Author Topic: White Boy Rick: A Detroit Story  (Read 941 times)

Offline Hypestyle

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White Boy Rick: A Detroit Story
« on: June 05, 2018, 05:42:40 pm »
A new movie about currently incarcerated former drug hustler, Rick Wershe, aka White Boy Rick, who was doing it big for several years in Detroit in the 1980s before going down in a sting that landed him in prison for 30+ years.  And he was a teenager at the time.

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Matthew McConaghuey plays his dad.

some backstory articles:

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Offline jefferson L.O.B. sergeant

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Re: White Boy Rick: A Detroit Story
« Reply #1 on: June 06, 2018, 09:10:09 pm »
I'm signing the next blonde haired, blue eyed, White boy I see to a record contract on my newly established BADLANDS RECORDS!!!

This Summer get ready for White Boy Rick: SNOWMAN SUPREME the album 8)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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Re: White Boy Rick: A Detroit Story
« Reply #2 on: June 09, 2018, 12:26:33 pm »
The obvious aside, it does look good.

Offline Hypestyle

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Re: White Boy Rick: A Detroit Story
« Reply #3 on: June 11, 2018, 03:46:02 pm »

The writer is a former investigative reporter for WXYZ and Fox 2 who lives in California. His book, "Prisoner of War: The Story of White Boy Rick and the War on Drugs," chronicles the story of Richard Wershe Jr., aka "White Boy Rick," and how he got caught up in the war on drugs at age 14, only to be sentenced to life in prison for cocaine trafficking a few years later. Wershe was paroled in Michigan last year after serving about 30 years in prison. He is now serving a sentence in Florida for his involvement in a car theft ring while he was behind bars there. His release date is 2021. The book is scheduled for release on June 25 as an e-book and in paperback.

The following is a condensed version of Chapter 1. This is the first of two installments.

By Vince Wade

At the worldly age of 14, Richard John Wershe, Jr., a street-savvy kid who didn’t sell or use dope, was recruited by FBI agents to become America’s youngest soldier in the War on Drugs. His secret paid mission was to go behind enemy lines to gather intelligence. He wasn’t an ordinary teen and he wasn’t an ordinary snitch. Wershe was “arguably the most productive drug informant of the Detroit FBI during that era,” according to John Anthony who was the legal adviser-agent of that office at the time.

By the time he was 17, Wershe, who is white, had been consorting with Detroit's biggest drug dealers and baddest hitmen, jetting to Las Vegas and Miami, sleeping with the mayor's hot, married, 20-something niece and telling the FBI about top-level police corruption. His reward, in a strange episode of law enforcement intrigue, was to be abandoned by the federal government. He became Rick Who? Wershe, who was eventually labeled by the media as White Boy Rick, was now a broke school dropout from a dysfunctional family. He turned to the only trade he knew—the one the narcs had taught him. He tried to become a wholesale-level drug dealer, got caught, and was sentenced by local authorities to life in prison without parole. Wershe became a Prisoner of War—the War on Drugs.

❖Knew "Sammy The Bull"

During his life in prison Wershe came to know Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, an admitted Mafia killer who helped the government put Mob boss John Gotti in prison for life. He met a world-class drug smuggler named Steve Kalish who lavishly bribed Panama leader Manuel Noriega. On numerous occasions, Wershe discussed the finances of illegal drugs with Carlos Lehder, one of the founders of the notorious Medellín cocaine cartel.

Wershe (pronounced Wur-shee) joined the national battle against the never-ending flow of illegal drugs in June, 1984. That same month, 13 years earlier, President Richard M. Nixon declared the United States of America had to go to battle against the nation’s drug habit.

"America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse,” President Nixon told reporters after sending a message to Congress on the issue. "In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive."

Over a decade later, when the federal government pressed a young Detroit kid in to service in the War on Drugs, the country was losing the struggle. In truth, it never started winning. The story of Richard J. Wershe, Jr is a down-in-the-trenches view of why the War on Drugs is a trillion-dollar failure and will never be won.

