A Personal History of Cannabis in Film – part 1

I never heard people talk about smoking pot when I was growing up. Nobody ever spoke about it – at least, not in any self-referential way. ‘Smoking pot’ was ‘doing drugs’ was ‘breaking the law’ was ‘throwing your life away.’ No one (adult or child) could risk admitting to smoking pot, or even having smoked pot in their past. As my teen years ticked by, and I grew curious interested in it, myself – I had to search art, literature, music and cinema in order to get any first-person accounts. I kept my eyes peeled for any mentions or depictions of cannabis consumption.

In my northern Virginian suburb of Washington, D.C., we got the Washington Post delivered every morning. Each Friday, perhaps to help cultured denizens plan their weekends, there was a special extra section to the paper called “Weekend.” I loved it. Extended film reviews, concert / theater reportage, pieces on (and pictures of) the latest museum exhibits. Metropolitan life. I followed the Movies section closest. I loved movies and wanted to know all about what was playing and where.

My point being – cinema depictions of smoking pot have always caught my eye. Whether I wondered what they were doing, judged their skills, whet my own appetite to get high, watched what other cultures do, or rolled my eyes at harmful cliches and predictable tropes ; I noticed. And sometimes I took note. What follows are my memories around ‘when I took note.’

#1.) “Back to the Future”

This came out during the big 1950s craze of the mid-’80s. I was in 5th and 6th grade, with no interest in cannabis. The first several times I watched this movie, I didn’t even notice that cannabis was not only on the screen, but being addressed in the dialogue. It goes like this … During the film’s finale, at the Enchantment under the Sea dance, musician Marvin Berry and his band The Starlighters are on a set-break, smoking a joint in their car. A coterie of henchmen for antagonist Biff is dragging our hero (Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly) across the parking lot and throw him into the trunk of – whose car? – Marvin Berry’s. “What the hell are you doin’ in my car?” asks one of the Starlighters. One of the henchmen – a character named 3-D – taunts Marvin with a racist epithet – “Beat it, spook. This don’t concern you.”

So, there are a few ‘firsts’ for me, in this scene. For starters, I did not know what ‘spook’ meant. I had to ask – was it my older sister? was it my best friend? his mom or brother? I don’t know. Eventually, I was told “it’s a bad name for black people.” Fair enough. By 10 years-old, I regret to admit, I had learned a few of those already. It was a little confusing, to be honest – spook sounded like ghost, which made me think of a white sheet, which made me think of … white. I did a little research, and the origin has something to do with paranoid whites not being able to see dark skin in the nighttime – hence, ghosts. Go figure. But it was widely used, and very derogatory. A little harsh for a white filmmaker to throw into a PG-rated family film.

After 3-D slings the slur, the car doors open, and the rest of Marvin’s [black] bandmembers exit the car, with a ‘we heard that’ look on all their faces [see above photo]. A few clouds of smoke billow and clear while Marvin coolly sasses “Who you callin’ ‘spook,’ peckerwood?” This was my second ‘first’ – peckerwood. Having never heard it before, I just thought it was a generic insult. So I tried using it a couple times. (I hope none of my [white] friends’ parents overheard me). Eventually, I was told that ‘peckerwood’ is an anti-white slur. This blew my 10-year-old mind – there are anti-white slurs? I had never thought of that, but it made sense. The more I thought about it, actually, the more sense it made.

Having just been counter-threatened and counter-slurred, 3-D tries to save a little face and backs off, saying “We don’t wanna mess with no reefer addicts.” A skuffle ensues, and the film’s climax continues to build.

First of all, as far as I cared to notice, that was a cigarette Marvin was smoking. Not uncommon for a 1950s musician on a break – unremarkable, so it went past me. But that word … “reipherattick” … or, wait … what was that word? I liked the sound of it. I kind of wanted to start using it, but wasn’t quite sure what it meant.

Turns out there’s a “t” at the end, and it’s two words. After – again – asking around, I learned that reefer was marijuana. In my mind I connected marijuana to drug, drug to addict. Ah, of course! A reefer addict. It made perfect sense. That puzzle piece slipped right into place. But that’s as far as I thought about it – What is it? Oh, that’s what it is … Like I said, I had no interest in cannabis at the time and went about my 10-year-old life – riding dirt bikes and microwaving boxed food. I probably didn’t even think about cannabis again until I saw it in another movie, a swashbuckling romantic adventure called “Romancing the Stone.”

By the next scene, the Starlighters are back onstage singing & performing – mentally unimpaired by any reefer. Heck, they even do a great job backing up Marty McFly’s guitar shreddery with nothing more than his direction to follow his “blues riff in B, and try to keep up.” Some aspects of the scene have not aged well – a white guy telling black musicians to ‘keep up’ while he invents rock & roll – but that, too, went right over my head and I cheered our hero’s victory over formidable plot-structural odds.

Bonus “reefer” mention – I didn’t think twice about learning the word reefer until it came up in another ’50s (okay, 1962) send-up – John Waters’ “Hairspray,” a couple years later. Our heroes, who just want to racially integrate the dancefloor, are on the lam. They find refuge in a ‘beatnik pad,’ where Pia Zadora (as Beatnik Chick) plays bongos, sings a quick chorus of “The Banana Boat Song,” and gives them the third degree for how square they are; while a wigged-out Ric Ocasek (as Beatnik Cat) struggles with an abstract painting he’s working on. Beatnik Chick recommends they “get naked & smoke,” which excites Beatnik Cat to the extent that he punches his head through the canvas of his painting-in-progress, exclaiming “Reefer?!?” This time, I got the joke! As our protagonists proceed to make their hasty exit, Beatnik Chick begins reciting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” to/at them.

The scene is farcical and over-the-top – imagine that, in a John Waters movie. The pot-smokers are one-dimensional caricatures, gushing painfully outdated slang. In “Hairspray”‘s case, though, it works completely within the satiric nature of the movie, and all the actors seems to be hamming it up with a good sense of humor – they’re clearly in on it. The silliness is worth a chuckle, instead of an eye-roll or groan. And John Waters is an American treasure. For years after this, my friends & I would imitate Beatnik Cat – “Reefer?!?” and then pantomime punching our head through a stretched canvas – anytime an outrageous idea was proposed.

Leave a Reply