SQUARE GROUPER: THE GODFATHERS OF GANJA (Dir. Billy Corben, 2011)
I missed this when it was screened last month at Full Frame so I was happy to get a copy in the mail the day after the Festival.
“Square Grouper” is the "slang term for bales of marijuana thrown overboard or out of airplanes in South Florida in the 1970s and 1980s,” this documentary tells us up front. Then we are gently taken into this exploration of Florida marijuana smuggling during that era, by way of a folksy ballad theme song that serenades the opening credits.
The film is broken into 3 chapters – the first of which, "Part 1: Zion Coptic Church," deals with a Fundamentalist Christian sect in Florida that believed Ganja to be a sacred herb that brings them closer to God. They smuggled huge amounts of marijuana from Jamaica to their mansion (called a "luxury compound") in Star Island, Florida. Through newly shot interviews with former church members, neighbors, reporters, and Federal agents we learn how the sect was the target of a ginormous bust.
The second segment, "Part 2: Black Tuna Gang," concerns another Miami marijuana operation consisting of Robert Platshorn, who served the longest prison term for a non-violent marijuana offense in US history, his partner in crime Bobby Meinster, and gang accountant Howard Blumn. One of the funniest moments here is former FBI agent Harold Copus talking about getting a subsciption to "High Times" magazine so the agents could better follow the drug trade. A joint DEA-FBI outfit brought down the Black Tuna Gang, and the principle member's marriages were put to the test, with Platshorn's wife Lynne also doing jail-time. This segment has the most emotional power of the three.
The final chapter, "Part 3: Everglades City,” leaves Miami and heads to a small fishing town on Florida’s southwest coast in which “smuggling was a way of life” because the secret bayous and mangrove islands that can conceal transport activity. Just about everyone in town was involved in the operation and became very rich off the “sea weed” until, yep, the FBI and DEA swept in. This documentary benefits from its soundtrack largely scored by Spam Allstars' Andrew Yeomanson and the “Square Grouper” band with a few original compositions by director Corben.
The music compliments the material perfectly, and fits in nicely with a concluding cover of Jimmy Buffet’s “A Pirate Looks at Forty” that Everglades City resident Lee “Leebo” Noble performs on guitar (Noble: “Even though Jimmy Buffett is a manatee-huggin’ son-of-a-bitch, we still like this song”). Meticulously crafted from ‘70s and ‘80s TV news footage, period photographs, newspaper headlines, and many recently shot interviews, the film may be slightly overstuffed, but the juiciness of the stories is so rich, and the plain-spoken charm of most of the participants that it makes for supreme info-tainment.
In the words of a stoner: SQUARE GROUPER is killer shit.
SQUARE GROUPER is now available on DVD. According to the Netflix website it will be available streaming soon.