Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cure for Malaise: Square Grouper

The late 1970’s was a time of stagflation and economic malaise (sound familiar?). However, there was one booming business that offered a chance for any idiot to make serious coin: pot smuggling. Director Billy Corben explores the diversity and eccentricity of the South Florida smuggling scene in its heyday with profiles of three very different sets of co-conspirators in Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Those who were in or around the 1970’s smuggling economy will recognize “Square Grouper” as the term for the bales of marijuana periodically found bobbing in the waters off Florida’s shores. As for the rest of us, well now we know. Needless to say, everyone Corben interviews knows what it means.

The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church did not have to chase after stray bales. They were probably the most powerful and successful syndicate profiled in Grouper. They were also an officially recognized church, combining the hippie lifestyle with the least popular aspects of evangelical Christianity, namely rather judgmental attitudes regarding homosexuality and sexual relations in general. Weed on the other hand, was a sacred sacrament. With connections running deep into the Jamaican government, the Ethiopian Zions had a professional operation and extensive property holdings. Yet, their evangelical zeal proved to be their undoing, when media footage of underage kids toking it up in their compound turned the public against them.

Perhaps Grouper’s middle story is its saddest. Robert Platshorn was a working-class salesman from Philadelphia’s South Street who fast talked his way into a profitable drug-running gig, at least for a little while. However, he became infamous as the leader of the media-dubbed “Black Tuna Gang.” Corben clearly suggests Platshorn was a small fish victimized by an overzealous prosecution and grandstanding in the press by Griffin Bell, Carter’s Attorney General. Perhaps, but even if it is not an outright crime, Platshorn is clearly guilty of some big league stupidity.

The smugglers of Everglades City, a decidedly red looking spot on the Florida map, are also regular working stiffs, but they knew how to cut their losses when the heat came down. In truth, smuggling was a last resort for the townsfolk. They would have preferred to keep fishing. Years ago, the Federal government had grandfathered many of the town’s commercial fishing licenses when it created the Everglades National Park. Eventually though, it revoked those permits, deciding to sacrifice their livelihoods on the altar of environmentalism. The unintended consequence was the creation of small battery of enterprising smugglers.

Grouper is an entertainingly breezy look at a distinct criminal subculture that rarely resorted to violence, unlike the subsequent “Cocaine Cowboys” Corben previously documented. Ironically, the film’s only potentially objectionable images, the Ethiopian Zion cult’s ganja-smoking kids, come straight from archival broadcast news reports. Unfortunately, the cheesy transitional graphics are hardly feature film quality, giving it a distinctly cable look. Still, Grouper’s subject matter (on which it never passes any moral, ethical, or health-related judgments) and 1970’s era vibe holds a retro-old school Miami Vice appeal. Those who hold out for the DVD will probably consider it well worth the short wait. For the eager, it opens this Friday (4/15) in New York at the Cinema Village.