The grouper is a large fish that’s a common catch for commercial fisherman of the Pacific Ocean, but a square grouper is something else altogether. During the heyday of South Florida as a nexus for marijuana smuggling in the 1970s and ’80s, it wasn’t unknown for boats or planes carrying large cargos of weed to find themselves followed (or to just imagine they were being watched). Rather than risk being caught with the product, they’d throw huge amounts of pot overboard, and folks would often report finding a “square grouper” afterward, local slang for a lost bale of marijuana. Filmmaker Billy Corben, who previously explored true stories of the Florida drug trade in the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, offers more tales from this time and place in Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja, which for the most part takes a playful, lightweight approach to these misadventures in the Sunshine State, though like a good buzz it tends to be entertaining at the time but doesn’t seem all that important in retrospect.
Square Grouper offers three short tales of the Florida marijuana trade in the 1970s. The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church were a fundamentalist Christian church based on Star Island near Miami, but though they had strict rules against premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and women working outside the home, they had one belief that set them apart from your average Southern Baptist congregation: they believed ganja was a sacrament that brought one closer to the Lord, and they smoked it with great enthusiasm throughout the day. While the courts grudgingly conceded that smoking the herb was a legitimate part of their faith, the real problem was that the American Coptics had formed an alliance with their mother church in Jamaica, and together they were running a massive marijuana smuggling and wholesaling business that was bringing in tens of millions of dollars. In part two, Robert Platshorn and Jay Meinster were two guys from Philadelphia who had enjoyed some impressive success as salesmen and were on the lookout for a new opportunity. After Platshorn moved to Florida, one of his associates asked if he knew someone who might help him sell a few hundred pounds of marijuana. Platshorn eagerly volunteered; it was a time when pot use was common in Florida and Jimmy Carter’s administration was de-emphasizing the function of the DEA. Platshorn and Meinster went into a partnership with a Colombian wholesaler, and were soon doing a healthy business moving pot into the United States. But when the DEA and the FBI decided to join forces against marijuana smugglers, Platshorn and Meinster became their first serious targets, and depending on who you believe, the so-called “Black Tuna Gang” was one of the biggest and most corrupt drug operations in American history -- or Platshorn, Meinster, and their colleagues were sent to prison on trumped-up charges and outright lies from witnesses as the DEA and FBI played dirty against their quarry. Finally, Everglades City is a small village 80 miles from Miami that was a home to fisherman for generations, and a haven for rum running during Prohibition. When national park regulations scaled back fishing operations in Everglades City, local commercial fishermen were urged to find new work. And many did just that -- they began working for marijuana smugglers, and the town of 500 citizens became the port city for one of America’s biggest pot-dealing operations.
Square Grouper is a witty, well-crafted documentary, and captures the laid-back look and feel of its South Florida locations well, especially in the sun-dappled cinematography and the musical score that captures the many sounds of the era with comfortable accuracy, from roots reggae to faux-Jimmy Buffett soft rock. But with its trio of half-hour-ish episodes, Square Grouper feels more like three segments from some cable TV series on the marijuana game in the 1970s than a full and unified feature film, and no effort has been made to bring the individual segments into some sort of whole that would have given them greater power or coherence. In the opening segment on the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, so much of what we see is drawn from an old 60 Minutes piece on the case that it might have made sense to show the whole thing in full. And while director Corben is more judicious with his archival footage in the other two thirds, much of this never feels very fresh, no matter how well it has been put together. Corben draws engaging interviews from many of his participants and he walks a careful balance between playing these stories for laughs and confronting the serious issues at hand, but he also makes his sympathies clear from the outset, and though that’s not at all inappropriate, it also makes the interviews with lawmen superfluous when the film seemingly dismisses what they have to say. Ultimately, Square Grouper is a bit too light and fluffy; it makes for fun viewing, yet it rarely tells us enough to let us be engaged deeply in the stories of the people we see onscreen. This might have been better as a TV series after all, with each of these stories given an hour that would have allowed their serious sides to give them some needed ballast. As it is, Square Grouper plays like the documentary answer to the average stoner comedy -- it’s an entertaining way to kill an afternoon, but it could have been a whole lot more.
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- Released: 2011
- Rating: R
- Review: The grouper is a large fish that’s a common catch for commercial fisherman of the Pacific Ocean, but a square grouper is something else altogether. During the heyday of South Florida as a nexus for marijuana smuggling in the 1970s and ’80s, it wasn’t unkno… (more)