In mid-1980s Detroit, with few, if any, prospects for a comfortable life, Rich Wershe Sr. deals handguns and AK-47s. To keep his father from prosecution, fourteen-year-old Ricky gravitates to drug dealing, soon pressured to work as an FBI informant. Ricky balks, quits and then starts up on his own, selling the African-American community in which he is accepted.
This leads to the media dubbing him White Boy Ricky, a designation he hates, as arrests and legal proceedings follow in surprising and appalling developments. Though this sounds like a familiar drug dealing drama, director Yann Demange avoids the clichés in a narrative based on a true story. Moreover, White Boy Ricky is also about a father and a son, family ties, exploitation, and the dead-end world Rick confronts. It gives nothing away to say that events reveal the myriad ways unjust mandatory sentencing laws, intended especially to decimate the African-American community, destroy lives
Always authentic, never condescending in its tone, this world unfolds through exceptional performances: Matthew McConaughey as Rick Sr., newcomer Richie Merritt as Ricky, Jennifer Jason Leigh an FBI agent, Brian Tyree Henry a tough cop, and Bel Powley Ricky’s drug addicted sister Dawn. As impressive, thanks to a solid script by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller, immersion in this world adds an empathetic dimension lacking in sensationalized crime/drug narratives. The impact is profound and powerful, especially since Rick was a young teenager.
At this year’s Telluride Film Festival I attended, Matthew McConaughey spoke passionately about the prison and paralysis of poverty, about children not allowed to have a childhood or a chance. He described Ricky, his father and his grandparents living in nostalgia for the past and hope for a future that eludes them. McConaughey described meeting Ricky in person, talking with him several times, now thirty years in prison, Ricky never playing victim. Every miscarriage of justice is tragic. This time it is abhorrent as White Boy Ricky compellingly communicates.