The sad story of White Boy Rick
Review of White Boy Rick the documentary and film rating *****
I spend a lot of time writing about injustices in our criminal justice system. Most of the time, I’m writing about wrongful convictions. Today’s review is about an incredible miscarriage of justice surrounding the sentencing of Richard Wershe Jr., also known as White Boy Rick.
The story of White Boy Rick has been on my radar for a while. I knew it had to do with drugs and Rick’s work as a police informant. I also knew that Mathew McConaughey was in a movie with the same title. That was about all I knew.
So when Netflix came out with the White Boy Rick documentary, I thought I would start there. The documentary filmmakers use a combination of interviews, reenactments, and animation to tell Rick’s story. Rick’s involvement as a drug dealer begins when narcotics agents ask him to be an informant. His dad is facing potential illegal gun sales charges and working as an informant takes the heat off his father. Rick goes from small-time buyer to dealer in short order.
After a few drug busts, the informant gig dries up. But Rick likes the money that came with the drug business and starts dealing drugs on his own. Along the way, he gets involved with the niece of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, who is married to a drug dealer serving a twenty-year sentence. He also almost dies from a gunshot wound and learns that he is a father.
The police eventually arrest Rick for his drug dealing. Before Rick goes to trial, the same narcotics agents who made Rick an informant earlier offer him a way out of a potential life sentence. All Rick has to do is tell the Mayor’s niece about a big drug shipment and the need for protection. The resulting investigation results in the arrest of several crooked Detroit police officers. The sting reaches the Mayor and the chief of police.
Rick eventually goes on trial for his drug arrest. His work as an informant is not allowed into evidence. This all happens during the war on drugs. The media paint Rick as a drug kingpin responsible for murders and other crimes. Rick receives a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He is seventeen years old.
Now that sentence alone would be a huge miscarriage. But that’s not the end of Rick’s misery. He has a target on his back. Years later, when life sentences for juveniles are ruled unconstitutional, Rick gets a chance for parole. By this time, Rick has been in prison for fourteen years. But Rick has enemies in high places and is denied parole. It will be nearly another twenty years before Rick gains his freedom.
After watching the documentary, I was able to track down the Mathew McConaughey film on-demand from FX. I was blown away by how accurately the film portrayed the events described in the documentary. I have no idea which came first – the film or the documentary. They both do an excellent job in telling a complex story that involves real people and real heartache.
Richard Wershe Jr. was released from prison in July of 2020 after serving over thirty years in prison.