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September 19, 2011 – 9:45 pm | No Comment

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Square Grouper

Submitted by Commandrea on April 19, 2011 – 12:56 pmNo Comment
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Square Grouper examines the social and economic impact of marijuana smuggling in Miami and Flordia in the 1970s. This documentary from director Billy Corben easily divides into three distinct sections: the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church; the Black Tuna (a name devised by the press) smuggling gang; and a small town called Everglades City where nearly everybody who lives there is a smuggler.

Free Press Houston caught up with Corben, along with SG’s producers Alfred Spellman and Lindsey Snell, as well as one of the docu’s participants Robert Platshorn, at the recent SXSW. Platshorn, one of the Black Tuna gang, just finished a 30-year prison sentence for his involvement in marijuana smuggling. Platshorn notes that one of the members of Black Tuna fled prosecution in the late 70s and recently returned to the country, and is now due to go before the same judge that presided over the original trial.

Watching the events unfold in Square Grouper it becomes obvious that up until a certain point the government wasn’t concerned with the flow of drugs into Florida. “A lot of the facts came from our research when we were doing Cocaine Cowboys,” says Spellman referring to their 2006 documentary that also examined the economic impact of the millions of dollars produced and laundered and reinvested in Miami during the heyday of drug importation. “Pot was too bulky and cocaine was much more lucrative. Billy and I shaped this pot-prequel to Cocaine Cowboys out of all the stories we’d heard.”

If you’re familiar with television newscasters (some of whom went national) from 1970s Florida you’ll recognize Steve Croft or Mark Potter interspersed with a 60 Minutes segment that took on the Coptic Church. Corben points out “There’s a whole generation of news footage from the ¾-inch era that’s just disintegrating.”

The Everglades City segment was an area that Corben and the film’s producers had become acquainted with during CC. For the Black Tuna segment Snell had contacted Platshorn who’d just gotten released in late 2008. Regarding the Coptic Church seg, Corben states: “If you lived in South Florida during that time, Brother Love and the Zion Coptic Church are infamous characters. That’s what people remember about that era.”

The biggest challenge was Everglades City. “We had researched it extensively but it terms of getting access it was a long process,” says Corben. Snell spent half a year making trips there trying to get the trust of the approximately 500 people who live there. A previous series by newsman Mark Potter in 1982 had closed the doors of the town to publicity of any kind. Lindsey tells me “I had a knife pulled on me once. There’s no mayor, there’s no city council.” Actually there is a mayor, Lindsey quips, but it was going to the one local bar day after day and making friends with the older men of the town that enabled them to finally gain their acceptance.

If you look at Everglades City on Google Maps “you have to zoom all the way in just to see the land in middle of all that swamp,” advises Corben. “If you want to charter an air boat ride, or get all you can eat stone crabs fresh out of the traps the people are friendly. But when you start asking questions about the extraordinary smuggling history of this town – it’s not just pot, it’s exotic animals, rum running during Prohibition, immigrants.”

Platshorn adds how marijuana smugglers up to a certain time got a lenient maximum sentence. “We had no prior criminal activity and when we were caught we thought at worse we’d face a three to five year sentence, with some of the charges dismissed. That was the atmosphere of the time. The government had never used the Kingpin statute (US Code Section 848) for marijuana. They hadn’t used Rico charges against marijuana. They were using conspiracy charges that allowed them to use hearsay.”

When Platshorn first saw the name Black Tuna it was part of the prosecution’s make believe scenario. “It was on the press release when we were arrested. A couple a days later my lawyer went to view evidence at DEA headquarters and they had a door with a sign that read Black Tuna War Room.” Adds Platshorn “I never called my self Black Tuna and I certainly wasn’t at war with anyone. You go into a surreal mode. The trial was sensationalized; there were headlines for months.” Platshorn now proudly wears a gold tuna emblem on a chain around his neck; he’s also a contributing writer to the magazine High Times Medical Marijuana, penning medicinal related articles about seniors.

So what does Platshorn think of the way society has come around regarding marijuana, what with legit smoke shops and constant references in films and television shows. “Well that was going on when I went away. I used the time in prison to finish a book. I wrote it in the prison law library on a manual typewriter a couple of pages at a time. Every time the guard came by I put a legal document over it. When I got out of jail I was on a book signing tour and in San Francisco I stepped outside the bookstore for a cigarette. There was a group of over 100 people who were there in support and openly smoking pot. That freaked me out because I thought they would all be arrested. They were standing in the sunshine with the police all around enjoying their marijuana. It took me a couple days to get over that,” laughs Platshorn. “All the hybrids today, the mother plant is the Santa Marta Gold that the Black Tuna used to smuggle.”

Square Grouper offers plenty of food for thought and more pot smoke than Pineapple Express and all the Cheech and Chong movies combined. Square Grouper comes out on DVD April 19.

- Michael Bergeron

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