Richard Wershe as a teen and in his 40s.
❖Youngest In FBI History

Whatever Wershe’s dreams and fantasies may have been as a lower middle-class white boy growing up on Detroit’s east side, becoming an FBI snitch, a rat, a fink, a canary, a stool pigeon and eventually spending his life in prison was certainly not his life’s ambition.

Wershe, known to his family and friends and on the streets as Ricky or Rick, became a paid Confidential Informant for the FBI, apparently the youngest in the agency’s history, without any real say in the matter or time to think it over.

It wasn’t a recruitment, really. It was more like being drafted. The FBI, for its part, was willing to pay and pay regularly for what the kid could find out. For the boy’s fast-buck, business-hustler father, the FBI’s informant cash was the motivation to agree to this dangerous scheme. The stress of sustained undercover deception on an adolescent mind and the very real physical danger inherent in informing on men who regard murder as a cost of doing business don’t seem to have troubled Wershe’s father or the FBI agents.

On the other hand, working as an FBI informant didn’t seem to have any negative effect on some famous Americans from Wershe’s childhood. Growing up, Rick Wershe, Jr. watched Walt Disney movies not knowing that Uncle Walt had been an FBI stool pigeon for over a quarter of a century, keeping the Bureau informed about suspected Communist agitators and Leftist subversives in Hollywood. Most of Walt Disney’s informing involved labor unions. He didn’t like them.

At the time Rick Wershe was lured in to working as an FBI informant, the man occupying the White House had been a long-time snitch for the Bureau. President Ronald W. Reagan was known as FBI Informant T-10 during the Communist-hunting Red Scare that profoundly impacted the Hollywood film community in the early days of the Cold War.

But Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan were adults when they became police informers. Rick Wershe was a juvenile and a young one at that. To understand how he got in this situation, it is important to examine his childhood and the changing city where he grew up.

❖Teen Burglar

Rick Wershe, Jr. was a rambunctious, mischievous kid prone to stunts like shooting at rats in alleys and setting off illegal firecrackers. In his early teens he participated in a few home break-ins as a way to raise easy cash. He was tutored in the art of burglary by a small-time black criminal who was dating his older sister, Dawn. Drugs were plentiful but Rick Wershe was not a drug user.

Author Vince Wade
Dawn had tumbled down the rabbit hole of drug addiction. She has fought her drug habit all of her life. Rick’s Aunt Carolyn, his father’s sister, was also a drug addict who turned to prostitution to support her habit. Young Rick saw what drugs were doing to his family and he chose not to use them.  He was, however, impressed by the lavish, free-spending lifestyle of the city’s rapidly growing cadre of drug-dealing entrepreneurs. Over the course of three years, federal agents and local police narcs from a drug task force taught the young boy the ways of the drug underworld. They had a willing student. What thrill-seeking, hormone-fueled teenage boy wouldn’t relish the chance to go undercover for-real in a sleazy and dangerous world awash in fast cars, fast women, “bling” and so much cash that machines were needed to count it?

By the time guys his age were prepping for their SAT exams, Rick Wershe had been shot once and targeted for a hit murder another time. When other boys his age were learning to drive, Rick Wershe had been jet-setting to Las Vegas prize fights, flying to Miami to meet cocaine importers, hobnobbing at nightclubs favored by black gangsters and buying himself jet skis, hot cars and flashy jewelry. He also began to give the FBI insights regarding drug-related police bribery.

Yet, by the time he reached his 17th birthday, the feds had abandoned their star snitch. He wasn’t just another criminal working off a beef by turning informant against his friends. Rick Wershe had been recruited by government agents.

Suddenly, he was too hot. Too many people knew or had guessed what he was doing. As we shall see, his informant work caused crisis meetings at the very top levels of the Justice Department. He was in danger of being exposed as an under-age FBI informant in the War on Drugs. What’s more, FBI investigative files had been falsified to make it appear the information was coming from his father. Falsifying federal files is a felony.

Over time, city officials in positions of power became deeply afraid of what the kid might know about public corruption and what he might expose about them. The feds, having committed file falsification crimes in order to use him as an informant, feared what he might expose about them.

