Warning: This post contains spoilers for the movie White Boy Rick.
At the start of White Boy Rick, out September 14, the words "based on a true story" thud onto the screen. White Boy Rick is a movie determined to remind its viewers that its events are derived from real life. That knowledge gives each of the movie's dismal progressions, each of its lives wasted behind bars, the heavy weight of reality.
White Boy Ricks tells the story of how the state of Michigan’s longest-serving nonviolent youth offender, Rick Wershe Jr., ended up spending decades of his life in prison. Wershe Jr. — or, as he’s better known, White Boy Rick — began his path towards incarceration at age 14 in 1984 Detroit at the height of the city’s crack epidemic. At the time, Wershe Jr., played by newcomer Richie Merritt, lived with his father (Matthew McConaughey), a grifter and an illegal firearms dealer, and his sister (Bel Powley), a user of crack cocaine, in a decrepit mansion on Detroit’s East Side. He spent time hanging out with members of the city’s reigning drug operation headed by twin brothers Leo and Johnny Curry.
In the FBI’s eyes, Wershe Jr.’s proximity to the Curry brothers made him potentially very useful. Only a teenager, Wershe Jr. was recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the drug trade and work as an informant. Wershe Jr. dealt crack cocaine in order to locate drug houses for the FBI, and eventually provided information that led to the downfall of the Currys' criminal organization. Wershe Jr.’s inside tips were also pivotal in rooting out corrupt police and those close to Detroit’s mayor, Coleman Young.
With Johnny Curry in prison, Wershe Jr. stepped into Curry's vacuum and climbed the ranks of the drug business himself. Wershe Jr. found success — by 17, he was bringing in $30,000 a month. Curry, however, attests Wershe never reached his stature. "Rick was nowhere near me, from a scale of one to 10," Curry told Click on Detroit. "I'm a 10. He is a two. They made him way bigger than he was." As such, Curry told Click on Detroit that Wershe's fate was undeserved. "Rick should have done seven to eight years and been home," Curry said — certainly not what happened to him.
In 1987, 17-year-old Wershe was caught with 16 pounds of cocaine. Despite the help he provided to the FBI — and despite the fact that the FBI got him dealing to begin with — Wershe was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Wershe was victim to an old law passed in Michigan in 1978, called the 650 Lifer Law, which declared anyone caught with 650 grams of cocaine or heroin would automatically receive the same punitive sentence of life in prison. 650 Lifer was reformed in 1998 to allow for more flexible sentencing.
“I sold drugs for 11 months without the government and the [Detroit police department’s] help, and you say I should die in prison?” Wershe told The Guardian in 2015, after spending decades in an 8 foot by 12 foot cell. “They’re sick. Something isn’t right.”
In 2017, Wershe was granted parole at last. Wershe was the last person of 220 sentenced under the 650 Lifer law to receive parole. White Boy Rick concludes with audio of Wershe's exuberant thoughts upon his parole announcement. For the first time in 29 years, Wershe was walking free — but not for long. Immediately after being released from Michigan's Oaks Correction Facility in August 2017, Wershe was transported to a state prison in Florida to serve another sentence.
This crime, however, had nothing to do with drugs. While in the Michigan prison, Wershe connected his sister, Dawn, to a used car salesman, and inadvertently got her and their mother involved in a stolen car ring. Wershe told NBC that authorities pressured him to take the fall. "They said, 'Listen, this is what we're going to do. If you don't take this plea, we are going to arrest your mom and your sister,'" Wershe claimed. "It was a forced plea." Wershe was not granted the 36 hours of prison furlough he had requested.
Though he was in prison throughout the movie's filming process, Wershe was a resource to all of the movie's actors. Matthew McConaughey, who plays Wershe's father in the movie, said he and Wershe sat down for a few hours. "Something different from the many people I've talked to in prisons, he was not sitting there saying, 'I'm innocent,'" McConaughey said on Jimmy Kimmel Live. "[He said,] 'No, I was no saint. I screwed up. They exaggerated how big of a kingpin I was, but I think 27 years is too long. I'm ready to get out.'"
Wershe is set to be released from his second sentence on Christmas Day in 2020. He will be 51 years old.