White Boy Rick is the story of how Detroit teenager Ricky Wershe Jr. was sentenced to life in prison for selling cocaine during the mid to late 1980s. Ricky is a 15-year-old from a dysfunctional lower middle-class family on the eastside of Detroit. His father, Ricky Sr., is an ex-convict who sells guns out of the trunk of his car. Dawn, Ricky’s sister, is a promiscuous drug addict who goes to live with her boyfriend (drug dealer) because she can longer stand living with Ricky Sr.
Our protagonist gets involved with a local drug gang run by Johnny Curry after Ricky sells him a bunch of his dad’s guns. Ricky doesn’t start dealing drugs or anything for Johnny, he just becomes part of the family. He’s invited to a fancy wedding at the mayor’s mansion and travels to Las Vegas for a boxing match. This connection is the reason why two FBI agents, who have dealt with his father in the past, convince Ricky to do coordinated drug buys from Curry’s crack houses and report back to them. They even have Ricky sell $4,000 worth of crack, which he is somehow allowed to keep.
After a hit ordered by Johnny Curry goes wrong and heat from the cops really comes down on him and his crew, Johnny thinks there’s a snitch in the group and has Rick shot in the stomach by one of the younger members in his own house. The police arrest Johnny and a majority of his gang not long after Ricky is shot. Ricky survives the wound, but has to empty his bowel movements into a toilet by dumping it all out from a bag that is attached to his stomach.
This has all happened to Ricky by the time he is about 17. When he and his dad end up spinning uncontrollably off the road during winter, Ricky convinces his dad, who has always been against selling drugs, to let him do it so that they can live a better life. Ricky Sr. approves, and with Johnny Curry and his gang in jail, Ricky uses that to his advantage and begins his takeover of the Detroit drug market.
With the movie taking place over a three to four year period, there’s a lot of story to tell. White Boy Rick has an almost two-hour runtime, and yet, it still feels like director Yann Demange had to leave scenes out, which causes the film’s narrative to jump around just a bit too much. The movie only spends a miniscule amount of time on Rick’s kingpin days.
Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Ricky Sr., who has aspirations to open up multiple video stores as a way to provide for the family, is heartwarming. He is a conflicted father who is trying to keep a broken home together and do what he thinks is best for his two children. Richie Merrit is likeable as Rick Jr, but even though he actually is a teenager in real life (something Hollywood studios don’t usually do), you can tell it is his acting debut. Merrit’s portrayal can be bland at times and the results lead to a modest, if not unspectacular, performance. British actress Bel Powley is phenomenal as the drug addict sister, Dawn, and pulls off an extremely believable midwest accent. Expect to be seeing a lot more of this young actress in the near future.
As I mentioned earlier, White Boy Rick struggles to tell its whole story and get across its overall theme of systematic judicial injustice (Rick’s sentencing at age 17 was the longest for a non-violent crime in the country). The film succeeds in making you root for the Wershe family to stay together and survive 1980s Detroit. With the success of other crime shows and television attracting top-notch talent to produce their content, maybe Ricky Wershe’s story would have been better suited as a mini-series on HBO or Netflix.
Owning the peach-fuzz mustache look: 4.9 out of 5.
Graphic shock and awe moments: 3.7 out of 5.
Craving going out for post-movie custard: 4.3 out of 5.
How to View: Overall, a solid film that feels just a little bit rushed. Not a bad option to see in theaters at the moment.