Trickle Down: “Paid in Full,” A Reagan-Era Crack Masterpiece

Abe Beame writes the definitive word on the 2002 masterpiece, diving deep into the real-life backstory, economics, and allure of drug dealers.
By    November 3, 2020

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If Abe Beame was a rapper, he swears to god he’d talk his shit.

The first line in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 epic The Godfather, is delivered by an undertaker named Amerigo who says, “I believe in America”. What follows is a story that this nation has told itself since we broke with the English over a tax dispute. The myth has been retold many times for many groups of people, but the beats are all more or less the same: An American senses an inherent unfairness in a system or institution, and armed with an idea, a code, and a family, embarks on a quest to right the wrong, to make his or her way in this strange country we’ve all found ourselves in.

Often the quest requires a crime, as history and its laws are written by the winners, looking to hold on to what they stole. Our hero must identify the hypocrisies in a system built in opposition to their desire to succeed, to ask for more from their lot in life, and at least for a time, to achieve their goals armed with resourcefulness, cunning, bravery and the people around them. It’s a beautiful thing, this myth of ours. It’s often quite accurately referred to as a dream.

Every major recreational drug in this country has its foundational articles of cinema. Most have several. But throughout its run as the inner city drug of choice in the mid-80s, into the ’90s, we never got the great film the crack epidemic warranted.

This isn’t to say there’s only one film about selling crack or smoking it. There are plenty produced by the outburst of social message films from the early 90s. I’m thinking specifically of Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City, Spike Lee’s Clockers and the L.A. gangbanger classics, Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society by the great John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers. But those films are too close to their subject matter. They don’t give their audiences enough credit to watch a film about people struggling with poverty and addiction and making poor choices, so they litter their screenplays with on the nose morality espousing monologues from their Pookies and their Errols. 

In many ways, this paternal erasure is appropriate, or at least telling. The Godfather is telling us a story about a failed vision of justice under a yoke of capitalist-driven racism, a hierarchy of privilege that forces people like the mortician Bonasera, and families like the Corleones to create self sufficient systems of justice, and means for economic mobility, that exist outside the traditional American institutions. 

While there’s ample messaging that Vito, Sonny, Michael, and their associates are monsters, they have been endeared to generations of viewers through their nobility, their love of family, their adherence to principle and code. The characters all commit evil, but the true evil is American power and oppression. It also helps that even though they were Italian, they were white, so they were left to their own devices for a time. Their crime was allowed to amass into generational wealth, changing what it meant to be Italian in America. 

The generation of gangsters who came of age in the ’80s didn’t have any of these benefits. So it is fitting that crack, and the oppressed class that primarily rose and fell with its prevalence, never got the same respect from the racist and oppressive industrial Hollywood complex. It is entirely appropriate that this particular, definitive vision of the American Dream had to be told on the margins of the studio system, in the form of Charles Stone III’s 2002 monument to a dark breed of supply side economics, Paid In Full. The film reached voting age a few days ago.

Paid In Full tells the “true” story of Azie Faison Jr. (Wood Harris, as Ace in his audition for Avon Barksdale), Rich Porter (Mekhi Phifer, as Money Mitch), and Alberto “Alpo” Martinez (Cameron Giles, or Cam’ron, a world-renowned and historically important rapper in his first film role, as Rico). Together, for a brief moment in the mid ’80s, the three young men took over the insanely lucrative, newly minted crack trade in Harlem. They were street legends. The type of figures that publications like Don Diva and F.E.D.S. thrived on reporting. But we had never seen a true story like theirs told on film, until the turn of the century, when a rap mogul realized his quixotic dream.