Richard Wershe Jr. (WDIV photo)
Young Wershe was suddenly adrift. He had worked night after night in his paid role as a Confidential Informant. Now it was over. The cash had dried up. The only trade he knew was the dark art of slinging dope. With all the immaturity and bad judgment he could muster, Rick Wershe set out to become a “weight” man, a wholesaler of cocaine. His adventure as a drug dealer lasted less than a year. He was busted and sentenced to prison for life.

Before all of this, there was a discipline-free and largely love-free childhood that was starved for the right-from-wrong rules that accompany true parental concern for a child.

❖Dad, The Hustler

Richard John Wershe, Senior was called Rick. Richard John Wershe, Junior was known to his friends and neighbors as Ricky. Rick and Ricky. The fact they shared the same name differentiated only by Senior and Junior was significant for the FBI.

The elder Wershe, now deceased, once described himself as a business hustler. “He was always looking for a better mousetrap,” longtime friend Fred Elias recalls. Elias says the elder Wershe always seemed to be starting a new business venture, anything that might turn a quick buck. Elias remembers Richard Wershe, Sr. as whip-smart about guns and electronics. Attorney Ralph Musilli knew Richard Wershe, Sr. for close to 20 years. Musilli says Wershe never looked beyond making money that week. Musilli says prospective business partners found Wershe aggravating, self-serving and uninterested in the basics of building a thriving, long-term enterprise. Physically trim, Wershe was a fast talker with a faint lisp.

Those who knew Richard J. Wershe, Sr. as a neighbor and family member paint a harsh, unflattering picture. They say he was a jerk. They recall he was an arrogant, insufferable and controlling know-it-all with a violent temper; a chronically abusive husband and negligent father who was obsessed with the next business hustle. He never held a real job for long. Richard Wershe, Sr. was convinced he was destined to become a successful self-made millionaire based on some scheme-of-the-week. He had two children; Ricky and Dawn. By all accounts both children had difficult childhoods made more so by their largely absentee father.

When Richard Wershe Sr. was around, which was seldom, he wasn’t a responsible parent, according to someone well-acquainted with the father and the son.

Wayne LeCouffe is Rick Wershe, Jr.’s cousin by marriage. He’s two years younger than Rick and in some ways as street-savvy as his cousin. But he took a different path in life, a path that led to business success and a family. He has clear memories of his Wershe cousins in their youth.

"Rick’s father was never home for Dawn or Rick," LeCouffe states flatly. "He was never there. Rick and Dawn grew up without parents."

LeCouffe tells the story of the time Wershe decided to take some kids—Ricky, Wayne and Wayne’s two young brothers—up on a garage roof to shoot at rats in the alley. The elder Wershe gave one of Wayne’s brothers a loaded .45 caliber pistol and told him to climb the ladder. As the boy climbed the ladder, he lost his footing. The gun went off. The shot hit the ground inches from one of his brothers. Instead of taking responsibility for his own negligence in giving a loaded pistol to a youngster on a ladder, Wershe smacked the kid who had accidentally fired the shot.

Even as a child, LeCouffe had Richard Wershe, Sr’s number. "He was always up to something, trying to make a fast buck," LeCouffe remembers. "When cable TV first came out, you had the illegal cable TV boxes. He was in on that immediately. When cell phones were the size of a cinder block, he was in on that, getting chips for the phones. He was getting the chips so you could use the phone until whoever found out and shut it off. There was nothin’ there that was legitimate. Nothin’."

In business Richard Wershe, Sr. tried anything and everything, typically walking along the edge that separates legal from illegal. He prowled estate sales of the recently departed looking for clothing he could sell at second-hand outlets. He owned a military surplus store for a time. He was a bit of a health nut so he tried his hand at selling vitamin supplements. He was well-versed in firearms, having worked in a gun shop.

The elder Wershe eventually got busted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) for possessing unreported parts for suppressors or silencers. A box of silencer parts was found in a raid on his mother’s home. An appeals court ruled the government had proved the senior Wershe had “constructive possession” of the silencer parts.

At Richard Wershe Sr.’s 1988 federal weapons trial, his elderly mother, Vera, made a sad effort to take responsibility for the silencers. At age 77 and in poor health, she had to use a walker to make her way to the witness stand. She tried to claim the silencers were in a box to be thrown out, but she saw them and hauled the box back to her basement thinking they must be valuable. She admitted she didn’t know what they were. The jury didn’t buy her story.

