Miami has two prominent cultural gatekeepers nowadays: Rick Ross and DJ Khaled, the city’s most successful purveyors of street-approved entertainment. To less mainstream fanfare, however, Rakontur, an independent, Miami-based film production company, has provided South Florida’s truest stories with tireless research and the most aplomb. Founded by director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman back in 2000, Rakontur specializes in unraveling the region’s most notorious “true crime” stories, their biggest film being 2006’s Cocaine Cowboys, which detailed the rise of coke and violence in 1980s Miami. Much like Scarface, only, you know, real.
Corben’s latest documentary, Square Grouper, takes a much mellower look at the city’s sordid history, this time focusing on the pot smugglers of the late 1970s. The film profiles three separate entities: the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, a religious sect that used God as a defense against smoking weed while earning millions of dollars from marijuana; the Black Tuna Gang, a crew of smugglers that obtained their product from Colombia and royally angered the FBI; and the inconspicuous weed-moving fishermen of Everglades City. Unlike Cocaine Cowboys, which roared with a fast pace and hardcore sensibilities, Square Grouper, which hits DVD shelves this week, is a light and chill look at “the godfathers of ganja.”
In addition to Square Grouper, Corben’s first doc set outside of Miami, Limelight, is set to make its premiere this Friday as part of the Manhattan-based Tribeca Film Festival. Limelight looks back at the NYC nightclub empire amassed by Peter Gatien, the man behind such popular spots as Palladium and Tunnel who watched his venues get shut down by the fuzz.
Complex spoke with Corben about Square Grouper, how much Miami has changed over the last thirty years, the role hip-hop played in the success of Cocaine Cowboys, and the negative effects of Funkmaster Flex’s old Tunnel parties.
Complex: Similar to Cocaine Cowboys, Square Grouper has some amazing archival footage, especially the footage of the Zion Coptic Church. It’s pretty surreal. How difficult is it for you to obtain all of that old footage?
Billy Corben: Well, the impetus for these sorts of projects is the archival footage. That was true with our first doc, Raw Deal, that went to Sundance; we only made it because of the videotape footage of the alleged rape of a stripper inside the fraternity house at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Without that footage, we never would have made that movie or told that story, and it’s very similar here.
The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church hired their own film crews to document their goings on. As you can see in the movie, they very briefly had a TV show, The Coptic Hour, that they produced, which they shot a lot of footage for. The church’s headquarters on Star Island (in Miami Beach) was always open for the press. And there were local news stories on them back in the late ’70s, and ultimately they went national with the Dan Rather 60 Minutes story.
So going into that one, we were well aware of how well-covered they are; the interesting thing, and we discovered this on Cocaine Cowboys, is that 1979 was a real transition moment for the news business, in terms of format. I remember we met a cameraman for a local news affiliate, who said, “Oh I remember covering that Dadeland shooting in Cocaine Cowboys, because it was one of the first stories I ever went out and did with our new video camera equipment. That was the big transition time from film to video.”
We’ve always been aware of film preservation, and how long film lasts, and when or how it starts deteriorating, but we don’t know a lot about beta, in terms of preseveration. News stations put these beta tapes on a shelf somewhere, in a storage room somewhere, and you get these video tapes from 1979 that are basically the only remaining video record of whatever news was contained and produced, and the shit just turns to dust.
We’re really sensitive to that, when we go through all of the archival footage. No one has taken the time, effort, and hard drive space to digitize all of this old stuff, and create, on a local level, a digital archive. We’re really sensitive about how much time is running out on the durability of these old tapes. We always try to put as much of it as possible into our movies, or into the bonus features on the DVD, just so now there will be a digital record of this stuff. Some of this stuff, especially the Coptic Church footage, is just out-of-this-world bizarre. [Laughs.] You’ll never see anything like that—ever.
Billy Corben: That’s the thing about Square Grouper. The three stories are a blessing and a curse. We had so much material, enough material to make three, I think, compelling feature docs, one about each of these subjects. But, from a practical standpoint and a financing standpoint, how many Miami, late ’70s pot-hauling documentaries are you going to actually produce? [Laughs.] So we made the decision to make it a self-contained anthology with all three stories. We had to obviously cut so much material out, from interviews we shot to news footage; I would love to have the opportunity to go back to all three of these stories and flesh them out. I think we did a good job condensing them, but there are so many more compelling angles to these stories.
The origins of Square Grouper trace back to when you were working on Cocaine Cowboys, right? How exactly did you come across the three stories?