Damon Dash, best known for establishing Roc-A-Fella Records, was born and raised in Harlem. Around the turn of the century, as Jay-Z exploded and expanded the idea of what a relatively uncompromising street rapper could accomplish on a national, mainstream scale, Dame was pursuing a project of his own. He was expanding Roc-A-Fella. As he grew his empire, he brought in his childhood friend and fellow Harlemite Cam’ron, already a great artist with two classics under his belt, and his Diplomats crew of talented rappers waiting in the wings. But Dame had bigger plans than re-launching Cam’ron and company as his artists. He wanted to get into movies. He had unique experience to build on, a story to tell. As Dame grew up in the 80s. Harlem, and the country as a whole, was a complicated place.

On November 10, 1984, Ronald Reagan was reelected, winning 60% of the vote, which amounted to a 17 million vote margin and 49 states in the electoral college. Reagan accomplished this by selling the American people an Ayn Rand horseshit dream of inconceivable prosperity, a limitless sky over a future that would never end. And for some Americans, the mid-to late-80s manifested that dream of incomparable wealth, as a deregulated market and gutted corporate and income tax scale annihilated a 50-year period of unprecedented gains in wealth and quality of life for labor and the middle class in this country, powered first by the New Deal’s progressive economic programs, and later Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Reagan, behind a tide of dark corporate money powering the rise of a revolutionary conservative movement, soon proved the adage that times of prosperity makes for shitty liberals.

Because the 80s were not a time of prosperity for everyone. With Reagan’s easing of restrictions and stretching of loopholes, many industries lined their pockets with their capital gains windfalls, moved many of their corporate offices out of city centers to suburban campuses (where their largely white executives and management had fled), and outsourced production overseas. The working class industries that had provided livelihoods, pathways to upward mobility, began to dry up, leaving underserved communities who had been forced into areas that relied on these industries for survival, into desperate situations. This was the environment into which communities like Harlem discovered its drug of choice for the decade.

In the late-70s, coke was a rich man’s drug. A gram could go for as much as $100, an incredible amount 50 years ago. Slowly, through backroom deals made with corrupt government officials and law enforcement, the drug found distribution pathways from South America through Mexico and the Caribbean. As coke became more readily available, connections like the one Azie Faison made through his job at a Harlem dry cleaner, with a South American named Lulu (allegedly connected to Pablo Escobar himself), became more common. Azie found a connect with a great wholesale price, and was able to flood Harlem and the greater tri-state area with reasonably priced coke.

Crack itself, as a chemical compound, is a work of genius and ingenuity. When you mix equal parts cocaine and baking soda in a pot of boiling water, skim the byproduct and allow it to cool, it hardens into a craggy mass which can be chipped into pieces and smoked. When you smoke cocaine, the high is more intense, and shorter lived, than snorting it. This is because when you smoke something, it goes into your lungs and takes a faster trip into your bloodstream, where it travels directly to your brain. It’s a much more efficient and effective way to fuck yourself up. It concentrates the addictive qualities of coke. 

The recipe for crack, and the awareness of its efficacy, was known in smaller circles in areas like the Bay in the 70s, but it wasn’t an industry. No one was cooking massive batches for commercial distribution. The market needed to be introduced and educated to the drug and its power. Some believe the trade began just above Harlem, with Dominicans in Washington Heights, accustomed to freebasing a cocoa leaf extract commonly referred to as basuco. 

Much like the country, its economy, and its legal system, this innovation had disastrous ramifications on its clients and its merchants struggling to emerge from under the burden of history. It was a technological advance in a market that had barely found its footing or established a coherent trade. So economically devastated inner cities all over America were suddenly flooded with a “wonder” drug whose tragic side effects had yet to present themselves. It offered a consumer base, suddenly incentivized to find some form of escape from a grim economic outlook, with the perfect outlet. It also created a sales force, without many other options for mobility, with sudden high upside opportunity.  

Azie, Alpo and Rich achieved their success before the drug markets in major areas like Harlem could be fully enforced. It was a kind of goldrush we’ll see in capitalism once or twice a generation as a new revenue source is unearthed. But the conditions for its explosion had been set by callous and racist economic policy. Through a certain lens, the crack crisis can be seen as a macro form of societal entrapment. 

