Kathy Bates, a long way from Misery. / Netflix

Weedshock

With Disjointed and Woodshock, are weed narratives changing their racial politics?

Kathy Bates, a long way from Misery. / Netflix
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In Gregg Araki’s cult classic Smiley Face (2007), a character named Jane (Anna Faris) gets so high she finds herself on a (Marxist) soapbox. After mistakenly eating a tray of cupcakes laced with pot (and slung by a white guy in a dreadlock hat), she goes on an odyssey that takes her to a pork processing plant. While walking around the facility, Jane gets woke—maybe stirred to political consciousness by grating machines and animal cruelty. Pretending to be a union leader, she tells a couple of factory employees, “It is a tale as old as man. The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle! Free man and slave, lord and serf. In a word: oppressor and oppressed . . .”

After the spiel, Jane hears mass applause—and the frame freezes. A caption appears onscreen: “Here’s what Jane really said . . . ” and the scene rewinds. In the replay, Jane’s righteous talk degrades into incoherent babble. In this rendering, she’s thrown out of the building, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air-style. The speech becomes a subversive gag in an otherwise paint-by-420 stoner fantasia, a joke played on Jane and her inflated self-image. She hungers only for munchies—not an overhaul of society.

Araki’s gag points to several problems with the conventional weed film, and it riffs on the myopic utopian dreams of its archetypal protagonists, who tend to use vague anti-authoritarian rhetoric. By showing a hallucinated bit of realpolitik, Araki hints at a political energy largely missing from the genre—outside of some Cheech and Chong plots and “Legalize It!” set dressings.

Two new weed narratives—Disjointed and Woodshock—raise the possibility that weed narratives are becoming more politically self-aware.

Two new weed narratives—Disjointed, Netflix’s pot dispensary sitcom; and Woodshock, Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s arthouse indie feature—bring Araki’s joke immediately to mind. And though one is a goofy comedy (Disjointed) and the other a tone poem about grief (Woodshock), they work in tandem to put the weed industry—and its representation—into relief. And they both raise the possibility that weed narratives are becoming more politically self-aware.

Crucially, the protagonists of these narratives are distributors and not just consumers. Disjointed is set in an LA dispensary, and Woodshock’s protagonist works at a dispensary somewhere in the Northwest. In Disjointed, a show that attempts to comes to grips with the media representation of weed dealing and its racial implications, the narrative is expansive, the approach self-referential, and the cast multiracial. Woodshock, for its part, is about high-end pot dealing. It’s also heavily curated and entirely white.

Still, both stories deal with protagonists in a way that elaborates on the trope of the white dealer I identified in 2015; it’s one that exemplifies the whitewashed nature of America’s perception of legal weed. The fledgling hypervisibility of white weed dealers on TV and the web (while fair about the fact that white people have always been dealers, too) has trended in a way that obscures the presence of black and brown purveyors of the plant. As a narrative remix, the cool white drug dealer coincided with legalization measures; in other words, now that dealing had become an above-board enterprise, media representations of white dealers still uncritically reflected the way that stoners once appeared in cult-flicks—as unselfconscious, straightforwardly optimistic, and lacking a sense of political irony.

Shows like High Maintenance did the inverse of the scene from Smiley Face: they showed the world of weed dealing as fast-forwarded and fixated on a preemptive sense of progress. These were stories ostensibly set in the present that seemed to take place in a distant future, one where the world does not provide the source material for Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow but instead a offers a neutered, happy-go-lucky racial utopia. These were visions of metropolitan drug oases made without nodding at all to the people who pay the most for dealing weed—both in terms of incarceration and public perception. With their hip, multicultural, we’re-all-connected politics, their characters were little more than a bevy of Janes on soapboxes.

Whiteshock

If the weed dealing narrative has evolved, perhaps to the level of self-critique (or at least self-awareness), it may be best to look first at the whitest and most exaggerated—and most exaggeratedly white—of recent weed films. 

In the hallucinatory Woodshock, reality is unstable, which is not a surprise given its narrator’s fragile psychology and the trippy effects of the tinctures she whips up as a side hustle. Kirsten Dunst plays Theresa, a worker at a pot dispensary somewhere near the Redwood Forest; ten minutes into the film, she euthanizes her ailing mom, lacing her weed with a noxious liquid. Plot-wise: not much else happens. Theresa and her lumberjack boyfriend Nick (Joe Cole) lose touch as she grieves, while her relationship with her employer Keith (Pilou Asbaek) deepens in mystifying ways.

Woodshock is moody and atmospheric—trees sway in the night wind. It’s beautifully photographed and layered; the frequent shots of the redwoods are even intimidating, and they add to the film’s foreboding ambiance. The score is mostly synths, a woman levitates in the woods, and there are countless shots of lumber: imagine Twin Peaks: The Return (for the scenery) and Ava DuVernay’s I Will Follow (for its depiction of grief) spliced together.

Despite the film’s privileging of atmosphere over politics, it manages to compound its moodiness with the intense surprise of a business landscape where weed and lumber are harvested side-by-side and understood first and foremost as cash crops; it’s hard to miss the directors’ juxtaposition of both industries in a fearful symmetry. Perhaps it’s this strange world that sends Theresa (literally?) hovering into the sky, much like Jane was thrust into the air after her Karl Marx reverie in the pork factory.