Billy Corben: Well, we grew up with all of it. With Cocaine Cowboys, I have distinct memories of sitting in the kitchen while my mom was making dinner on a school night at 5 p.m., when the local news would come on, and these were the stories and images I saw on the TV.
We’ve had this extraordinary resource down here in South Florida, in Miami, called the Florida Moving Image Archive that has taken the time and put in the effort to archive this classic local news material. And then we just hit the streets; we got Mark Potter, who did a lot of amazing stories down here before he went to NBC National News, so he had a lot of great packages for both the Cocaine Cowboys stuff and Square Grouper. You just reach out and play all the angles to find this stuff.
In fact, because we had so much great stuff in Cocaine Cowboys, and we’re talking about hundreds of hours and hundreds of photographs and interviews we shot, there’s another case of material inspiring a project. We’re actually working with Magnolia on a Cocaine Cowboys: The Remix. That’s coming out in late summer, early fall, and that’s the same structure in terms of the three acts, “Money,” “Drugs,” and “Murder,” but it’s full of interviews you haven’t seen and news footage that hasn’t been seen in thirty years. In fact, we discovered, long after we made the movie, a story on Griselda Blanco, “The Godmother,” with a picture of her as a young woman, that hasn’t been seen since that news story ran like thirty years ago.
Cocaine Cowboys really blew up and allowed you to make The U for ESPN and Square Grouper. Has the success of that film shocked you?
Billy Corben: Yeah, it’s interesting to watch these films naturally find their audiences, especially with the indie films. With The U on ESPN, you know that’s going to find its audience because ESPN is behind it and they’re going to promote it to the perfect audience, which is awesome, obviously. [Laughs.] That’s like two million new fans with each airing.
But with the independent films, like Cocaine Cowboys and now Square Grouper, they find their fans, the people who really respond to the stories and respond to the characters. Not every movie is for everybody, so you get to find out who loves it, and they recommend it to people who love it, then you watch the whole thing blossom and grow.
The conventional wisdom in this business is that “opening weekend mentality,” where people think that a movie is never going to make more money than when it first comes out; they think the same thing with DVDs, that you’re never going to sell more units on DVD than you are during that first big week. Well, Magnolia Home Video told us that when Cocaine Cowboys came out on DVD in 2007…the day it came out, they got calls from Netflix and Amazon, both of which doubled their original orders because they couldn’t meet the demand. And then every month, for almost the first year of the release, we shipped more DVDs every month than the month before. That was just from word-of-mouth, and that was pre-Twitter, too.
The hip-hop community really gravitated toward Cocaine Cowboys. Did you expect that sort of enthusiastic reaction from rappers and hip-hop personalities?
Billy Corben: We completely attribute the success of Cocaine Cowboys to the hip-hop community. Without fail. We absolutely give all credit where credit is due. It was people within the hip-hop community, starting in Miami, who discovered the movie, embraced the movie, and made it viral. The early adopters were guys who got it from the flea—bootleg. [Laughs.] It was Trick Daddy, Pitbull, N.O.R.E, Cool and Dre, and then DJ Khaled—the guys who were right there on the ground level, because we know it first got bootlegged right out of Miami.
It was all of the Miami artists who first saw it, and then the shit just spread like wildfire. And as soon as the hip-hop artists pick up on it, soon come the professional athletes, of course. [Laughs.] The two go hand in hand. I remember asking one of the guys we interviewed for The U, “What’s with the symbiotic relationship with professional athletes and hip-hop artists?” He kind of shrugged his shoulders and said, “They want to be us and we want to be them.” [Laughs.]
Mark Cuban told us this funny story. You know, in addition to owning the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban owns Magnolia, the distribution company that released Cocaine Cowboys and now Square Grouper. He said that back in 2007 he was on the team plane, walking down the aisle, and all the guys had their personal TV players. He goes, “There must have been at least a dozen guys watching Cocaine Cowboys all at the same time. He asks one of the guys, “Oh, is that Cocaine Cowboys?” The guy says, “Yeah,” and Mark is like, “Oh, cool, we’re distributing that—that’s a Magnolia movie.” And the guy goes, “Oh, well I got it on bootleg.” [Laughs.]
Listen, that’s the mixtape craze—the hip-hop community knows that better than anybody. People don’t bootleg the shit they don’t like; they bootleg the shit they do like. And I know that Cocaine Cowboys and Cocaine Cowboys 2 DVDs are some of the best-selling DVDs in strip club men’s rooms all over the country. [Laughs.] Thanks to the bootleg guys with their books or whatever. So we’re very proud of that.