In his autobiography Game Over, written with the scholar Agyei Tyehimba, Azie explains that it took cops on the ground in Harlem an entire year to understand what crack even was, when they’d find it on dealers, it would test as baking soda, and they’d have to throw out whatever charge they thought they had. For all intents and purposes, according to Faison, crack was essentially legal on the street, giving its community a cheap and powerful taste, destroying a generation of its users and dealers, addicted to both sides of the life (Faison estimates, at the peak of his business, he was clearing 40k a week in profit). The immediate and absurd high from the cash you could make selling crack was not unlike the high its users reaped.

So all the conditions for high tragedy had been in the ether for 20 years when Dame finally brought them together with Charles Stone, Azie Faison, the great cinematographer Paul Sarossy, and screenwriter/playwright Thulani Davis. It was their clear eyed approach to the story that finally delivered the narrative the crack era deserved. Particularly considering the near biblical tragedy that befell the Porter family, Azie Faison’s story proved to be the perfect vessel. 

Faison was born in the Bronx 20 years before the day Reagan would be reelected, born the same year as the son of a former bootlegger’s Civil Rights Act, and had grown up in a Dickensian setting, on government assistance, with two brothers and five sisters in a one bedroom apartment. His two hot meals a day were provided for free by school. Dinner was often a ham or bologna sandwich. His father had to leave when the social worker visited so as not to lose their welfare. In his book, he explains how cycles of poverty create an insecurity, a self-hatred in those exposed to it. 

Azie speaks reverently of the Sugar Hill section of Harlem he grew up in, and the rich crime history of the area, legends like Bumpy Johnson, Guy Fisher and Nicky Barnes. It’s easy to understand the appeal affluent black men who made their fortunes on their own terms would represent to a young poor kid like Azie. In one section of his book, he lovingly recounts the cars Rich Porter and fellow hustler named L.A. drove around Harlem as 15 year olds as if recounting LeBron’s rookie stats.

As a nine year old, Azie bagged groceries and worked a paper route, giving his mother 75 cents of every dollar he earned to help make ends meet. In junior high, he worked in a laundromat for the clothes, he’d borrow customer’s gear when it fit and wore it to school because he couldn’t afford his own. He saw his own cheap, generic clothes from discount stores as class signifiers that would grate on him. He was always a hustler, and the promise of an education rang hollow to Azie. Many of the role models around him hadn’t even graduated high school, and those who had weren’t doing much better in life than those who hadn’t. He dropped out in ninth grade. Azie started running the dry cleaners for $75 a week and bootlegging liquor on the side.

When he discusses his decision to get into the coke trade, Faison says, “I began to weigh my circumstances. I thought about my poor dear mother and hardworking father, struggling to support my five sisters and two brothers. I thought about the embarrassment we felt when we had to hide my father from the welfare workers who constantly threatened to cut off the little bit of money we received each month…….I saw two options staring at me: use drugs and get fucked up by circumstances, or sell drugs and use circumstances to survive.”

In the 90s, Azie had a screenplay that had been floating through the industry, a three hour and 15 minute epic called Trapped, an intensely personal arc beginning in childhood and ending in his redemption as a reformed man of God. But Dame, and a host of subsequent screenwriters who did upwards of ten revisions, wanted something with a smaller scope that was more universal. A simply told story with far reaching implications that explained the allure of that moment and the desperation of its actors. The genre of films dedicated to this crisis that came before it were rife with easy answers.

To be blunt, they were lazy. Dame didn’t do lazy.

In the film’s director’s commentary, Charles Stone explains the regular fights on set with Dame, who was, as Stone says, “the reality police,” constantly pushing back against Stone’s desire to take artistic license and keep the film as authentic to his experience as possible, which is its power and what separates it from the crack-era cartoons that came before and after. Dame insisted on using Phil Collins and the Top 40 that was prevalent in Harlem at the time as opposed to Kool G Rap and Ice T, the era-appropriate hip-hop Stone wanted. Dame insisted, this is what they actually listened to, and it imbues the film with its lived in feel. 

