How to sell audiences a lecture: Disguise it as a mock-infomercial. Taking a decidedly different tack from last year’s acclaimed bummer doc on the drug war, The House I Live In, How to Make Money Selling Drugs purports to be a step-by-step instructional program, demonstrating how easy it is to climb from street-level dealer to cartel kingpin—and make obscene amounts of cash at every rung on the ladder. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, with snappy animated graphics and the promise of a “secret level” (which turns out to be government exploitation of the U.S. prison system). For the most part, the interview subjects play along; only at the very end is it finally revealed that these former dealers, smugglers, and users now work with community outreach programs or campaign against mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. And the sums of money they toss around when recounting their old adventures truly are staggering. One guy who used to smuggle cocaine into Florida from Bogotá (by way of go-fast boats making a pit stop in the Bimini Islands) casually mentions an average daily haul of up to $50,000. He was 18 years old at the time.
It’s refreshing to see a documentary filmmaker mix it up a little bit, trying to sugarcoat his message with an inventive structural device. How to Make Money Selling Drugs is breezy fun, even when it eventually turns openly cynical: Woody Harrelson is labeled a “Freedom Enthusiast” and performs a fake PSA urging cash-strapped politicians to get tough on crime and score kickbacks from the prison industry. Beneath the gimmick, however, this really is more or less the same movie as The House I Live In—the two films even share The Wire’s David Simon as a key talking head. And it’s relating the same sobering statistics that have become familiar: that the U.S. imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world; that 90 percent of offenders incarcerated under the Rockefeller laws are black and/or Latino; that the Department Of Justice “earns” more than $3 billion a year from drug-related asset forfeiture; etc. If people haven’t figured out by now that the U.S.’ zero-tolerance approach is more destructive than effective, it’s hard to see how one more documentary on the subject will magically turn the tide. But who knows? Maybe punching it up like this will help.