Journeying through a shattered landscape with White Boy Rick

White_Boy_RickTo see…life as a pilgrim and a stranger 

journeying through a landscape shattered, 

yet in which there remain these scattered evidences of a lost glory 

and these wild rumors of a fairytale redemption 

that has somehow already begun and is also yet to come.


I thought of these words that Douglas McKelvey shared over at Rabbit Room last year as I watched White Boy Rick, last year’s biopic about Richard Wershe Jr., the youngest FBI informant in history. 

The film is set in Detroit in the 1980s, when the city developed a national reputation as a hotbed for violence and drugs, and it takes us into a landscape that is indeed shattered. It’s a world where young women must choose between a motherless home and selling their bodies for attention and income. Where a teenager must decide between becoming a drug-dealing FBI informant or watching the feds haul his father to prison. Where a father uses his son to extort gun dealers. Where the FBI abuse their authority to pressure a 15-year-old to help them set up sting operations.

White Boy Rick presents this as it is. It does not sugarcoat evil and it does not glory in it. The air is thick with death, betrayal, and injustice, a cinematic expression of the lament of the prophets: “there is no one upright among mankind; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts the other with a net…The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge.”

The characters of White Boy Rick rarely extend each other the dignity and love they are worthy of as image bearers. But the story itself dignifies them by its very telling, grappling with them in their full humanity. Yes, they betray and blackmail, but they also weep. They laugh together. They celebrate. They hope and dream.

(SPOILERS) Amid it all, acts of redemption pierce the veil of darkness, offering fleeting yet crystal-clear glimpses of the coming kingdom. In the most profound instance of this, Rick’s father goes into a brothel in search his runaway daughter. He finds her drugged and picks her up. As he walks out with her, she kicks and screams and curses his name and begs him to let her down and put her back. But he takes her home and locks her in her bedroom while she detoxes. He refuses to open the door even though she pounds and pounds. He brings her food and drink even though she dashes it against the wall. He even brings a TV into the room to help her pass the time.

I challenge anyone to watch that scene without weeping. You can see Jesus in her father’s face—grimacing in agony, crying with sorrow, bearing her shame. It’s as beautiful a microcosm of the gospel as I’ve ever seen. 

Rick’s sister gets clean. She rekindles a relationship with her father and her grandparents across the street. The first tender shoots of something like community, something like peace, begin to sprout in Detroit’s hard soil. The story finally seems like it’s on its way to a happy ending.

But it’s not. The peace and stability is built on drug money. The whole thing is a house of cards.

What! What kind of redemption is that? 

It’s far from complete, of course, and it’s not enough to prevent the story from coming to a tragic end. But this is how the kingdom shows up in the world: fleeting and elusive, yet unmistakably real all the same, flaring up in unlikely moments of raw grace. Here we find the tension that every good storyteller must grapple with: the coexistence of injustice and grace, realism and hope, indifference and love. 

I can’t help but contrast this with a popular Christian novel that swept the evangelical world in the 1980s. This story created a world where, in the words of a recent retrospective review in First Things, “behind every misdeed is a caricatural demonic puppeteer,” and “cheering on every act of righteousness is a seven-foot-tall, Thor-chested angel with blue eyes and golden hair.” 

Created to accommodate so-called Christian sensibilities, this world’s characters are marked by “absurdities like a hardboiled, not-yet-Christian reporter who doesn’t cuss, and incarcerated hookers who talk like Victorian schoolmarms.” It’s story as a spiritual manual, intended to make the reader “think right, feel right, and act right,” but it fails to bring us into contact with the true complexities and brokenness of the world that is.

No thanks. Tell me the story of White Boy Rick. Take me into the shattered, fallen landscape of the world, where even through the suffocating atmosphere of despair the wind still whispers wild rumors of a fairytale redemption.

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