In the 1980s, the crack epidemic tore through America’s inner cities like a brushfire, and it was a devastating scourge. But it also left a seared trail of media images that were more concocted, simplistic, and racially biased than they pretended to be. Remember “crack babies”? The phenomenon of an infant born to a crack-addicted mother, with the infant damaged by (or addicted to) the drug, was something that on occasion did happen, but the news media, using radically distorted numbers, made it sound like an encroaching army of zombie babies. As for crack users themselves, two-thirds of them were white, yet you wouldn’t have dreamed that from the media coverage. Those trumped-up images, like crack itself, did their damage, leaving a residue of hyped sensation the way that junk food deposits chemicals in the body.
Stanley Nelson’s “Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy,” a Netflix documentary that drops on Jan. 15, brings the images of the crack plague roaring back — the tiny vials with their yellowish chunks of purified cocaine; the deals going down on street corners of Queens and the Bronx and South Central, in what became a thriving smash-and-grab underground capitalist economy; the death of Len Bias; the way that cocaine, formerly a drug of the elite, suddenly became available for the price of a kid’s allowance; the addictive cycle of human beings devolving into skinny, glassy-eyed, burnt-out husks of themselves.
Yet Nelson, who has the ace documentarian’s gift of making history more interesting than the mythologies it’s cutting through, has directed a movie that stays true to the epic devastation crack left in its wake and, at the same time, examines all the ways the government and the media used the grim reality of crack, turning it against the very people who were being victimized by it. Nelson talks to former dealers and users, getting into the nitty-gritty of what crack felt like and the high the dealers had selling it like hotcakes. And he also taps such trenchant observers as the Columbia neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart, who speaks with big-picture eloquence to everything that’s missing in our sensationalized image of the crack epidemic. The movie takes us back and also forward, into the sadder and wiser present day, when we can now see how crack changed the culture.
“Crack” starts off the way almost any honest documentary about a powerful drug must: with a reckoning of the drug’s appeal. Richard Pryor’s famous 1980 freebasing incident, in which he set fire to himself by igniting the ether he was using to make freebase, should have stood as a cautionary tale, but as Nelson George explains, “Richard Pryor burning himself up was the wake-up call to a lot of people that there was this other kind of way of using cocaine.” It became the first advertisement for crack. The second advertisement was “Scarface” (1983), though that movie was just about powder cocaine. Yet the power it conveyed! It reveled in the money, the glamour, the high, which up until that point was more or less cut off from the inner city. Simply put: cocaine was too expensive. But by 1984 it was flooding the market, and so the prices fell. And by going through the elaborate chemical process of shearing cocaine of its salt content, “freeing” it down to the “base,” the marketers of crack turned it into a quick hit of nirvana.
Felipe Luciano, an activist and former user, says, “I don’t think we really understand the trauma of poverty. Any way, anything, any method we can employ to escape the fact that we are broke and oppressed, we will do.” Crack, as so many have described it, was a drug that was literally irresistible; people spent years chasing that first high. And the market for it was greased by corruption. A good documentary takes suspenseful turns, and in this one a major twist arrives when Corey Pegues, a burly former dealer, tells the story of how he got popped by the police when he was carrying 300 vials of crack, and they let him go. He was thrilled, but it wasn’t until he got back to his boss that he learned why: The dealers had a racket going — they were paying off the cops. For a while, that’s just how it went. Until Ronald Reagan, in his let’s-make-America-into-the-1950s-again fervor, decided that he was going to anoint himself the Dirty Harry of drugs and wipe the streets clean.
Crack was a scourge, but it got turned into a demon, which was then used to demonize the inner city. The drug was responsible for launching the so-called “war on drugs,” yet for all the righteous lip service of the Reagans and the parade of celebrities, from Clint Eastwood to Pee-wee Herman, who signed on to endorse the “Just say no” campaign, it proved to be a war that was unwinnable. Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” captured why: When it came to the cravings inspired by drugs, brute force wasn’t going to roll back the law of supply and demand. Instead, the war kept racking up casualties, treating Black drug users like they were hardened criminals. The prison population exploded (in 1980, it was 300,000; today, it’s over 2 million), with the successive administrations of Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton treating the escalating numbers as if they were scores on a video game.
On weekends in the late ’80s, so many people would be lined up in the New York boroughs to buy crack, including all the white customers from the suburbs, that there would be traffic jams. Samson Styles, a former dealer, says, “It was like a gold rush that hit the hood.” But the neighborhoods became combat zones, driven by wars between the dealers. There’s no question that the police had to act; the residents wanted them to act. But with tens of millions of dollars now pouring into law enforcement from the federal level, the result was the militarization of the police, who treated everyone associated with crack — including its users — as The Enemy. The contrast with the opioid users of our own era could hardly be more marked.
The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, pushed through Congress in a matter of weeks by House Speaker Tip O’Neill, was an egregious piece of legislation that literally said: The possession of 100 grams of powder cocaine will get you a certain sentence, and one gram of crack will get you the same sentence. The documentary captures how that literal Black-and-white thinking filtered down to the streets. A former dealer tells a story of being rounded up in a drug sweep, and he claims that if one person arrested had 10 vials of crack and another had none, the police might divide the 10 vials in two so that everyone was guilty.
Did the CIA finance the crack epidemic? “Crack” never makes that grandiose conspiratorial claim. The movie does, however, use evidence that the CIA looked the other way and cozied up to drug dealers in Nicaragua, as part of its alliance with the Contras, to suggest how the U.S. government, in the ’80s, was supremely hypocritical when it came to the issue of drugs. We’re still living the legacy of the crack epidemic, and all the people in prison are part of it. But so is the essential clampdown impulse that viewed this epidemic not as a tragedy but as an infestation of “evil.” The movie raises the essential question: What does it mean to try and save a society from drugs if you don’t give a damn about the people you’re saving?