As its alliterative mouthful of a title suggests, the new Netflix documentary “Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy” takes on a many-headed beast. Racial injustice, economic inequities, police corruption, media ethics and foreign-policy scandals are all crammed — a bit too cursorily — into Stanley Nelson’s brisk primer on the 1980s crack epidemic.
Told in eight chapters, the film begins with some scene-setting bits of archival footage. Speeches by President Ronald Reagan and clips from the 1987 drama “Wall Street” capture the era’s free-market capitalism, while its underside is illustrated by images of impoverished inner cities and the hip-hop that emerged from there. Former dealers explain that crack, a cheaper and more potent variant of cocaine, offered destitute youth a get-rich-quick scheme. The drug suddenly became more available than ever in the United States in the ’80s, which the movie links to shady C.I.A. dealings during the Iran-contra affair.
In the film’s strongest moments, former peddlers, users, journalists and scholars unravel the narratives, often propelled by the media, that led to a disproportionate targeting of people of color during the war on drugs. A dealer recalls with horror how D.E.A. agents persuaded him to lure a teenager into buying crack in front of the White House just so President George H.W. Bush could have a cautionary tale to use in a televised speech.
But Nelson tries to cover too much ground too fast, leading to some tonal fuzziness: In a too-brief segment on Black women’s exploitation during the crack era, a dealer’s seemingly amused recollection of how women would trade sexual favors for a hit goes oddly uncontextualized. A narrower focus might have allowed the film to better tease out such knotty material.
Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. Watch on Netflix.