Sunday, March 26, 2017

White Boy Rick movie filming begins; Rick Wershe waits for Parole Board Decision

Rick Wershe still hasn’t heard from the Michigan Parole Board on whether they will consider a parole from his life sentence in a non-violent drug case. Meanwhile, the cameras are rolling on a film based on his story.

They didn’t have time to get to his case at their monthly meeting. That’s the story coming from the Michigan Parole Board, which was supposed to consider moving forward on the process of granting Richard J. Wershe, Jr. parole after 29 years in prison for a non-violent drug crime committed when he was a teenager.

They were supposed to consider the Wershe case at the March 10th meeting of the Michigan Parole Board. But gosh darn it all, they just ran out of time, they say. So, they’ll take it up next month at their monthly meeting on April 14th.

Telling it like it is, the Parole Board is under pending court pressure because Wershe has been treated differently than every other Michigan inmate charged with a non-violent drug crime as a juvenile. Every one of them has been given parole consideration—except Rick Wershe. That’s cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Richard J. Wershe, Jr. (Photo: Michigan Dept. of Corrections)

Wershe has several cases against the State of Michigan cooking in federal courts.

In addition, media interest in his case has been growing, aided in no small part by the fact Hollywood has discovered the Rick Wershe story and they are making a movie about it.

But appearances count in politics and public agencies and the Michigan Parole Board don't want to appear to be succumbing to pressure. So…Rick Wershe continues to wait to hear about a possible parole.


They love Rick Wershe in Cleveland. More specifically, the Greater Cleveland Film Commission and a growing community of film production professionals in Cleveland love Rick Wershe because the movie about him is being filmed there. Production is now underway. Why Cleveland? Why not Detroit, where the story occurred?

It's all about money. States vie for movie projects these days with tax incentives and financial rebates.The State of Ohio and the City of Cleveland are working to attract Hollywood feature productions through financial incentives for the filmmakers. 

The State of Michigan, in its wisdom, decided not to compete in the film production arena. 

In the summer of 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill to end Michigan’s incentive program for film productions. The program was bringing in about $225 million annually in Michigan spending by movie companies. Apparently, that was chump change to Lansing. The state opted instead to give billions of dollars in tax incentives to the Big Three automakers to please, please, please build new factories in Michigan and, oh please, oh pretty please, don’t take the money, create temporary jobs and later replace the human workers with robots.

And there’s no point talking about the millions upon millions in tax incentives heaped on billionaire pro sports team owners to build yet another new stadium or arena where they can suck up even more millions from the entertainment-starved locals. But I digress.

The bottom line, to use an overworked phrase, is Cleveland and Ohio offered a 30% incentive to shoot the film there. Detroit and Michigan offered 2%. You don't have to be a math whiz to figure out where the movie people decided to take their business. 

Ivan Schwarz, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, says Rick Wershe has, in a way, helped the economy of his city.

"Millions of dollars are going to be spent in our state, creating jobs and creating economic development for a city that really needs it,” Schwarz told me. “It’s sort of ironic that his War on Drugs story turns out to be an economic boon for the film industry in Ohio.”

Schwarz says Ohio, like several other states, is actively courting Hollywood to shoot movies in their cities and countryside and, he argues, giving the production companies tax and rebate packages pays dividends.

"(The White Boy Rick film has) a significant budget with significant talent that is shooting in this state and creating real jobs and putting real food on people’s tables," Schwarz says. "Really, that’s what it’s about. The trickle down is huge.”

Alas, political pooh-bahs of Michigan don’t see it that way, so the cameras are rolling in Cleveland.

Matthew McConaughey (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Matthew McConaughey has the starring role in the movie as Rick Wershe’s father, Richard Wershe, Sr.

Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie (Photos: Wikimedia Commons)

Veteran actor Bruce Dern will play the part of Rick Wershe’s grandfather and actress Piper Laurie has the role of his grandmother. Wershe’s father and grandparents are deceased.

Others in the cast include Rory Cochrane and Jennifer Jason Leigh as FBI agents.

Rory Cochrane and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Photos: Wikimedia Commons)

Cochrane was in Argo, Dazed and Confused and Black Mass. Jennifer Jason Leigh received an Oscar nomination for her role in The Hateful Eight. Early in her career she appeared in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Leigh is known to have been in contact recently with retired FBI agents who were assigned to Detroit during the time Rick Wershe was a paid teen informant. She’s made an effort to research the role, asking questions that will help her bring authenticity to the screen.

R.J. Cyler (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

R.J. Cyler, the Blue Power Ranger in the Power Rangers movie, recently signed to play the role of Rudell "Boo" Curry, the youngest brother of the family drug gang Rick Wershe infiltrated and informed on for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Rick Wershe was recruited by the FBI to become a secret informant because he was known and trusted by the Curry Brothers, a cocaine gang with political connection that had attracted the attention of federal investigators.

Wershe had a most unusual visitor recently. Matthew McConaughey, the actor, spent close to five hours visiting with Wershe at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, where he is serving his prison term.

McConaughey was accompanied by Scott Franklin, the movie’s producer and Yann Demange, the director.

Wershe says it was a get-acquainted visit. They talked and laughed and shared personal stories. They are about the same age but they are, as Wershe observes, from two different worlds. He was impressed with McConaughey’s interest in playing the role and he marveled that the Hollywood star was “super down to earth.”

“It made me feel great about him playing my father,” Wershe told me. “Funny thing is, me and my Dad always loved him as an actor. I only wish I could tell him that Matthew is playing him, but who knows? Maybe he’s looking down from up there.”

What about the other inmates? How did they feel about a movie star visiting Oaks prison?

“There was a buzz, but nothing big,” Wershe says. “They just thought it was cool that he took the time to come see me.”

Wershe appreciated the response of the prison staff, too. He says everyone behaved professionally and no one pestered McConaughey for autographs or posed pictures.

He doesn’t say so, but you can tell Rick Wershe is impressed and moved by all of this high-wattage attention. But the most important attention of all will come from the Parole Board, presumably next month.


Full disclosure: I was hired early in the movie production process by Studio 8, the outfit making the White Boy Rick film, to advise one of the script writers about factual matters regarding Detroit, the Detroit Police Department, city politics and the like. I did not get involved in any of the script writing. My brief role was what might be called an historical adviser.

Currently I am hard at work on a non-fiction book about the Rick Wershe saga and how it fit in to the War on Drugs in the 1980s. There were national and international forces and events that had an effect on what happened to Rick Wershe. I intend to tell that tale.


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