by Tony Dayoub
When I was growing up in South Florida in the '70s and '80s, it seemed like—whether that person was on the law enforcement side, the criminal side, or often times straddling both—everyone knew someone who knew someone in the drug game. So I was familiar with the cocaine-fueled drug wars that played out on our streets, even if much of what I knew was a combination of hearsay, myth, and actual reportage. In 2006's mesmerizing Cocaine Cowboys and its 2008 sequel, documentarian Billy Corben exhaustively covered the story, talking to former dealers, smugglers, and cops about the reality behind the tales perpetuated by movies like Miami Vice and Scarface. Stories about Miami's marijuana trade were relatively less well-known. Corben remedies that with his pot triptych, Square Grouper. Though South Floridians are familiar with the titular term, most others who know it at all probably heard it in Cocaine Cowboys, where it was first uttered by smuggler Mickey Munday. There he used the street slang to describe bales of reefer found at sea after smugglers abandoned them while evading the law.
Appropriately enough, given the increasing acceptance of cannabis and its relative innocuity, the stories told in Square Grouper depict quirkier, funnier, less threatening outlaws than the killer businessmen of Corben's earlier films. First up, there's the one about the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, a religious sect (based in Miami's now exclusive Star Island back in the '70s) that believed smoking ganja brought you closer to God. The second chapter describes the Black Tuna trial, one of the largest drug trials in U.S. history, from the perspective of its notorious defendants and the lawmen who arrested them. The last part of the film spotlights Everglades City, a small fishing village deep in the mangroves known as the Ten Thousand Islands, where the close-knit residents turned to smuggling weed as a way to survive when commercial fishing in the area started being phased out by the National Park Service.
This three-part structure makes the unevenness of Square Grouper a little more obvious than had the stories been integrated in the manner of Corben's Cocaine Cowboys. But I surmise that given the disparate story elements, it's impossible to have edited it in any other way. The church story leans heavily on found footage from CBS News reports. The second and third subjects follow Corben's traditional talking head/pan-across-photographs style with occasional visits to locations where events took place. Perhaps its this heavy dependence on previously edited news reports that makes the Coptic Church episode feel much tighter and draws one into Square Grouper. I think it might have worked better as a bridge chapter between the other two, more conventional, interview-driven pieces.
In any case, though lacking consistency, Square Grouper is fascinating for its remarkable insights into a drug which, initially, was virtually ignored by drug enforcement agencies in favor of its far more glamorous rival, cocaine. Though less harrowing (and thrilling) than Corben's better-known antecedent, Square Grouper fills in the blanks for those interested in Florida's counterculture, and it has a laidback charm worth experiencing.