In a new documentary, director Fab 5 Freddy talks about restorative justice and sharing blunt words with Snoop Dogg.
Then Fab 5 Freddy was the host of Hey! MTV Raps, he once drove to the Bay Area to record an interview with Oakland’s Digital underground.
“We’re talking about the early ’90s,” says Freddy. “I wasn’t even in town yet, and I had a vibe. I thought, ‘Man, I really love this city. It just suits me a lot more as a New Yorker than Los Angeles.” I just developed a love for San Francisco.”
The artist, filmmaker and rap pioneer is now back in town for the premiere of his new documentary, Grass is greener. Drafted as an exploration of the shared history of music and cannabis, the film features contemporaries such as Snoop Dogg and Cypress Hills B-Real as well as topics focusing on the endemic nature of drug policy as a means of racism and prejudice.
Speak with SF Evergreen the day before the premiere of his documentary at the Castro Theater as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, explains Freddy that part of his goal was to make a film that would appeal to the widest possible audience.
“I think it’s pretty clear that this movie isn’t just, ‘Let’s all smoke weed and talk about how high we are,'” he says. “It’s about feeling good and understanding the cultural role music played in getting cannabis out there.”
Indeed, some of the stories Freddy highlights in Grass is greener are really fascinating. Did you know Louis Armstrong was a big stoner? Have you ever heard of Mezz Mezzrow, the clarinetist who provided most of the jazz community with their reefer?
For Freddy, the origins of his interest in the connection between cannabis and music go back to his childhood while listening to Phil Schaap, WCKR-FM’s legendary jazz radio host.
“He grew up in my house and was the jazz man,” says Freddy. “When it was one of the great jazz musicians’ birthdays, it would take him a whole weekend or sometimes even a whole week to celebrate them. He was a staple in my house.”
Getting sheep into his film wasn’t that easy.
“He was a bit hesitant,” confirms Freddy. “He told me he was not a cannabis smoker. That’s when I realized that the stigmas associated with cannabis use are deeply entrenched in our psyche and are still visible.”
Besides the fun of learning about figures like Branson Belchie — a Harlem pot dealer who sells rappers like the Notorious BIG and red man name checked — Grass is greener also offers a sobering look at the links between drug policy and outright racism in the United States. The main culprit is Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the United States Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Freddy admits that although he had heard of Anslinger before, he was unaware of the extent to which one man was the mastermind behind a system designed to oppress minorities and suppress the truth about cannabis.
“It was like a nightmare unfolding as I delved into history,” he says. “Anslinger hated the fact that this music brought people together. That is why he wanted to focus on jazz musicians. You will notice, in [the 1936 propaganda film] Reefer Madness, there are no people of color. He tries to scare white people by telling them they’re going criminally insane, but between the lines it’s really about that evil jazz music and those black people who make it.”
Streaming on Netflix now, Grass is greener also includes an eclectic soundtrack that pays tribute to a number of songs released before cannabis prohibition in 1937. Of course, it also showcases some hip-hop songs and artists who brought the subject back to the mainstream in the 1990s.
In one scene, rapper Snoop Dogg encourages Freddy to take a hit from a blunt. Arriving off-camera, he accepts the offer but finds himself struggling through a coughing fit.
“That was Leafs from Snoop’s Bubblegum,” he laughs. “I mean, that was a moment that we luckily kept in the movie.”
The scene contrasts with the film’s more serious moments, including a montage devoted to Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and other victims of police brutality. In the case of every person paying tribute to Freddy, police have posthumously attempted to suggest that minute levels of THC in the victims’ blood caused them to experience temporary psychosis.
“It was shocking to hear that there are still people out there feeding that crap,” Freddy says. “It’s a damn shame. I hope people will watch this movie and tell a friend about it. I hope those friends will tell a friend too. I hope they will tell an enemy to watch this movie. We need to open everyone’s eyes a little bit.”
Grass is greener is currently streaming on Netflix.