'Square Grouper': New film high on 70s ganja smugglers

REVIEW - One thing 'Square Grouper' does exceptionally well is explain the significant economic and cultural impact marijuana can have on a community or country...

Brother Louv is a 6’ 7’’ former Catholic from Boston who went on to lead a group of Ethiopian Zion Coptics in Miami Florida in the 1970s. In 1979 he hired a camera crew to follow the actions of the congregation to show the public that they were a peaceful, pious group of individuals who simply wanted the freedom to practice their religion. One result of this effort was a 60 Minutes interview where Brother Louv, marijuana ‘spliff’ in hand, spoke vehemently about his faith and the importance of constantly smoking ganja to their Church.

The Coptics are covered extensively in Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja, a new documentary from director Billy Corben. In an exclusive interview with theGrio, Corben explained how the documentary came about. “We took our three favorite stories of the era and put them together into this triptych, this anthology, and this was all…done with an eye on contemporary marijuana politics.”

The movie is split into three sections, each dedicated to a major marijuana smuggling ring based in Miami that was shut down in the 70s and 80s.

The first section of the film tells the story of Brother Louv and his congregation of Ethiopian Zion Coptics, while the second chronicles the activity and trial of the infamous ‘Black Tuna Gang.’ The third and final section tells how Everglades City changed from a fishing village into a place where 80 percent of the adult male population was involved in smuggling marijuana.

[youtubevid http://youtube.com/watch?v=OHYovqRmCcs]

Square Grouper “wasn’t an advocacy piece” or a “propaganda piece” to promote the legalization of marijuana, insists Corben. Nevertheless, after watching the movie one walks away with the uncanny feeling that to do anything but that would be unreasonable. Corben says his goal was to present the history of marijuana in a compelling way — to show that in the 70s “pot hauling was an occupation,” and “wasn’t dangerous, [or] sleazy.”

The reasons for smoking and/or smuggling marijuana were different in each of the three cases Corben presents in his documentary, but the results were startlingly similar. These non-violent marijuana smugglers all ended up serving time for their actions; the ‘Black Tuna Gang’ serving more time than almost any other peaceful dope smugglers to date. Perhaps the most novel of the three stories, the section concerning the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, deals with a group of white men bringing a faith predominated by black Jamaican individuals into the American limelight.

Square Grouper sheds light on two different histories: that of the Coptic faith as well as that of marijuana importation in the U.S. This amalgamation of culture and history forms a documentary both insightful and enthralling. With a laid-back style completely unlike Corben’s previous hit Cocaine Cowboys, Square Grouper seems to mimic the affects of the drug it chronicles.

Corben’s documentary opens with Brother Louv, the spokesperson for the Miami branch of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, explaining that “the basic message [of our religion] is, you should stop your sin.” He included homosexuality, abortion, birth control, oral sex, and masturbation under sins the world was committing; ending his statement with “And they should have known to have been smoking ganja from a long time.” The Coptic Church holds values similar to any fundamentalist Christian sect, with one exception: they believe marijuana is God’s sacrament, and praise him by partaking in it liberally.

“They didn’t smoke to get stoned, they weren’t like taking hits, or toking…it was almost disrespectful to treat marijuana as a mind altering drug, it was a sacrament to God,” Corben explains about the Coptic faith. Brother Clifton, is a practitioner of the faith and was featured in Square Grouper, explained similarly in an interview with theGrio that “the herb is looked at as pure spiritual love” that brings a “certain clarity” to one’s life.

Cliff, when asked about his opinion of Square Grouper’s portrayal of the Church, said there were still misconceptions about the religion and that he wished the film had delved deeper into the spiritual aspects of the Coptic faith.

Brother Louv and the few friends he traveled with to Jamaica in the early 70s where part of the American counter-culture movement. They were “former hippies, we’ll call them, these young American kids who were kind of lost post the peace love movement,” explains Corben. They came across the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, led by Jamaican Keith Gordon, and wholly adopted the faith. “It was extraordinary too because some of them even speak in a Jamaican accent!, ” said Corben.

After fully integrating themselves in the EZCC Rasta culture, they took their new-found religion back with them to Miami, along with thousands of dollars’ worth of marijuana. One thing Square Grouper does exceptionally well is explain the significant economic and cultural impact marijuana can have on a community or country. This is done without the viewer feeling like someone else’s opinion is being shoved down their throat. Instead, the facts about marijuana’s history are presented in a compelling way through personal stories, and the viewer is left to decide how they feel about the subject.

The Coptic Church was both a religious group and the foundation of a massive importation operation of marijuana into the U.S. Both of the EZCC branches became exceedingly wealthy. They were estimated to own millions of dollars in land, houses, farms, and vehicles, and were so rich that amazingly enough the Jamaican economy was kept afloat solely by the importation and exportation of ganja. “They were like the Walmart of Jamaica,” jokes Corben, “they were in every business.” Edward Seaga, the prime minister of Jamaica at the time, even said in a U.S. interview “It’s just a little sensimilla [potent marijuana] that keep the country going right now.”

Square Grouper sets up the intriguing question about the Coptic Church’s sincerity in a balanced way. “The great debate about the Coptics was, are they true believers? Or is this church just a front for what was a massive marijuana smuggling operation” Corben explains, “And the truth is I think a little bit of both, because all the men and women that we met from the Coptic Church are true believers, and I mean they really believe this gospel.”

To that point, it is interesting to note that neither Keith Gordon nor Brother Louv’s congregations dealt with anything other than marijuana. Even though smuggling hard drugs such as cocaine through Miami was widespread at the time and much more lucrative, the Coptic Church stuck to the herb that was their sacrament and lived by the laws they professed to live by.

Children playing at the EZCC Compound in Jamaica

Brother Louv’s congregation was affluent enough to afford the most expensive lawyers to help them keep their first amendment right to practice their religion, as well as a house on the exclusive Star Island. To put their money in perspective P. Diddy, Will Smith, and Shaquille O’Neal have all owned homes on the island, and the current owner of the former EZCC home is Rosie O’Donnell. In Square Grouper it is even suggested that the chanting and weed smoking of the Coptics disturbed their Star Island neighbors more than one time resident home owner, Al-Capone.

The Ethiopian Zion Coptics were asked to leave their home on Star Island and to practice their religion in quite. They flatly refused. The obvious and arguably obtrusive nature of their new location, as well as the fact that young children practiced the faith and smoked ganja around the clock, eventually led to public outrage and their downfall as a congregation and as a smuggling operation.

When asked whether he though racism played a part in the public prosecution of the Coptics because of their black Jamaican roots, Corben responded, “marijuana laws are notoriously and historically designed to discriminate. The propaganda that black men will use marijuana [and] jazz to seduce white women, and that kind of insanity, that was very affective in our own government perpetuating racist myths to scare white America away from Marijuana.”

Considering the current debate about marijuana and whether it should be legalized Square Grouper is both relevant and poignant. DjLespam’s soundtrack combined with Corben’s canny interviews lend the film a humor one might not expect in a movie about men who almost all spent time in prison.

“What these stories inspired us to do” Corben explains, “was to take up this petition tribe to decriminalize personal possession of marijuana in the city of Miami Beach. So we began that initiative last year before the release of the movie, and I can tell you it has gone very well.”

As many of those interviewed pointed out in Square Grouper, in the 1970s it only seemed like a matter of time before what they were doing became legal. Today we watch as 30 years later their predictions slowly begin to come true.