Harlem tenement apartments, like Rich Porter’s specifically, were recreated on sets in Toronto (the production toggled between Canada and Harlem). Brucie B and Busy Bee were in the actual film, and Brucie in particular serves as a Greek chorus. Dame improvised his own scene as a rival dealer, the scene was important to him because he needed to communicate that it wasn’t just these three men making all the drug money in Harlem in 1986. There’s a larger world operating around them, on the periphery. You can feel his hand in every aspect of the film’s production, to its great benefit.

The triptych of genius leads are a dream team. Even Azie Faison, who had his issues with the making of the film, acknowledges the greatness of its performances. Ace, Rico and Mitch represent the holy trinity of possible outcomes of the lifestyle they chose. 

Ace is our narrator, and as close as the film comes to a moral compass. He has the same desire to elevate his station, to look and feel good and appreciate the luxury that comes with wealth, but he’s without ego, uninterested in the notoriety that comes with running Harlem. What he craves above all other things is security. He just wants to get his bread, provide for his family, and get out. Ace is the only character that seems to understand the stakes, the danger that surrounds these young men on all sides. The film doesn’t work without Wood Harris, acting in nearly every scene. His weirdness grounds Ace. He’s gangly, awkward, arrhythmic, “a boring character” as Charles Stone describes him. But Wood Harris makes the character real and appealing. He makes Ace sing.

Mekhi Phifer is a golden boy with a perfect shape up and a wide, bright smile. The embodiment of the hustle. It’s the one thing he loves, the one thing he believes he’s good at. It’s a superstar performance that catches Phifer at the perfect moment. He’s exuding wildly charismatic high wattage, and he needs to. Money Mitch explains the allure of the hustle, the epitome of cool. Of anyone in the film, Mitch has the clearest idea of who he is, what he wants to get out of this life, and what any of this means. He dedicates everything to it, and in the end suffers the darkest fate. 

And then, of course, there’s Cam. What can I say about the untrained, non-professional actor that hasn’t been said about Jack Nicholson as the Joker, or Heath Ledger as the Joker, Jared Leto as the Joker, or Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker? It’s quite simply one of the all-time great heel turns. He’s the only main player who was a Harlem native. And with his hair grown out, Cam goes full method. He is Rico. He’s unbalanced, unpredictable, chaotic energy manifested. Rico is always performing, always moving, always scheming (“Yo anything you need, I got you B”). 

There’s a slimy bastard quality to what Cam is doing here that goes beyond Meisner and Adler. You can watch his calculations and inauthenticity being performed in real time on screen. It’s a fully fleshed out and considered performance that feels lived in. You can also draw the conclusion that of the three, Rico is the one getting high on his own supply, a real problem of the era rarely discussed. Coke impairs judgement and provokes self-confidence, leading to impulsive behavior and a disregard for social conventions; practically the definition of Rico in the film. This is divine — or rather, demonic — possession. An otherworldly force speaking through Cam’ron. He’s a portrait of fragile masculinity. The violent retaliation against an inborn sense of insecurity, inferiority, self-hatred imbued by a childhood mired in poverty, made to feel lesser than his whole life, with the volume turned up and no concern for tomorrow. 

Any art that wants to contend with the crack era has a duty to empathize with the poverty of its so-called criminals. Often they do, with drawn-out sermonizing, putting their politics directly in the mouths of their characters. But Paid in Full lives in nuance and quiet moments. It shows us how being poor was an ever present concern in its characters lives. 

