned). There were coordinated raids on their grow in 2010; both Durrah and James’ brother were subjected to racial profiling by police; her brother had already served four years in a maximum security prison after being convicted of possession of four ounces of marijuana at 19. In jail, he spent his days picking cotton.
“Welcome to being Black in America,” Durrah says of their situation.
His statement is a poignant summation of “Smoke,” which premieres this Wednesday, November 18 at 10PM ET, on BET, in collaboration with Swirl Films. It’s co-executive produced and narrated by iconic hip-hop artist Nasir “Nas” Jones, an elder statesman of the genre. The documentary uses marijuana as a lens to examine the staggering racial inequalities and injustices exacerbated by the war on ‘drugs,’ while also exploring how marijuana can serve as a tool for transformation and progress.
It’s an extremely ambitious undertaking: tackling the intersection of cannabis and public policy (or the lack thereof), music and culture, criminal justice reform and economics. While its two-hour run time inevitably forces the story tellers to gloss over some of the nuances, it nonetheless paints a thorough and emotionally-charged portrait of the true impact of marijuana on society.
“Since [cannabis] is so complicated, the challenge for me as a filmmaker was to try to make all of those issues palatable for an audience that may not have been introduced to some of these subjects,” the film’s director, Erik Parker, told The News Station. “We tried to show the emotions surrounding these issues, how this plant affects the lives of people when we filter it through our policy and our culture.”
Much of the film’s strength comes from its extensive and compelling interviews, all of which were conducted by Parker. Nearly all of his subjects — including chart-topping musicians like Ty Dolla $ign and Cypress Hill, politicians like Senator Cory Booker and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, entrepreneurs like cannabis mogul Berner and former NBA player Al Harrington, who now owns the multi-state cannabis operator Viola — don’t merely lend their perspectives and personal stories. They display remarkable vulnerability and frankness.
Nas is a compelling narrator. We learn that his father was a musician who also sold weed, and he, as a result, “never saw it as a bad thing.” And when it came to music and marijuana, “they were born for each other.”
“He was the first person I thought of that could actually speak to this and attract a certain audience and give a lot of weight to this subject,” Parker said of Nas, with whom he collaborated on the 2014 documentary Time is Illmatic. “Sometimes if you attract a celebrity…[your project] may not be taken as seriously, especially if it’s about marijuana. Nas is well respected…he felt like the perfect person to help with this project.”
It’s not just the big names, though, that make the film captivating, and, at times, harrowing. Kimberly Foxx, now the state’s attorney for Cook County, Illinois (which includes Chicago), recalls feeling “like a hypocrite” earlier in her career for enforcing marijuana laws, which predominantly impacted young Black and Brown men.
“I felt like I was put into this role… to bring safety and fairness to our communities, and in the exercise of doing prosecution for these low-level marijuana offenses I felt like I was doing harm,” she says in the film.
Later, we meet the family of Corvain Cooper, a former fashion industry entrepreneur now serving a life sentence without parole after being charged with several marijuana-related offenses. His clothing store in Los Angeles is now, perversely, a marijuana dispensary.
“The last time I saw my dad was two years ago,” his young daughter Cleer said while on the verge of tears in the film. “They moved him further to Louisiana. It’s very far from where I live, so I can’t see him a lot.”
Other stories point a way forward. Former Illinois state Senator Toi Hutchinson (D), who now advises Governor J.B. Pritzker (D) on cannabis, speaks tearfully about her work getting the records of 11,000 Illinois residents with marijuana charges expunged.
“This is important work, and everybody has a role to play,” she says.
While all of these big names and bold interviews make for a gripping film, packing them all into a two-hour special makes exploring some of their nuances, as Parker himself ceded, a bit challenging.
For instance, the film frames former Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) and Vice President-elect Harris in very different lights, despite the fact that both politicians have “evolved” on marijuana. Both have a checkered past: Boehner was “unalterably opposed to the legalization of marijuana” while serving in Congress and has remarked that “the whole criminal justice part of this, frankly, it never crossed my mind.” Now, he serves on the board of Big Weed company Acreage Holdings and stands to make millions from his role in the industry.
Harris, for her part, has emerged as a major proponent of cannabis reform, but she has not always been sympathetic to cannabis reform. While Boehner’s hypocrisy is profound and indisputable, the film casts him as a villain while glossing over the less flattering elements of Harris’ own career, including the nearly 2,000 Californians sent to jail on marijuana charges while she was the state’s attorney general (she did not prosecute these cases herself).
Despite this hurdle, the film delivers a robust and educating message.
“We made this documentary for a specific audience…Black people, Latinx people may be watching, young people may be watching,” Parker said, even though the film’s message is likely to resonate with a much wider audience.
That’s especially the case, Parker pointed out, in the aftermath of the 2020 election: a Biden administration plan to, at the very least, decriminalize cannabis would impact the lives of countless Americans.
“You get something like that done, it really is a legacy,” Parker told The News Station. “It’s something you can run on and people can get behind.”