Netflix’s Crack Documentary Puts a Face on the Destruction of Black Neighborhoods
My family is full of storytellers.
Many of us come from families where the yarn of our existence isn’t noted down in some book somewhere. It’s messier. It slips off the tongues of those closest to us, vague in the way of memory. The stories of people we may have never met become real to us.
My aunt Cookie used to tell the story about the night her car died in Williamsburg’s industrial district; it’s one of my favorites. The walk, just a handful of blocks to her apartment on Wyckoff Avenue, became an interminable journey. The neighborhood wasn’t the gentrified area we know of today, where thrift stores and boutique cafés line the streets beneath million-dollar lofts. This was the New York of the late ’80s, during the height of the crack era — a place where, to hear her tell it, death and addiction ran rampant. It’s the New York depicted in the new Netflix documentary Crack: Cocaine, Corruption, & Conspiracy.
Nelson skillfully reconciles the data with the Black and Brown experience. In doing so, he connects the dots of an important sociocultural event often splintered by memory, trauma, and death.
Following up his acclaimed 2015 documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Stanley Nelson pieces together the origins and far-reaching impact of the crack epidemic. The film casts an unflinching spotlight on the politics, war, and poverty of the era. Yet more impactful is how his lens softens as it frames the survivors’ stories. Former drug dealers recount their introduction to the game, while former substance abusers speak of children they no longer see. At every turn, Nelson skillfully reconciles the data with the Black and Brown experience. In doing so, he connects the dots of an important sociocultural event often splintered by memory, trauma, and death.
The documentary wastes no time diving into its subject matter, exploring how the cocaine-fueled glamorous life of the late ’70s and early ’80s devolved into a crack trade that destroyed families and entire communities. Nelson takes political and pop culture events as disparate as the Sandinista movement in Central America and Len Bias’ overdose-induced death and weaves them together in a holistic narrative. For someone like me who grew up knowing of both but never connecting the two, seeing that link is nothing short of a revelation.
Crack is full of moments like these. Whether exploring Nancy Reagan’s ineffective “Just Say No” campaign or how the media frenzy around the term “crack baby” was weaponized against women of color, Nelson meticulously outlines how grim consequences can manifest from seemingly innocuous beginnings. Despite its serious subject matter, Crack avoids being overly somber. The highlighted voices paint a diverse picture of the decades’ survivors and a more varied view of the Black and Brown experience.
Former drug dealers detail the allure of fast money and the conditions of neglect and poverty from which the epidemic emerged. Former substance abusers relive their mistakes in harrowing detail. And while viewers might expect these perspectives, they come across as genuine rather than exploitative. Their experiences are balanced by those of journalists and neuroscientists — all people of color. All people who survived one of the most violent eras in American history, all with something different to show for it.
That’s probably the case for many of us. As much as society lumps us together, the Black and Brown experience is not a monolithic one. For every person traumatized by the events that defined the decade, another can look back on them more pragmatically. For every person enraptured by the hollow glory of the drug trade, there is another pleading for stricter policing. The documentary shows both sides — the millionaire pushers and the everyday citizens afraid to leave their buildings.
As an ’80s baby and a ’90s kid, I became used to knowing things but not knowing their “why.” I didn’t understand why sex workers became more visible when you passed Wyckoff or Irving Avenue near Flushing. I just knew that they did. I did not know why the beat cops of my parents’ childhood no longer existed, only that mobile command units had replaced them with towers that overlooked entire blocks. I did not know why the Rockefeller drug laws had been passed, only that they could send you to prison and keep you there until you were well into your thirties. Crack helped me connect to those “whys.” I better understand my mother’s fears, how trauma can turn into anger and blame; I better understand the world of my youth and my place in it.
Such is the true appeal of Nelson’s film. Crack is not just an informative experience, but an emotional one: Nelson uses the past, places, and people to tell a story with pieces that still live in all of us. In the end, it’s not simply a documentary about the crack explosion, the subsequent violence, and policy changes. It is about the human cost of that era, the trauma it inflicted, and how that damage set the stage for the world we live in today.
It is the story of us.