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‘Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy’ Review: A Brisk Look Back at a Crisis

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As the alliterative sip of a title suggests, the new Netflix documentary “Crack: Cocaine, Corruption and Conspiracy” takes on a large-headed animal. Racial injustice, economic inequalities, police corruption, media ethics and foreign policy scandals are crammed – a little too italicized – into Stanley Nelson’s lively priming of the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

The film is told in eight chapters and begins with a few scenes from archive material. Speeches by President Ronald Reagan and clips from the 1987 drama Wall Street capture the free market capitalism of the era, while its underside is illustrated by images of impoverished inner cities and the hip-hop that evolved from them. Former traffickers explain that crack, a cheaper, more potent variant of cocaine, provides a program for poor youth to get rich quick. In the 1980s, the drug suddenly became more available than ever in the US, which the film links to shady CIA deals during the Iran-Contra affair.

In the film’s strongest moments, ex-peddlers, users, journalists, and scholars unravel the narratives that were often media-driven and led to disproportionate alignment by colored people during the war on drugs. One dealer recalls with horror how DEA agents persuaded him to get a teenage boy to buy crack in front of the White House just so President George HW Bush could use a cautionary story in a television speech.

But Nelson tries to get too much ground under his feet too quickly, which creates a certain blurring: in too short a section on the exploitation of black women during the crack era, a trader’s seemingly amused memory of how women do sexual favors becomes would exchange for a hit, oddly enough not contextualized. A closer focus might have allowed the film to better bring out such knotty material.

Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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