Richard Wershe, Sr., his mother and his trial attorney are deceased so we will never know if Wershe talked her in to testifying at his trial. But it’s highly unlikely that an elderly, ailing, always-follow-the-rules Polish woman would dream up such a preposterous story on her own and repeat it in front of a jury. What’s more likely is, it’s an indication of how Richard J. Wershe, Sr. was willing to put his own mother in a precarious legal situation to save his neck.

Wershe was convicted and sentenced to seven and a half years in federal prison.

❖Brain Cancer

As LeCouffe noted, the senior Wershe had a knack for consumer electronics. He was the first in his neighborhood to have a backyard satellite dish for TV reception. Soon, he was selling them to homeowners. Wershe had enough skill with electronics that he installed several home theaters for wealthy customers. No matter what the endeavor, he wasn’t interested in working for someone else in a 9-to-5 office job or in doing shift work in a factory. He relished the idea of becoming a successful entrepreneur. He never made it. Richard Wershe, Sr. died of brain cancer in 2014.

❖Kids Didn't Matter

Like many white ethnic families in Detroit, two generations of Wershes lived just a few doors apart. When Richard Wershe, Sr. got married, he and his wife bought a house in the same block as his parents.

Beverly “Bev” Srbich was a neighbor. She was known as “Aunt Bev” to Ricky and his sister, Dawn. Over a period of years Bev Srbich watched the disintegration of the Wershe families—and the neighborhood.

"Richard thought the world revolved around Richard and what Richard wanted," Srbich remembers. "His kids didn’t matter. Nothing mattered." Her voice begins to quiver. "You have no idea of the hate I have in my heart for this man."

❖FBI Agents Come Knocking

Rick Wershe remembers standing in his family home one day in June of 1984, watching and listening as his father sat at the dining room table talking with two black men who had come to the house unannounced. They were showing Richard Wershe, Sr. some snapshots of other black men. The elder Wershe said he didn’t recognize anyone in the photos, but he suggested his son might. He asked Richard Wershe, Jr. to join the conversation.

The younger Wershe approached the men and looked at the photos spread across the table. “That’s Big Man, that’s Little Man, that’s Boo,” he said, pointing to the photos one by one.

The visitors, FBI agents Jim Dixon and Al Finch, knew they had hit pay dirt. The fourteen-year old was correctly identifying, by street name, the Curry Brothers drug gang. In the criminal underworld, street names are often the only names used. It makes it harder for the police to figure out the true identities of crime suspects.

"For a fourteen-year old kid, he had so much information," recalled Jim Dixon, one of the FBI agents who was there for the recruitment of Richard Wershe, Jr. as an FBI CI—Confidential Informant. This was no random house call by a pair of FBI agents. They started the conversation with the father, but the agents knew it was the younger Wershe who had the knowledge—and access to the Currys—that they wanted. It was expedient to involve the father. In a way, Richard Wershe, Senior had opened the door by contacting the FBI looking for help with Dawn, his drug-addicted daughter—Rick’s sister. She had taken up with a known burglar and the elder Wershe wanted the FBI’s help in finding her. The FBI wanted something in return, a quid pro quo.

Even though he was an adolescent, Rick Wershe knew he was the real target for recruitment. The agents told his father they wanted to recruit him—Wershe Senior—as a paid Confidential Informant, but the teen knew from the outset he would be the real source of information. Asked when the agents recruited his father and when they recruited him, Rick Wershe says, “It was the same day, in that same meeting.”

The FBI agents were not enlisting the help of some sweet, innocent Leave It To Beaver sitcom adolescent. Young Wershe had had numerous minor run-ins with the police. Dave Majkowski, Rick's lifelong friend, said they were always getting stopped by the police for juvenile misbehavior of one kind or another.

Three months earlier, the younger Wershe had been arrested and charged in Juvenile Court with Assault with Intent to Commit Murder.

