People may roll their eyes or drop their jaws at the state of Colorado in recent years, but in the not-so-distant future, we will likely look back as the state as a major groundbreaker.
Colorado voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2012, and on January 1, 2014 legal sales of pot began across the state. Denver Post editor Greg Moore recognized the historical, cultural and practical impact the new laws would have, so he wanted to make sure his paper (one of only two in history to win four consecutive Pulitzer Prize awards) covered the roll-out and fall-out with the dedication, passion and professionalism of serious journalism.
Documentary filmmakers Mitch Dickman and producer Britta Erickson must have also been aware of the importance of the moment because Erickson reached out to Ricardo Baca in December 2013 and pitched him the idea of making a documentary following the Post’s coverage of the historic first year.
Baca had been named the marijuana editor for the Denver Post and its pot-centric website, the Cannabist, and had been receiving national attention for his bizarrely titled new post. In fact, when he reached with the idea, Baca was headed to New York City to appear on “The Colbert Report.”
The documentary “Rolling Papers,” which made its world premiere at SXSW on Sunday night, details the Baca’s and the Post’s coverage of the headline-catching law. A career journalist who served as the Post’s music editor for years, Baca is gentle, polite, serious, and has a natural sense of the right questions to ask when covering an issue. His professionalism, easy humor and journalistic curiosity in shepherding the new website for the Post make him a strong centerpiece for the film that introduces several periphery characters throughout.
The film uses hip-hop and rock music in comical interstitial shots posing marijuana buds in intriguing and sensual lights like vixens in music videos, and there are some comical elements in following a couple of the Post’s dedicated freelance marijuana reviewers, but the documentary generally takes a journalistic approach to the issues. The filmmakers follow Baca and his small team of fellow Post employees (one a super straight-laced guy who two years ago might not have known a bong from a bomb), as they investigate the culture and criticism surrounding legalized weed and the nuances and vagaries of regulation.
Pot reviewer Jake Browne provides some comic relief with his obsessive approach to criticism (think of a wine nerd with super glazed-over eyes), while parenting columnist Brittany Driver’s open consumption of weed while living with a small child reminds audiences of the serious ramifications and responsibilities of living in a state with such liberal drug laws.
The main secondary character in the film is Ry Prichard, a marijuana reviewer and photographer who brings an obsessive love to his chronicling and categorizing of marijuana. Prichard is good for some laughs, while also showing the seriousness with which many approach this blossoming new part of the economy. But the filmmakers may have been wise to return to the Post’s reporting more regularly than it kept tabs on Prichard. Another section of the movie that follows Baca to Uruguay to talk to the president who legalized marijuana in that country could have been excised or edited, as its analogical purposes prove a bit wobbly.
More intriguing is the film’s ability to show the dichotomy between the flailing newspaper industry and the thriving marijuana industry in Colorado. Some may have scoffed at a respected American journalism institution dedicating an entire website and multiple staff to the coverage of marijuana, but, as “Rolling Papers” shows, the historic moment deserved serious journalism and not just smirks, and the Denver Post proved worthy of the moment.
“Rolling Papers” was acquired for worldwide distribution by Alchemy following its world premiere. The movie screens again Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Alamo South Lamar and Saturday at 2:15 p.m. at Stateside.