‘Public Enemy Number One’ is a documentary feature film from director Robert Pippberger with executive producer, recording artist and actor Ice-T that tackles the United States war on drugs.
Weaved into this documentary are interviews from policymakers, former U.S drug czars, authors and activists that forensically analyse and pinpoint, all the major and minute shifts of the drug phenomena. It has a particular focus on the Federal Drug Policy introduced in 1968 and the moral panic around marijuana, all the way until the present day.
To paint the picture we’re first taken back to 1968, under President Nixon where he first introduced the idea of the ‘war on drugs’ which gave birth to the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) described as ‘half law enforcement, half Hollywood’.
Many people felt that this was a way for him to divert attention away from the protests condemning the Vietnam War.
With the United States not being a stranger to controversy, there was speculation on whether there had been an underlying motive around the sudden crackdown of drugs.
Much of the social commentary made after this period was of the belief that there were some racial biases, particularly for the choices of drugs promoted to black and white people, as a way to cause a great deal of dysfunctionality within their respective communities. With the boom of hippie culture and the glamour of blaxploitation films displaying the economic perks of trafficking narcotics, it was inevitable that there’d be a wave of drugs that would flood the suburbs and inner cities of America.
Protesting against the Vietnam war and fighting for racial equality in the late ’60s would soon become the last thing on anybody’s mind during this drug-induced nirvana.
Honestly at times, watching this felt like it was ‘too real for tv’.
‘Public Enemy Number One’ covers subjects from the 80’s crack epidemic to the American penal system. It’s some very eye-opening content, and for me at least, it led my mind deep down into the conspiracy rabbit hole, but I digress. There were so many layers to this documentary that it could have gone into even further territory, that it probably needs a sequel.
I’m torn between thinking if I’m satisfied with what I’ve seen in Public Enemy Number One, or if it may have just fallen short of the mark.
Having put in this much effort into presenting the information, and then glossing over some of the best points in the documentary, left me feeling as if Pippberger was attempting to rush to a ‘commercial break’. The case could be made that this should have been produced as a series, without the time constraints you have to consider when making a film.
With that being said, it did make its debut at the DOC LA Film Festival and it could end up being distributed by one of the many streaming platforms.
The running time is just over 70 minutes which flys by and would be sufficient for most audiences, but for some, like me, it could leave you walking away feeling there’s a lot more they left out on the cutting room floor. Parts of Public Enemy Number One felt incomplete, which is a shame.
However, I’ll give credit where credits due. The great camera angles of the interviews and eerie score used in here work tremendously well. Visually, it’s very crisp and beautifully shot and ticks most, if not all the ‘documentary’ boxes. This is the real deal.
My eyes kept drawing to the top right corner, expecting the yellow national geographic icon to appear, stating ‘Shark Week – Up Next’. That’s how good this documentary looked. Hats off to the cinematography team who worked on Public Enemy Number One.
I loved the haunting score used, especially during scenes of grainy footage from the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, showcasing the after-effects of the crack cocaine era and the sweeping shots of America’s vast prison cells. Referring to my earlier point of the film not having dived deeper into certain topics, and somewhat skimming them, is evident when ‘three-strikes rule’ is brought up.
During a transition where the camera pans over to a photo article of Freeway Rick Ross, (not the rapper), the three strikes rule is defined and narrated by Ice-T, but then abruptly fast forwards onto the next scene, just as I was leaning forward in anticipation of seeing what direction they’d take on that subject. The best way I can describe it is when you’re really absorbed in a film, about to take another swig of popcorn waiting for the next scene to roll, only for the screen to turn to black and roll the end credits – ‘ahh man…’. I’m sure many can relate.
This was disappointing as at this point in the documentary, this should have been the peak of really examining the ‘war on drugs’ as Freeway Rick Ross was a major player at the height of the U.S’s drug war and it’s policies. Freeway Rick Ross was falsely struck with the infamous three-strike rule and got himself out of it by teaching himself to read about the justice system, but prior to it found himself stuck in the U.S, Nicaragua and Iran fiasco that involved close to a billion dollars worth of crack cocaine sold in the ’80s.