One night in March, 1984, Rick Wershe and his sister were driving together but in separate cars when Rick stopped at a gas station to get a soft drink. He was driving his grandmother’s car. He left it running while he went inside to get his drink. A thief saw an opportunity and jumped in the idling car and drove off. Dawn Wershe leaned on the horn. As Rick stepped outside he could see his grandmother’s car was gone. He dashed to Dawn’s car, jumped in and told her to chase the stolen car, now on a nearby freeway.

As they gave chase Rick asked Dawn if she had a gun. She did. Rick found a .22 and began firing at his grandmother’s car. It was Rick Wershe’s buzzard luck that an off-duty Detroit police officer was in the traffic mix as he was shooting at the fleeing car. Rick Wershe was arrested. His grandmother’s car was later found on the side of a freeway with a gun inside.

Rick eventually beat the charge with the help of a Detroit Police narcotics cop working with the FBI on the drug task force. It took some months for the attempted murder charge to make its way through the juvenile court system. By the time the case came up, young Wershe was making lots of undercover drug buys for the Detroit narcs. When the case was called on the Juvenile Court docket, the officer who had written the complaint wasn’t at court. Case dismissed.

Years later, a parole board attorney asked Wershe why his sister had a gun he could fire at the stolen car. Rick Wershe said guns were part of their world. "We played with guns, we had guns," Wershe said. "I mean, I really didn't have any parental supervision at that time. I was basically raising myself and I went down some wrong paths."

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Offline Hypestyle

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Re: White Boy Rick movie premieres this week
« Reply #4 on: September 10, 2018, 04:07:17 am »
I wonder if the filmmakers will try to slip in a line about "there will never be a white rapper from Detroit..." ;)

Matthew McConaughey stars in "White Boy Rick," based on a true story. Warning: The trailer includes profanity and depicts a young teenager involved with drugs and guns.

White Boy Rick preview exclusive

In "White Boy Rick," a new movie set in the 1980s drug world of Detroit, a teenage Richard Wershe Jr. (played by newcomer Richie Merritt) sums up his plight to the feds.

"First, you all got me buyin'," says Wershe, a kid barely old enough to shave. "Now you all got me sellin'."

On Friday, national audiences will decide whether they're buying what filmmakers are selling in this gritty, R-rated drama that tracks the early life of the title character from Detroit, who's recruited at 14 to be an FBI informant and sentenced at 18 to life in prison for a drug crime.

Complicated and controversial, the real-life story that inspired "White Boy Rick" could fill several seasons of a Netflix series. It's a muddled saga that seems impossible to condense into a running time of two hours. Yet in early 2015, there were three Wershe-themed movie projects vying simultaneously to reach the big screen.

How much do you really know about Wisconsin cheese?

Now, after months of buzz, "White Boy Rick" hits theaters Friday. But for its director Yann Demange, the real test is the red-carpet screening Thursday at the Emagine Novi theater.

"It's like when I did ' '71' and the screening that was most important to me, that petrified me the most, was the Belfast screening," says the emerging director — who's considered among the front-runners for the next James Bond film — referring to his breakthrough 2014 drama about a British soldier lost after a riot in the Northern Ireland city.

"The Detroit reaction is what I feel most nervous about. I hope they feel I've captured the authenticity. ... I'm waiting with bated breath. We'll see."

"White Boy Rick" stars acting newcomer Merritt as Wershe, the teenage boy whose legend was created by local TV and print journalists looking for grabby crime stories that could be covered with maximum flash.

Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey portrays his father, Richard Wershe Sr., who died in 2014 in real life. Here, he's a loving but ineffectual figure who pours his ambitions into his son and compares their struggle for survival in the Motor City to being lions on the Serengeti.

Rounding out the cast are Bel Powley as Rick's troubled sister, Bruce Dern and Detroit native Piper Laurie as his grandparents, RJ Cyler as his friend Rudell (Boo) Curry, Jonathan Majors as gang mentor Johnny (Lil Man) Curry,and rapper YG as Leo (Big Man) Curry.

(Left to Right) Matthew McConaughey and Richie Merritt in "White Boy Rick" (Sept. 14).
(Left to Right) Matthew McConaughey and Richie Merritt in "White Boy Rick" (Sept. 14). (Photo: © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

They're all based on real people. Other characters were drawn as composites, including the FBI agent played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and the Detroit police detective played by Tyree Henry of FX's "Atlanta."

