Square Grouper Review

Down in Florida, in certain circles, they pass the dookie to the left-hand-side and they fish for some square grouper. If you’re wondering what square grouper is, it’s a square bale of marijuana weed. Sometimes these bales have to be tossed out of smuggler’s boats because they’re about to be boarded. Later, the smugglers will go back to find it in the water. This is called fishing for square grouper. 

Billy Corben’s documentary, Square Grouper tells the story of the expansive yet non-violent pot smuggling culture of the 1970s in Florida and Jamaica. Unlike the quick-on-the-trigger, gun-toting drug kingpins of Miami in the 1980s, the smugglers studied here are a more out-in-the-open bunch who use legal means to circumvent arrest. The film is broken into three sections. The story of the Zion Coptic Church; the Black Tuna Gang, and Everglades City.

The first section is by far the best of the three and the most interesting. It tells the story of a group of drug-using nomads who go to Jamaica to smoke the weed where its grown and end up forming a farm/commune/church, under the leadership of a man called Brother Love, who believes the weed was given to man by God to smoke and so they are doing God’s will by getting high. Brother Love argues that Jesus was persecuted by the Romans for his drug use, and that the founding fathers supported the American Revolution by farming weed.

The Coptic Church soon joins forces with local drug lord Keith Gordon, who uses the agricultural business done by the Coptic’s farm as a way to smuggle drugs into Jamaica. The combine new alliance makes Gordon rich, smuggling tens of millions of drugs every month. The Coptic’s get their share, which allows them to buy out thousands of acres of land and expand their farm. Coptic Farms become the biggest employer in Jamaica, giving them clout with the government, who turns a blind eye to their blatant smuggling. The Prime Minister Edward Seaga praises the church for “keeping the Jamaican government going”. The media calls them an “economic force in a poor, underdeveloped country.” They move their drugs by buying freighters and planes.

In 1974, the Coptic Church decides to open an “embassy” in America, on Star Island in Florida. The $275,000 dollar home is supposed to be a church but it is actually a drug warehouse. People who lived on Star Island at the time protest the Coptic Church because of the constant smell of pot being smoked by the church members. The church tries to plead its case to the public by allowing camera in to their place, but the plan backfires when images of children smoking pot are televised across the country. The government starts to crack down on the church, which hides behind its religious beliefs to avoid persecution.

The second part of the film is the least interesting, following the Florida based group known as the Black Tuna Gang, who believe that drug legalization was imminent and that it is the business of the future. They hire a TV pitchman to handle their advertising and do things in a very business-like way. They use the magazine “High Times”, which prints the prices for the drug market as if they were stocks, to set their costs. They also follow the advice of the magazine’s ads, which prints stories like “How to outsmart customs agents”. The FBI is able to outwit them by reading the same magazine. Much of this section of the movie is focused on the personal story of the advertising man, and his “it was a just a job” rationalizations.

The final section is only slightly more interesting than the second. It tells the story of Everglades City, a micro-sized fishing community which was frequently used by drug smugglers in the 70s. When new government regulations make so many limitations on the fishing industry, Everglades City needs a new way to make money. The town latches onto the drug trade and soon the whole city becomes one, big smuggling center. “It quickly turned idiots into millionaires” one local says. They once-struggling fishermen are soon living a movie-star lifestyle, fishing for grouper.

The film starts off strong with the Coptic Church segment but the middle story lags, and the final segment is only a mild improvement over the second. The musical segments, which use country and bluegrass music by local Florida musicians to underscore the story, are unnecessary and make the film seem a bit cheesy.

DVD Bonus Features

The DVD extras include a tour of the “Thousand Islands” in the everglades where smugglers can hide from pursuit; segments on the scoring the documentary and choice of local musicians for the film; deleted scenes; music videos done to the film; a film trailer; and audio commentary by director Billy Corben and producer Lindsey Snell. 

"Square Grouper" is on sale April 19, 2011 and is not rated. Documentary. Written and directed by Billy Corben. Starring Brother Love, Manny Funnes.

Rob Young

Robert is obsessed with movies. He has a background in advertising and a long history of freelance writing but there's nothing he loves to write about more than movies. Let him dissect a film and he's a happy man. His favorite movie stars of all time are the Marx Brothers. He hates Cheech and Chong.


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