Originally a tennis player in Compton, California, Rick soon became tempted by the large sums of money being made in the drug trade at the time. Ice-T reflects on those affected and caught up in the vicious drug cycle stating ‘It all starts off with no hope, lack of education, not being able to actually enter the system’. ‘I want to make a living wage, but over here is another way, and now you try to do that, but you end up in prison or you end up with your life devastated.’
With Ice-T being an executive producer on the project, I thought he would have had more of an influence on the score. It was predominantly made up of ’60s and ’70s counter culture rock. I thought a nice sprinkling of hip hop would have fitted well, especially during scenes that showed footage of the police raids and outright chaos that plagued areas like South Central L.A, as a result of the 80’s crack epidemic.
It was hard-hitting stuff to watch, and I think adding in a few hip hop songs from that time capsule, would have really helped to further capture and emphasise the harsh realities of the effects of drugs during those infamous years. Whilst watching these scenes in Public Enemy Number One, a number of relevant songs came to mind; ‘Fight The Power’ by Public Enemy, of course, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ – N.W.A, ‘Sound Of Da Police‘ – KRS One and ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five.
It’s interesting how the ‘war on drugs’ coincided with the birth of hip hop, which was regularly attacked by mainstream media and scrutinised as the main focal point for this issue. Even Ice-T and his peers would later find themselves being called out on national television by members of congress.
A point that Ice-T has touched on before regarding the infancy stages of the art form which is applicable to the war on drugs, is where he stated ‘when you listen to hip hop from that era, it’s chaotic because that’s crack, crack is chaotic and it makes the music sound like that’.
I have to admit, as someone not from the United States Of America, it’s a fascinating country to observe. The accumulation of injustices across the country created a domino effect that would eventually lead up to a huge wake-up call for them, one being the 1992 L.A ‘Rodney King’ riots.
For years, rappers who were essentially social commentators or news reporters in their own right had been warning middle America of what was to come. How could they not see this coming?
From the outside looking in, the ‘war on drugs’ and angst around the rise of rap music seemed to be the backdrop for avoiding the fact that America had, and arguably still has a number of social issues to address. The penal system is one of them, as highlighted in Public Enemy Number One.
A particular interview that I watched after the documentary, from 2pac at the Clinton Correctional Facility Prison comes to mind, where he gave his take on the matter.
‘You’ve never seen in no time in history where they’ve put so much attention on some music and made it like we are the cause of all these problems.’ ‘You could look at it with the three-strikes law, you could look at it where there building more jails, they’re starting to sell jail space, you know jail is big business, believe me, I’m in jail, I see the big business.’
‘You could feed a whole town off of one jail, this jail is in the middle of a town that feeds everybody.’ ‘Everybody works here, this is the main income, so if there was no criminals, nobody would work.’
‘I think this country was built on gangs, I think this country still is run on gangs; Republicans, Democrats, the Police Department, the Correctional Officers – I had a correctional officer tell me straight up, we the biggest gang in New York state’
In Public Enemy Number One, it’s clear to see that the war on drugs caused so much turmoil since it’s beginning under President Nixon through to the Ronald Reagan era, Bush and beyond, that the after-effects are still being felt in America today.
Due to the sheer scale of the country, who knows how many lifetimes it would take to resolve all those problems. The UK is not exempt to a crackdown on drugs as we can see with recent phenomena of ‘county lines’, but in comparison to the states, it is very fortunate. To put in perspective the state of Texas is almost three times the size of the UK. THREE TIMES.
It’s a much-needed conversation and in this documentary, its talked about with so much honesty that one of the interviewees, Dan Baum, mentioned he hopes America can talk about the war on terror with the same candidness, as they did on the war on drugs in many years to come.
The thing I appreciated the most about this documentary is that it doesn’t follow the ‘woke’ narrative, but it’s done in a way where it doesn’t feel preachy – you can either take it or leave it.
With the year coming to a close, I sincerely hope this documentary picks up some traction in 2020 and really gets the conversation going, considering the U.S elections taking place. It would be very interesting to see what policies are brought to the table, moving forward.
Public Enemy Number One. Fascinating stuff.
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