The Blotter Presents 151: The Business Of Drugs and Summer Of Sam

Plus Welcome To Chechnya, The Last Narc resurfaces, and another Unsolved Mysteries update

It’s always nice to talk to an actual filmmaker about why a true-crime property is or isn’t worth y’all’s time. Director, editor, and baseball-Twitter-improver Randy Wilkins joins me this week to discuss Netflix's The Business Of Drugs, a six-part series hosted by Amaryllis Fox that looks at the macro and micro-economics of black-market substances. Randy and I both liked it, but were a little frustrated by certain aspects of it, like a lack of point of view in some places and a scolding tone in others, and it might have tried to do too much in each individual ep. And it turns out coverage of cocaine cartels and coverage of MLB might have something in common?

Later, we dig into Spike Lee's Summer Of Sam; critics mostly thought it was a mess, but we think that might miss the point. How does Lee uses local detail to get at universal truths? Would Lee would come back to the chaotic summer of 1977 and David Berkowitz in a documentary format? Plus a crackpot Reggie theory that actually seems to have existed. Listen now! — SDB



Hey, remember The Last Narc? It’s baaa-aaaaack! If it weren’t for Google saved searches, it’d have snuck by me coming back in the same way it did when it disappeared in the first place, but Futon Critic lets us all know the four-parter IS coming to Amazon Prime, for realsies this time (…we’ll see), next Friday July 31. Here’s the official trailer:

And the guest I’d meant to have discuss it with me, Jessica Liese, has generously agreed to a take two, so look out for that in Ep 153 (again: probably).

Need a refresher on Kiki Camarena? Us too; we can all queue up Narcos: Mexico here. — SDB

The crime

HBO’s new documentary Welcome to Chechnya has to be prefaced with boldfaced content warnings: there is footage of torture, rape, and murder, there is testimony from survivors of abuse, there is evidence of the injuries sustained, and there is a suicide attempt on camera. What is going on in the Russian Federation Republic, it tells us in the first few minutes, is nothing less than the systematic annihilation of gay people. You don’t need to know anything about the Chechnyan Purge that began in 2017 to watch it, but you do need to be aware of what you’re getting into.

The story

Director David France has now made three feature documentaries covering a very specific beat, of LGBT activists taking on a hostile government over no less than people’s lives. First was 2012’s How to Survive a Plague, a history of ACT UP in New York City during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Then he moved to more of a case-file approach with The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson in 2017, on the ongoing investigation of the Stonewall pioneer’s death in 1992. While The Death and Life felt not entirely complete as a profile of Johnson and little more than routine as a cold case narrative, in Welcome to Chechnya France now has a crime with a clear perpetrator.

Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov dresses like a toddler and talks with a toddler’s grasp of logic. He, his stupid beard, and his security forces have been stalking LGBT citizens and throwing them in secret jails, where they are tortured to provide the names of other queer people. As the coolly pragmatic Moscow-based activists point out in their talking heads, all of this happens at Putin’s discretion.

What makes Welcome to Chechnya so gripping is the focus on these activists. Working with an international network of gay NGOs and support groups, they do Jason Bourne-style rescues of queer people at risk and get them out of the country. Sometimes they have to relocate entire families after they’ve been targeted by Chechnyan authorities. As well as managing individual escapes, they are looking for a victim willing to testify to the Russian government in an attempt to expose the abuse. But going public is incredibly risky, with even a famous pop star disappearing during a wedding trip to the capital city.

Throughout the film, many subjects' faces have been digitally altered to preserve their privacy, giving their faces a slight glow or uncanny-valley-style stiffness. Their hands and body language more than tell the story, however, right up until a climax dealing with the surveillance state head-on.

By the end there are still unresolved cases, and depressing statistics about refugee visas, but what drives this brave, chilling documentary is the activists allowed to take center stage, continuing to fight because there’s no other choice. — Margaret Howie

Want something reviewed — an old miniseries, a new book, a podcast you gave up on that everyone else seems to love? That’s what we’re here for! Call or text the Best Evidence tip line at 919-75-CRIME. No suggestion too trashy, as you no doubt inferred from The Ploop! Incident in a recent episode of the podcast…and you can also pitch us at that number.

Of course, for us to pay even the pittance we do for our esteemed colleagues to write reviews, your paid subscriptions really help. Belts have tightened everywhere, and we completely understand — but Best Evidence makes a great gift: no viral contacts and won’t strain the grid. — SDB

Give a gift subscription

There’s movement on yet another case featured in the new Unsolved Mysteries. Topeka’s reports that investigators exhumed the grave of Alonzo Brooks yesterday; Brooks, the subject of Episode 5 of the rebooted UM, went missing from a party in 2004, and his body was found in a nearby creek a month later. (TMZ has a quick recap of the case file as well.) Local law enforcement hasn’t commented on what tips might have prompted the exhumation or whence those tips came, but UM creator Terry Dunn Meurer was “thrilled” to hear that the FBI reopened Brooks’s case last year, then followed up with a $100,000 reward just last month…and heartened that the decision to exhume Brooks means there’s meaningful evidence in play.

Anecdata is…what it is, but it does seem to me like the 2020 Unsolved Mysteries is generating more, and more relevant, tips than Famous Original UM. That’s no doubt some recency bias, plus how much did we hear about UM “solves” outside of UM’s own Update segments back in the day when there wasn’t the internet, etc. Still, it’s encouraging in its way…and it’s making me impatient to see the rest of the season, whenever that hits Netflix. — SDB

Thursday on Best Evidence: Yet more Epstein content, cops creeping on the Citizen app, and more.

What is this thing? This should help. Follow The Blotter @blotterpresents on Twitter and Instagram, and subscribe to The Blotter Presents via the podcast app of your choice. You can also call or text us any time at 919-75-CRIME.