The CIA, Crack Cocaine, the African-American Community, and One Journalist Who Sought to Expose it All

Director: MICHAEL CUESTA/2014

In the 1992 Ice Cube song “When will they shoot?” from his albumThe Predator, Ice Cube raps:

“I thought they was bugging. . .
Cuz to us Uncle Sam is Hitler without an oven
Burning our black skin
Buy my neighborhood – then push the crack in”

In this song, is the evidence of some deep seated belief that existed within South Central Los Angeles, that the government was responsible for the epidemic that disproportionally struck the African-American community during the 1980’s.  That epidemic was crack cocaine. And while Ice Cube was stating it in song, it would take another 4 years for this charge to find its way into mainstream journalism.

In 1996, San Jose Mercury News journalist, Gary Webb, broke a story called “Dark Alliance” where he chronicled the plot of CIA operatives to protect inner-city gang lords who were distributing crack cocaine from Nicaragua.  Webb discovered that Oliver North had possibly approved this on behalf of the Reagan administration so that the funds from the drugs would support the Contras in their fight against the Communist-supporting Sandinista government.

Webb was able to link all of this information, including getting known drug dealers in Los Angeles to admit in court to being on the CIA payroll.  What he was not able to do was to get a high ranking source to admit to anything on the record.  His article was one of the first big stories in the new age of journalism where articles were just being put online.  His multi-part series brought him a huge story, an award for his journalism, and personal satisfaction, but it practically killed his career.

Jeremy Renner was taken in by this story, so much so that he started a production company to help get it made.  In Kill the Messenger, Renner plays Gary Webb and does a great job of playing a man who is not canonized through the film as being the hero.  Instead, he is seen as a flawed individual who is struggling to keep his marriage together and reach out to his kids while being a workaholic on the verge of a huge story.

Director Michael Cuesta keeps the film focused tightly on the character of Webb instead of the drama of whether or not the government was in fact doing this operation.  For those who are too young to remember this story, this portion of the film will no doubt be gripping as it will be new information to them.  Kill the Messenger has less to do with discovering the CIA connection to crack in the 1980’s as much as it documents the fallout Webb has as a result of being brave enough to tell this tale.

Every pillar of Webb’s life is attacked or discredited.  His past failings personally are exposed to his children, and old wounds are re-opened for his wife to deal with again.  The Mercury News, who supported Webb initially, and who basked in the fame Webb’s article was bringing their small paper, are seen as complicit in Webb’s fall from grace.  When threats start coming from Webb’s sources and the CIA, how will he be able to stand underneath all of the pressure?

Kill the Messenger is a taunt thriller that entertains from beginning to end.  It is littered with brief, yet effective appearances from the likes of Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Barry Pepper, Oliver Platt, Paz Vega, Robert Patrick, and Rosemary Dewitt.  It captures the political angles of a government cover-up and the policies of the Cold War of stopping the spread of communism.  It has the tension of race relations that were already prevalent within the African-American community, as the Ice Cube lyrics demonstrate, especially in the wake of the Rodney King incident and the subsequent L.A. race riots.  It has sensationalism, conspiracy theories, and the intrigue of a good spy film.  But mostly it just has a strong character-driven story that is given real humanity by Jeremy Renner’s performance. Kill the Messenger is a solid film and it deserves to be seen.