Which is to say that many of Theresa’s tragedies relate to her work at the dispensary. Weed, in Woodshock, has high stakes. It’s also high-end. The dispensary is painted white like an art gallery; the weed itself sits in jars like curated items at a museum, or pricey organic wellness products at Credo Beauty. The mingling of colors, from the flamingo pink grow lights to the green neon leaf sign in the store’s window, makes it appear that the dispensary is set inside a mood ring—or as if James Turrell had opted to place an installation there. That idea is not so wild; in fact, it’s already happening IRL: ShowGrow, an art gallery, opened inside an LA dispensary in the spring of 2016. This merging of art sensibility and weed production, exemplified by Woodshock’s aesthetic, betrays the hyper-designed, bourgeois, art-world luxury that a boutique, legal marijuana business more and more desires.

Weedwashed

Ruth’s Alternative Caring, Disjointed’s setting, is not one of those fancy, sleek dispensaries. It’s a run-of-the-mill “green cross” shop familiar to SoCal residents, housed in an LA strip mall between a juice bar and a karate studio. Kathy Bates plays the owner of the dispensary, Ruth Whitefeather Feldman, a lifelong cannabis crusader and President Emeritus of the California Bar Association. Her son Travis (Aaron Moten) has just returned to the family business after getting his MBA. The product of Ruth’s marriage to a Black Panther who became a corporate lawyer for a pharmaceutical company, Travis represents a changing of the guard, concerned as he is with expanding the business and liquidating Ruth’s assets (pot dispensaries are cash-only businesses, which make them targets for the DEA). In addition to shoring up sponsorships and increasing the dispensary’s social media presence, Travis wants to franchise the operation. Ruth pushes back. “I’ve spent my entire life fighting the man. The last thing I want to do is become the man,” she says. More aware of the necessity of monetizing, Travis responds, “But why? You know there’ll always be a man. Why can’t he be us?”

As a black man entering the legal marijuana business, Travis’s line echoes statements made by real-life black entrants into the industry. Ruth may be a legend among High Times subscribers for her decades-long advocacy, but she comes across a little out of touch. At one point in the show’s first episode, she turns to her grower, Pete, and tells him that times are changing—the grizzle in her voice belying a shocking naiveté. “You know, back in the day, marijuana was a cause. It was a symbol of defiance. Now it’s just a commodity,” she says. Her nostalgia for a more progressive platform is understandable, but let’s face it: marijuana’s always been a commodity.

And now, again, it’s a cause—for those who would diversify the industry and lobby for justice measures for those imprisoned on weed charges. The contrast between Ruth’s somewhat clueless former hippie and her enterprising black son represents a real divide in the cannabis advocacy world. The show’s other prominent black character is the dispensary’s security guard, Carter (Tone Bell), a former Iraq War vet who suffers from PTSD. His devastating backstory is told in cool animated sequences scored by Amiri Baraka-esque spoken-word and jazzy electro-beat freakouts, black aesthetic cues that further complicate the colorblind cheer favored at the dispensary.

Along with its treatment of race, Disjointed’s meta-commentary is a highlight. While most of the show is standard “420 okay” humor—with annoying chillaxed characters and overdone gags—its fake commercials are the real draw. Recalling Atlanta’s “B.A.N.” episode, there are a number of spoof ads threaded throughout the series so far, and they riff on current weed culture and its own (very real) TV commercials. Watching Disjointed without skipping these commercials means you’re essentially viewing a self-contained network. This closed ecosystem satirizes the infrastructure that’s sprung up around this industry—how sudden but entrenched it all seems.

Disjointed becomes a commentary on the normalization of weed as a part of American agribusiness—and the whitewashing that’s already begun.

For example: there’s a riff on Farmers Insurance in the form of an ad for “Pot Farmers Insurance”—for unlucky Humboldt County homesteaders who fall on hard times; there is a commercial for a law firm that will help you sue if your herb isn’t delivered in a timely fashion. The most biting imagery suggests there’s a more seamless, subtle way for these new weed stories to score political points. In the strongest fake ad, for something called “Kush, the Banquet Weed,” a narrator who sounds like Sam Elliot talks about a strain of weed like he’s musing on Budweiser or a Ford F-150. “When you’ve grown marijuana since 1873,” the voiceover goes, “you learn a few things about pride, about standards.” As with the repeated shots of the lumber in Woodshock, this ad features plenty American naturalist imagery—of Rocky Mountain streams and the heartland. It becomes a commentary on the normalization of the crop as a part of American agribusiness, the retconning legacy, and the whitewashing that’s already begun.

These weed-driven jokes and visual exaggerations prove that cliché can have real cultural cache if used wisely. At one point in Woodshock, Theresa ogles herself in the mirror, parsing her own image. What does it reflect? Is she Alice in the looking glass, or just a stoner obsessed with her own visage? Maybe both. But she’s also something else. It’s a cliché, but Kirsten Dunst staring in the mirror is a good metaphor for what these stories are finally doing: weed culture is starting to look back at itself.

Niela Orr is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia. More of her work can be found at www.nielaorr.com.

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