My personal favorite scene in the film is a moment we get alone with Mitch that serves no narrative purpose. At the end of a day of hustling, he very intentionally, ceremoniously removes his pristine sneakers, placing them on a shelf, practically a shrine, above his bed in a row with identical gleaming white uptowns. He drapes his chain across his bedside table like a priceless artifact. It has religious connotations. Throughout the film, we see Mitch’s doomed little brother Sonny cleaning Rich’s rims and scrubbing his kicks with a toothbrush. This is how the religion of materialism is passed down from one generation to the next.

In an earlier scene, Calvin, a local drug-dealing scumbag dating Ace’s sister, holds a family dinner hostage. Calvin is an asshole no one likes, but who everyone, including the family matriarch, tolerates because of his cash. At one point before walking out of dinner, he offers Ace’s mother a wad of cash. She frowns and accepts it, helplessly complicit. Seemingly everyone in the film has a hustle, including the disapproving Mr. Pip, who judges the drug dealers in his neighborhood for their reckless stupidity while running numbers out of his dry cleaning business. At every turn, you can feel capitalism crushing this community. 

Even Rico, the closest thing the film has to an archetypal drug dealing villain, has a realized, depressing psychology. Throughout the film he’s on the outside of the brotherhood between Ace and Mitch. Much of the acts of violence he commits in the film can be seen as transparent attempts to prove himself to them, to win them over. His dickish arrogance and flamboyance are desperate attempts to be seen and heard. 

As Azie writes, “Nowadays, I understand people who do things to get attention are basically insecure. They don’t feel special or valuable because their self-worth comes from the outside. They need to get props and praise from other people… I truly believe that insecurity, vanity, and arrogance are the key reasons people create enemies. This may sound weird, but many times the people who talk the loudest, boast the most, and demand the spotlight are the people who have some serious self-esteem and self-love issues.”

There’s a scene at the end of the film, probably Cam’ron’s best work — which is saying a lot — after Mitch is killed. Rico sets up a meet with Ace. He asks Ace why he was cut out of a deal to sell the weight Mitch needs to put up the ransom money to get Sunny back (Rich Porter’s little brother, William Porter was really kidnapped and murdered). You can hear the reluctant hurt and disappointment in his tone (“Ayo B, why you ain’t call me on that shit B?”). To the bitter end, Rico just wanted to be part of the crew.

David Farber’s essential primer Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed argues persuasively that the way we dealt with the crack epidemic in America  is an indictment of this country, of ourselves. This generation, we’ve bemoaned the opiate crisis as a matter of public health. Money has funneled into treatment and recovery. We’ve gone after the large pharmaceutical institutions who helped create this crisis in the first place. 

With crack, it was different. The police state went after street level dealers and users alike. It wasn’t a public health crisis. It was a moral failing, a problem specific to names and faces we felt comfortable condemning on a national scale. The media fear mongered with embellished, wild tales that fed our most virulent, racist imaginations about crackheads and crack dealers. 

Politically, there was a bipartisan game of one-upmanship as Republicans and Democrats alike fell over themselves in a contest to see who could come up with the most hellish and cruel anti-crack legislation. Charles Rangel, a Black congressman born and raised in Harlem, who assumed Adam Clayton Powell’s seat, fought tooth and nail against the scourge of crack, arguing for more prosecution and stiffer sentencing for dealers. 

In the wake of the shocking death of Len Bias, Maryland’s star player and the NBA’s #1 draft pick, who died from an overdose snorting coke, The Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 rushed through both houses of government. In it, the federal punishment for crack to cocaine was prosecuted at a ratio of 100:1, essentially stating low level crack dealers were 100 times more dangerous than their kingpin coke dealing counterparts. The law gave sweeping authority to cops, allowing for all types of civil rights violations, and allotted six billion dollars to fighting the war on drugs, along with an additional 97 million to build more prisons.

There was one loud and resistant voice to the bill in the Senate, New York’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan. As Farber writes, “He insisted that blaming crack and crack dealers for the troubles of poor people, especially poor black people, and then imprisoning small time crack dealers — overwhelmingly young African American men — was a cynical, public-pleasing ploy by shameless politicians.” The argument fell on deaf ears. Reagan signed it into law on October 28th, 1986. 

