Hooked on Drug Movies: Cool Kids, Creepy Junkies, Crazy Dealers

trafficFilms about drugs are like love songs—there’s an endless supply and many are terrible. The best, however, transport us to another world. Whether it’s a junkie movie, putting us in the mindset of an addict, or a socially conscious drama, capturing the destructive impact of the trade, we’re hooked.

Drugs As a Part of Culture
The arrival of the 1960s witnessed a seismic shift in how drugs were represented on screen. Instead of a danger to society, they became an essential part of an alternative way of life. Easy Rider (1969) is the key film from this period. It played a significant role in revolutionizing Hollywood, putting an end to the studio system that had dominated film production for almost 50 years, by showing that an independent feature film could not only be a box office success, but and that it could speak to a generation that mainstream cinema had completely failed to reach. The war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement and disenchantment with politics had not been reflected in films from this period. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, as well as the violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and at Kent State University saw a country torn apart. With Easy Rider, a vast swathe of people found a voice.

At the same time, the originally clean-cut boys-next-door band The Monkees took a radical step towards the countercultural movement with Head, a trippy phantasmagoria that blended hedonism with anarchic comedy and a total disregard for narrative. It was created by director Bob Rafaelson and Jack Nicholson, who had already dabbled with LSD and film the year before as the star of Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967). He also appeared in Richard Rush’s drug and hippie-inspired Psych-Out (1968) which co-starred Susan Strasberg, Bruce Dern and Dean Stockwell, and featured the great tagline, “They’ll ask you for a dime with hungry eyes … but they’ll give you love … for nothing!” Even the Beatles entered the fray with the spaced out, animated love-in that is Yellow Submarine (1968). Together with Easy Rider, these films normalized drug use and paved the way for the countless drug-related dramas that would appear over the course of the next decade.

Junkies and Destruction
The ’70s brought junkie films, such as The Panic in Needle Park (1971), which made a star of Al Pacino, and cop-focused crime dramas, like William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971). Around the same time, movies focusing on African American characters appeared under the banner of “Blaxploitation.” Though the earliest entries weren’t concerned with drugs, narcotics played a more significant role as the sub-genre developed. A few attempted some kind of political statement—such as when Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972), finally acquiesces to his family’s involvement in the drug trade, stipulates that it be limited to certain ethnic communities. But it wasn’t until Laurence Fishburne’s incendiary speech in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991) that the anger over the way drugs had been allowed to invade America’s black communities found its most articulate voice.

Two of the best portrayals of addiction appeared within a year of one other. Samuel Jackson’s junkie in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991), which earned the actor a special Cannes Film Festival award; and Harvey Keitel’s anti-hero in Abel Ferrara’s profoundly unsettling Bad Lieutenant (1992). These films, along with Scarface (1983), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Goodfellas (1990), Trainspotting (1996), Requiem for a Dream (2000) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), present convincing portraits of addiction, both in terms of the attraction of drugs and their devastating consequences.

Drugs and The System
Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), highlighted in 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, is unique in the way it addresses the entangled lives of industry players, from the lords, distributors, dealers and junkies, to the politicians and law enforcement agencies attempting to stem the flood of drugs making its way onto American soil. Benicio Del Toro is a mostly honest Mexican cop witnessing how corrupt his system is, before moving to Ohio where a respected judge (Michael Douglas) is appointed the government’s new drug czar at the same time that his daughter (Erika Christensen) becomes a crack addict. Finally, in California a drug lord’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) takes over his business while he awaits trial, all the time being followed by two obsessive DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán). Soderbergh shoots each location with a different filter that separates the individual stories, but also highlights how interconnected these worlds are when characters cross from one color palette and into another.

The movie highlights big-picture problems surrounding the trade, namely the gross inefficiency of the legal and governmental agencies combating it. The issue was explored further in acclaimed HBO series The Wire (2002-8). More recently, Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In (2012), which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, suggests that the current failure to deal with the expanding industry suits the penal system in the U.S., which appears to profit from the increasing number of drug-related convictions. Like Traffic, this film shows that drugs work all too well. Unfortunately, the system fighting them doesn’t.

Most Addictive Movies in the Bunch
Traffic, Easy Rider, The Godfather, Boyz n the Hood, The French Connection, Scarface, Drugstore Cowboy, Goodfellas, Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream are all included in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Order a copy of the book, or check one off your watch list by finding out when Traffic is airing on SundanceTV.

Want even more? Find out our list of highly-rated stoner movies, and life lessons you can learn from the Black Swan.

Click here for a full schedule of 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die lineup on SundanceTV.