2006Director: Billy Corben
Cast: Jon Roberts, Mickey Munday, Jorge Ayala
illy Corben knows what sells. His little-seen debut documentary, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, famously took the freely available filmed evidence of a is-it-or-isn’t-it rape case and plopped it into his movie, asking viewers to both judge and look away at the same time. Cocaine Cowboys doesn’t ask you to judge. It also doesn’t ask you to look away. In fact, it doesn’t ask you to do much but sit enraptured for colorful story after story of the drugs and money that ruled over Miami in the late 1970s and ‘80s.
You’d be appalled, if it weren’t so fascinating. Credit goes to drug dealer Jon Roberts and transport genius Mickey Munday for thoroughly detailing their exploits in Cocaine Cowboys’s opening act, telling Corben how they formed a partnership with the Medellín cartel and eventually became multi-millionaires. Roberts and Munday’s tales are exceptional, but they were certainly not the only ones making tons of cash in South Florida at the time. As the film relates, Florida banks sent on average more than 600 million dollars to the Federal Reserve, while the rest of the country averaged a measly 12.
The film eventually discards Roberts and Munday for another major player: hitman Jorge Ayala, whose purpose here is to explain the violence of the time—and does so chillingly. The north end of the city was reveling in the wealth and trying hard not to ask questions; the south was a veritable bloodbath. Murder rates skyrocketed so quickly that the Dade County Medical Examiner had to store bodies in a refrigerated hamburger van. Hell, even Barry Gibb’s wife Lynda had her purse snatched. Ayala’s accounts are frightening, describing the sort of lawlessness pervasive in a city where, for the right price, some cops would transport drugs to any destination you’d like.
Cowboys rightly doesn’t go for the Ken Burns slow-pan—graphics butt into film, film gives way to newscasts, newscasts sell the interview footage. It’s a tightly wound package, echoing the effects of the drug that it documents throughout. Anecdote after anecdote rushes by until Miami becomes Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and you become the slack-jawed viewer debating with your friend whether or not the machine gun or the Beretta would be your weapon of choice. But that’s almost the point, as Corben points out in the final section of the film. Much of present-day downtown Miami was built using money generated from the drug trade. If you were a politician, would you turn down the chance to construct buildings for the benefit of your city? That’s the type of question that Cocaine Cowboys glosses over. It’s ultimately a far more interesting concept than tales of ridiculous cruelty and greed, but, you know, complexity never sold that well anyway.
Cocaine Cowboys is currently playing in limited release.