Jon Pernell Roberts has a problem: He’s got too much money and nowhere to put it. But that’s the kind of occupational hazard a young entrepreneur runs into when importing cocaine from Columbia’s Medellin cartel.
Roberts, a key player in Miami’s cocaine boom of the ’70s and ’80s, immortalizes his roller-coaster tale of drugs, blood and money in “Cocaine Cowboys.”
The film is not the first piece of media to touch on Miami’s coke-fueled heyday (i.e. “Scarface,” “Miami Vice” and gaming favorite “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City”). But it’s the first memorable documentary to delve into what actually happened.
It opens with Roberts, girlfriend Toni Muni and smuggler Mickey Munday detailing how their operation began. Oftentimes Roberts and Munday give conflicting accounts of people and situations, with Roberts holding the reasonable stance for the most part. Munday comes off as preoccupied but cool, dismissing almost everyone else as lucky or dumb. He’s also quick to point out his success stories, like when he towed a broken-down customs boat to shore while giving the customs officers a ride back on his boat – which was stocked with millions of dollars worth of coke.
The film hits its high point in its coverage of “Godmother of Cocaine” Griselda Blanco and Miami’s downfall. Everyone’s heard about the drug trafficking, but what’s often overlooked is how dark the situation became. With the emergence of Blanco and Castro’s deportation of Cuban criminals to Miami, the murder rate skyrocketed. After finishing the documentary, it’s hard not to think that many of the negative externalities that devastated the city could have been avoided if not for the greed and ruthlessness of a few. The film does a fine job of contrasting the earlier high points of Miami’s coke era with its depressing aftermath, illustrating how it shaped the Miami of today.
That said, the documentary’s faults are clear. The quick cuts coupled with the synth-dominated soundtrack become distracting. The subject matter is engaging enough that the film’s heavy stylization isn’t necessary.
“Cocaine Cowboys” isn’t likely to go down as the definitive documentary about cocaine’s rise and fall in Miami, but if nothing else, it should serve as a cautionary tale to ambitious Roberts wannabes.
In stores next Tuesday
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars