After earning Emmys for his works examining the murder of Emmett Till, the Black Panthers, and the Civil Rights movement, Stanley Nelson is turning his incisive lens toward another piece of Black history: the devastation caused by the crack epidemic and the war on drugs.
Below see a trailer for “Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy,” which will get a Netflix release on January 11, 2021. The trailer teases a documentary that examines the trajectory of cocaine from party drug of the rich to a devastating force in poor communities, as well a previously untold look at the role played by local, state, and federal governments in the war on drugs.
President Barack Obama bestowed Nelson with the National Humanities Medal in 2013. He earned a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a genius grant, in 2002 for “synthesizing biography, history, and culture in signature portrayals of the African American experience.” Among his most notable work is “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” and “Freedom Riders.”
Nelson, who has directed some two-dozen documentaries dating back to the late ‘80s, said he aimed to more fully examine the history and impact of crack. Below is a particularly thoughtful director’s statement provided by Netflix that offers rich context for Nelson’s goals with this film:
“I lived through the crack era in New York City. I vividly remember the long lines of cars waiting for dealers; people standing in doorways smoking crack; streets littered with crack vials. Crack transformed the city and the entire country, leaving devastation in its wake – especially in Black and Latinx communities.
I wanted to make this film because I feel strongly that the impact of the crack era hasn’t been fully scrutinized. Crack fueled racial and economic inequality, hyper-aggressive policing, mass incarceration, and government corruption at the highest level. Though films have been made about the 1980s, outside a handful of magazine shows there has been little examination of the crack era. The archival clips we use in the film convey how the media sensationalized crack, demonizing “crack mothers” and predicting a generation of “crack babies,” while failing to get at the community destruction and government failure that was really going on. Now that we are decades past the peak of the crack era, we can look at its long-lasting impact in a clear-eyed way.
Our goal was for viewers to feel the pervasiveness of crack. This drug was not just in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC, but everywhere. We used a lot of archival footage of the streets – drug dealers on street corners, people waiting on unemployment lines. Music also played an important role, both to create sense of that time but also to set the mood for the film. The 1980s marked the beginning of the worldwide phenomenon of hip hop, and so much of that music reflected what was happening in the streets. One of the subtexts of the film is that, as a culture, we’ve wanted to forget and move past that time, but the music pulls you right back in.
The film charts the trajectory of cocaine from a Wall Street party drug to the broad devastation of poor communities. We also examine the role of local and federal government, which had a clearly inadequate and racist response to the growing crack epidemic. At the very least, the government looked the other way; at worst, the federal government conspired to aid drug smugglers. Local police departments enabled the explosion of crack usage, and then took draconian measures to stop it.
In making the film, one thing I found fascinating is how the “War on Drugs,” which has wrought such broad devastation in Black communities, had the support of many Black politicians and community leaders who were desperate for a solution. Many were willing to do anything to stop the crack problem, although most didn’t realize what “anything” would turn out to be. Criminal prosecution and jail time came to be seen as the only solution. As Congressman Charles Rangel says in the film, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Decades later, with the militarization of police forces across the country and the highest rates of incarceration in the world, we can understand this failure of imagination more clearly. The story of the crack era gives context to recent calls to “defund the police.”
As a filmmaker, what really interests me is how the past can help us to make sense of the present. Stories about subjects like the crack era, the Black Panther Party, the Freedom Riders, Emmett Till – when told accurately – are critical to understanding who we are as a nation today, and impact our ability to shape the future.”