The consequences of this legislation were staggering. Again, via Farber, in 1980, 4,749 people were in jail for drug offenses. By 1985, the number doubled to 9,491. By 1990, 30,470 people out of the 56,989 sentenced to fed time were there for drugs. The number rose to 52,782 in 1995. In 1993, the racial makeup of all convicted powder cocaine dealers was: 32% white, 27.4% Black, 39.3% Hispanic, and 1.3% other. The same year, the racial makeup of all convicted crack dealers was 88.3% Black, 7.1% Hispanic, and 4.1% white. In 1977, the state of California imprisoned 19,623 people. By 2000 the number was 162,000. 64% of those prisoners were Black or Hispanic. There is no other way to view these numbers than as an act of systemic caging and disenfranchising of minorities by the government, by us.

The selling of crack played a tenuous, arm’s length part in a portion of my young life. I grew up in a small, former resort town in upstate New York. Around mid-century, when air travel became a more affordable and normalized aspect of American life, it killed minor tourist destinations like my town. The industry dried up slowly as less and less people drove north from the city into the Catskills, and by the time I was born in the mid 80s, it was all but dead. The town was filled with New York City expats, families that had come there looking for work and a change of pace. When that work went away, what was left was a surprisingly diverse and savvy small community with ties to New York City, a natural outlet on a drug pipeline.

We grew up in the fumes of crack. In the late 90s, by the time I got my driver’s license, we all knew the ills. We grew up alongside a generation who had been destroyed by a decade of hard use. In any post industrial town, drugs are a real prevalent problem, and growing up, the drug of choice in my town was crack. What I would do as a side hustle, in addition to working part time and going to school, was drive around my friends who sold crack. They would smoke me out with blunts, pay for gas, and hit me with a small percentage of the sales they would make. 

In addition to being immoral, it was incredibly stupid. If I were to have been pulled over just once, on my way back from an apartment complex in the Bronx with a whole re-up in my trunk, or pulled over in my small town because my car was fogged with weed smoke, or I had a tail light out, my friends would have rightly thrown whatever they had on the ground, or said whatever was in the car wasn’t theirs, and it would have greatly altered my entire future. But so much of life is luck and circumstance, and that never happened. 

When I think about my time as a courier, I’m of two minds. On one hand, I’m haunted. I see these exclusively white, gaunt, scraggly, ruined, impossibly old and fucked up people (most likely, in retrospect, in their mid 20s-mid 30s) scrambling and clawing like roaches or crabs for my friends to take their meager earnings in exchange for the poison that will continue to pretty rapidly destroy them. 

But if I’m being honest, they were speed bumps on the road I’d drive over to our next destination. Because of their age and states of disrepair, it was easy to dismiss them, dehumanize them as people who had been born cracky, old, and white, impossible to imagine them relatively normal at my age. They were mild impediments I could barely see as I impatiently waited for one exchange outside public housing, or the decrepit bungalows where rundown hotels would put up their seasonal staff, to end so we could get on to the next stop. I could wrap up my day of “work,” collect my earnings and immediately spend them on weed and dates and whatever meaningless shit an idiotic 16 year old at the turn of the century spent his money on.

I bring this up because it brings into sharp focus the work of dealing drugs. It’s easy to label drug dealers as users or predators, but when you’re doing the work it doesn’t really feel like that. It feels like nothing. It’s routine. It’s money. Your clients become these obnoxious, inhuman hindrances to your day, cautionary tales when you’re feeling generous and pathetic specters when you’re not, begging to buy something that costs $10 for $8. I’d imagine lobbyists, or high powered defense attorneys, or marketers would be able to express the same numbness. After a while, probably less time than you’d imagine, you’re just doing the work. And if you weren’t doing the work, someone else would be.