Some of the key players in "White Boy Rick" weren't even aware of the real-life Wershe's story before joining the film. "I had never heard of it before," admits McConaughey, describing his initial thoughts. "This is a wild-ass ride! This kid did what? And became an informant for what?"

Metro Detroit, however, has been following the saga for 30 years, or roughly the same amount of time that the real Wershe spent behind bars for possession with intent to deliver more than 650 grams of cocaine.

After being denied early release several times, Wershe, who's 49, was finally paroled in 2017 by the State of Michigan. He is now serving time in Florida on a separate charge involving a stolen car scheme. He could be free in a few years.

Wershe's story is complex, convoluted, and controversial. In the big picture, it's entwined with issues like poverty, race, the war on drugs and the purpose of punishment. Over the past decade, the perception has grown that he was used by the government and abandoned by authorities when the drug dealing they introduced him to led to his downfall — the viewpoint of the 2017 documentary "White Boy."

No wonder Hollywood saw potential for a narrative that could be Netflix's "Narcos," HBO's "The Wire" and the Starz drama "Power" rolled into one.

In late 2014 and early 2015, the story of "White Boy Rick" got national attention when three different film projects about him collided.

More: Meet the cast of Detroit-set drama 'White Boy Rick'

Richard Wershe Jr., left, stands with his attorney,
Richard Wershe Jr., left, stands with his attorney, William Bufalino II, in Recorder’s Court in Detroit in January 1988. (Photo: William Dekay)

Poster boy for the drug epidemic
In the era surrounding his 1987 conviction, Wershe, aka White Boy Rick — a nickname popularized by sensational media coverage — was depicted by the media mostly as a baby-faced gangster who wore fur coats, dated Mayor Coleman Young's niece and had ample swagger.

"He became the poster boy for the 1980s drug epidemic in Detroit which tore our city down. ... The character of White Boy Rick that the public consumed far, far exceeded what he did as a criminal," says writer Scott Burnstein, producer of the "White Boy" documentary and a consultant for "White Boy Rick."

According to Burnstein, that has undermined Wershe's chances for freedom for the last three decades.

Burnstein played a major role in bringing Wershe back into the metro Detroit spotlight starting in 2008. His reporting for the Oakland Press helped flip the script on Wershe's image by bringing out the details of his role as a teen FBI informant before his conviction, plus his cooperation in prison on other criminal investigations.

Journalists like WDIV-TV (Channel 4) investigative reporter Kevin Dietz and former Detroit TV reporter Vince Wade also amplified the fact that Wershe's situation was a lot more complex than it seemed.

As coverage of Wershe grew — and Wershe's own voice emerged in TV and radio interviews — interest began to accumulate in a potential movie.

Burnstein says Eminem considered playing Wershe in the mid-2000s in what would have been a follow-up to his 2002 hit "8 Mile." And around 2009, Burnstein received a few cursory phone calls from Mark Wahlberg's team exploring the idea.

Ishmael Ali (left), known as Milwaukee rapper IshDARR, appears in the new film "White Boy Rick" out Sept. 14, featuring Raekwon Haynes (center) and Richie Merritt in the title role.
Ishmael Ali (left), known as Milwaukee rapper IshDARR, appears in the new film "White Boy Rick" out Sept. 14, featuring Raekwon Haynes (center) and Richie Merritt in the title role. (Photo: Scott Garfield)

In October 2014, the race to make a White Boy Rick movie started in earnest with the news that Universal had optioned a lengthy Wershe profile written by journalist Evan Hughes for an online publisher, the Atavist. Director Joseph Kosinski, who's directing the "Top Gun" sequel, was attached to the project.

In February 2015, it was revealed Studio 8 had acquired a script from brothers Logan Miller and Noah Miller. Then in April 2015, yet another White Boy Rick project was in the news. This one came from Protozoa Pictures, the company of director Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan") and producer Scott Franklin ("Jackie," "Black Swan"), and had a script by Andy Weiss.

