'Square Grouper' (unrated)

 

Looking back on South Florida's crazy heyday as marijuana heaven

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By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

Having chronicled the wild-west, shoot-’em-up era of the 1980s Miami cocaine wars in their wildly popular Cocaine Cowboys documentaries, director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman turn their cameras on a gentler, but in many ways even zanier, traded drug: Marijuana.

Square Grouper, slang for bales of pot thrown off boats or planes in South Florida in the 1970s and ’80s, is divided into three installments, each telling a distinct — and at times practically unbelievable — tale of high times.

One centers on a religious cult, the Zion Coptic Church, which was headquartered on Star Island. It invested millions of dollars in Jamaica in order to harvest its weed crops outside U.S. jurisdiction, maintained that smoking pot was legal because God created it, and who are we to question Him? Another chapter, the Black Tuna Gang, tells of two Miami businessmen who fell into the drug trade almost by accident, becoming small-time middlemen who incurred the government’s wrath and served disproportionately long sentences for their crimes.

In the film’s third segment, which merits a stand-alone feature film of its own, we visit Everglades City, a small town on Florida’s southwest coast where the local industry was fishing until the government started making permits increasingly difficult to obtain. So more than half the population turned to pot smuggling as an alternative.

Square Grouper intercuts loads of vintage news footage with recent interviews: The jaw-dropping sight of children happily smoking ganja alongside their hippie parents in their so-called church is jaw-dropping. Much more infuriating, though, is the way the DEA, imperiled by government fiscal cuts, made an example of the Black Tuna Gang to avoid being absorbed into the FBI, even discounting testimony that proved their crimes were strictly small time.

Square Grouper isn’t as dynamic or riveting as Cocaine Cowboys. Unlike the coke industry, marijuana traders seem too relaxed and laid back to wage much war against each other. But Corben has done an impressive amount of journalistic research that will be of particular interest to South Florida audiences. Every time you think Miami couldn’t possibly get any weirder, it does.

With: Thomas Reilly, Clifton Ray Middleton, Robert Platshom, Robert Meinster.

Director: Billy Corben.

Producers: Alfred Spellman, Billy Corben, Lindsey Snell.

A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 100 minutes. Vulgar language, lots and lots of pot smoking. Opens Thursday April 14 in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema.

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