I think providing this context is necessary because while Conservatives talk about a bootstraps vision of Capitalism as they gut social programs, these kids I grew up with really did it. Like Rich Porter in Sugar Hill, the coolest kids in my high school weren’t athletes or student presidents, they were drug dealers. And of course they were. They were young, attractive, funny, bold, and made upwards of $100,000 a year before they could vote. I always respected their ambition, their courage, their refusal to accept the shitty deal this country had offered them. 

Paid In Full understands this allure, how intoxicating the idea of money and a family can be if you grow up poor without one, and even in its moral compass, Ace, doesn’t bother to apologize for that. And that is why it is not only a great film, but an important one. It humanizes the sale of crack, and gives it context within the spectrum of the many American Dreams we have dreamed as a nation since its inception. I think what I love about Paid in Full is I grew up with kids like Azie. People I have never really seen before or since on screen selling crack. Curious, intelligent, occasionally weird young men who simply didn’t see the point in getting through high school and took another path. It lends humanity, a voice and dignity to those who have gone without it far too long. 

In Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, a bootlegger’s father materializes from humble origins to lay his son to rest. Of his son, he says, “If he’d of lived he’d of been a great man. A man like James J. Hill. He’d of helped build up the country.” On one hand you could look at men like Rayful Edmond, Frank Lucas, Rick Ross, and Rich Porter, and A.Z., and even Alpo, and say they were ruthless, murderous pieces of shit who sold death to their own and were the architects of their own demise. But you could also say they were consummate capitalists, dreamers, bootleggers, Rockefellers and Kennedys who just happened to come along at the wrong time in history with the wrong color skin.

Like most of the middle class kids in my town, I went to college (Where aside from my various part time jobs and school, I flipped pounds of “Beasters,” an incredibly mid strain of Canadian weed that my peers and I sucked down like air, a billion dollar illicit trade that even in the early aughts was overseen with a paternalistic wink and nod by the police state). I got a humanities degree from a big dumb state school I’ve never used, and for the last 15 years I’ve lived in Brooklyn with my wife and children. 

Most of the kids I graduated from high school with stayed local and had kids early. Some started hitting the bottle hard or turned to opiates and live in cycles of getting their shit together and falling apart. Some work union jobs, tree cutting, iron work, construction. I’m mostly going by social media, but most of them seem to have settled into calm and happy lives. Most of them are also white. 

Every friend I grew up hustling with went to jail. When they look back at their lives they tend to focus on the moments that sealed their fate. An extra sale they decided to make to a stranger their gut told them not to trust, some work they left the house with they knew they should’ve left home, a fight they got into they should’ve backed down from. I think they look at their circumstances this way because they have to in order to move on with their lives, to not live in the bitter unfairness of it all. As a lesson they believe they had to learn. But some understand that the fuck ups that defined the early parts of their lives could’ve been the equivalent of DUIs their fathers had expunged from their records, or bowls they got caught smoking they had to work off in community service. They understand they are the human cost of decisions we made as a country before they were born, and for their transgressions we arbitrarily took decades of their lives away from them.

Some did short stints and “cleaned their acts up.” Some did long bids and got out in their 30s, undergoing the incredibly challenging work of readjusting to society and starting their lives at a time many of us are downshifting into the listless peace of middle age. Some got out of jail, then went right back in, where they’ll be for a long time, if not forever, and a very select few are still in the game, making outrageous amounts of money and living with the threat of death or jail over their shoulders everyday. Almost all of them are Black.

Paid In Full is a simply told story with wide reaching implications. A distinctly American tale of three men who grew up poor on the northern tip of a former Dutch settlement and demanded more from their lives. Who looked out on the fresh green breast of a new world, who held their breath in the presence of this continent, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to their capacity for wonder. They conceived of a morning in America, their own vision of a shining city on a hill, and made it flesh. They were doomed by the beautiful dream of a country that never existed. They were entrapped by the lie of that country’s fleeting promise. It was a dream of dollar bills, falling like rain from the sky.

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