Producer John Lesher ("Birdman"), who had read the initial Miller brothers script and sent it to Jeff Robinov of Studio 8, recalls how his project already had Demange attached as the director when he found out about the competing one being developed by Protozoa Pictures.

"In fact, they had ... called Yann and said, 'Why don't you direct it?' And he said, 'I already am (doing a White Boy Rick movie),' " says Lesher with a laugh.

While Lesher's project had secured Demange, Protozoa's project had Wershe's cooperation. "I was incredibly impressed with him as a person," says Franklin, who met Wershe in prison. "His positivity and positive energy (were) just mind-blowing."

Rory Cochrane, left, and Jennifer Jason Leigh are FBI
Rory Cochrane, left, and Jennifer Jason Leigh are FBI agents dealing with a 14-year-old confidential informant (Richie Merritt) and his blue-collar factory-worker father (Matthew McConaughey). (Photo: SCOTT GARFIELD/COLUMBIA PICTURES/STUDIO 8)

As the Universal Pictures project faded from contention, the other two projects saw one logical choice. "It made sense for all of us to join forces and work together," says Franklin.

 "We've all known each other for a long time, so it was very natural for us to start working together. It was an arranged marriage, but it ended up being a great one," echoes Lesher.

Merging the two scripts was a lengthy process that involved bringing in two additional writers: Scott Silver ("8 Mile," "The Fighter") and Steve Kloves (the "Harry Potter" series). It was Demange, however, who had the vision for the movie's ultimate theme.

 "I didn't want to get roped into making a sort of miscarriage of justice, free-this-guy type film," says Demange, who felt as if he had seen enough informant movies.

Demange saw "White Boy Rick" as, above all, a father-and-son saga set amid the kind of poverty that crushes dreams. He wanted to explore that bond, while also finding the relevance to today in issues like economic inequality, racism and the continuing impact of drugs and addiction.

He says visiting Wershe in prison in Manistee helped cement the concept and shape the movie's tone.

When Wershe spoke about his family, "then I was leaning in," he recalls. "Then I felt like, 'Oh, I'm falling in love with this' and I'm feeling like I have the story to make the film work."

Richard Wershe Jr. enters the courtroom of Wayne CountyBuy Photo
Richard Wershe Jr. enters the courtroom of Wayne County Circuit Judge Dana Hathaway at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015. (Photo: Brian Kaufman, Detroit Free Press)

In November 2016, reports surfaced publicly that McConaughey was in negotiations to play Richard Wershe Sr., a character who wants to be a buddy to his son when what his children really need is a strong parent.

Landing McConaughey was relatively easy compared to the casting of White Boy Rick, a sprawling search that took more than a year.

"We looked through all the young actors in Hollywood that are on television and in movies and tried to see if there was someone in that community who could do it," says Lesher.

The filmmakers simultaneously did a nationwide talent search, holding casting calls in metro Detroit and other cities and scouring gyms, community centers and predominantly African-American high schools in several cities for possible candidates who weren't professional actors.

Demange says it was important to him to find someone with authenticity who could relate to Wershe's life.

Merritt was 15 and a sophomore when he was asked to come to the principal's office at Dundalk High School in Baltimore to meet the film talent scout. He recalls being late for school that day and signing in at the office when "the lady behind the front desk" recommended him to the scout for the part.

The soft-spoken teen is described in production notes as a blue-collar, inner-city kid who came from a broken home. During a phone interview, he is not forthcoming with rehearsed anecdotes about himself, like some actors are. The one time he really laughs is while talking about the retro baby-blue tuxedo he wore for a wedding scene. "That was slick," he says.

Asked about his similarities with Wershe, Merritt says, "I'm not going to say I'm a troubled kid, but I'm not going to say I'm a good kid. I don't go around starting trouble. I don't go around looking for trouble."

Bruce Dern, Matthew McConaughey, Bel Powley, Richie
Bruce Dern, Matthew McConaughey, Bel Powley, Richie Merritt and Piper Laurie star in the upcoming "White Boy Rick." (Photo: SCOTT GARFIELD/COLUMBIA PICTURES)

Merritt remembers working for a couple of weeks with an acting coach in Baltimore before being sent to Los Angeles to meet McConaughey and test how they related together on screen.

"Richie just captivated me," says Demange of the decision to hire someone who'd never acted before. "It was scary. It was a risk. We embraced it."

For McConaughey, working with a complete newcomer was all about calibrating his performance to the natural, unpracticed style of Merritt.

"I'm like, 'OK, here we go.' I'm not me, Matthew, the actor. I cannot act. I have to get through to a real young man who's a non-actor.This is going to be a bull ride. It's going to be a really exciting new adventure."

Cleveland stands in for Detroit
Shooting began in March 2017 and lasted about 45 days, a schedule lengthened by the shorter work days required for Merritt as a minor. Production took place mostly in the Cleveland area, a choice swayed by the fact that Ohio had film incentives (and Michigan had eliminated its incentive program in 2015).

Certain cast and crew members came to Detroit in mid-March for a couple of days to shoot exteriors.

"I was very sad because I really wanted to spend the money in Michigan and wanted to do it there," says Demange, who had seen some of Detroit's blighted areas when he was here for the filming of a 2015 Nike ad, "The Future is Fast," that featured the Detroit Lions. "I used one of the locations (from the ad) again in the film. When I was (in Detroit), I was really struck quite emotionally."

During the Detroit leg of production, McConaughey was able to get to know Wershe by visiting him in prison. "We talked about family. We talked about me being a father. We talked about my kids. We talked about his grandkids."

McConaughey, who has done research with prisoners in the past for roles, says it stuck out to him that Wershe admitted he broke the law.

"Ninety-nine out of a 100 say they're innocent. Richard has never claimed innocence, which is one of the great things about him. He's like, 'No, no, no, I committed a crime and I was no choir boy.' Very honest about that. Now at the same time (he's) saying, 'How big was I rolling? Well, not as big as they made me out to be.' "

On the set, McConaughey helped mentor Merritt without coddling him. "Our relationship, between me and Richie over two months — and it's a long haul — was between a hug of encouragement and a kick in the backside. It lived in between those two. Always, it was a really fun and adventurous place for me."

McConaughey laughs when he says Merritt wasn't intimidated by him. In fact, the young man really hadn't heard of the star.

"He didn't know me from John Doe. Unh-uh. No, no, no," says McConaughey. "Part of what was really great about the casting of this young man is he didn't have a reverence for Matthew McConaughey, the actor. He didn't have a reverence for being in a damn Hollywood movie."

McConaughey sounds as if it was rather exhilarating, in an unexpected way, to work with Merritt. "He was happy to be there, but there was a 20 percent chance every night that, I was like, that little SOB may hop on a bus and go back to Baltimore and say 'Eff you guys,' which was great! Because he wasn't shy in front of the camera. He was honest."

Merritt says he was only slightly nervous to begin filming. "I ain't never let that get to me, to be honest," he says. "Growing up, I was always in front of cameras. People were always recording me. I was always doing little goofy stuff, always posting videos online Instagram, Facebook."

He took quickly to the controlled chaos and fast bonding of a movie location. "Everybody was really cool with each other. No arguments. No talking behind people's backs. It was really like a big-ass family. Everybody got along."

McConaughey stressed to Merritt that filming "was an endurance test" and connected with him through their shared love of family.

"I think he's in a really good place with himself and his family now and that's in large part (due) to the experience I think he had. ... He's got a great heart. He's really a love bug, you know what I mean? At the same time, he's street."

Merritt says "White Boy Rick" has changed his life. "It shows me: Don't get in trouble. Don't do it. Don't do nothing to jeopardize what you want," he says, dropping his laid-back facade and sounding enthusiastic about plans for the future. "I'm definitely going to act more."

As Demange anticipates the movie's release, he speaks frankly about the difficulty of compressing Wershe's life into one movie.

Richie Merritt is done with the hard part of making his acting debut in "White Boy Rick."
Richie Merritt is done with the hard part of making his acting debut in "White Boy Rick." (Photo: SCOTT GARFIELD/SONY)

"It's the bio-pic syndrome," he says. "It's the hardest thing in the world. ... How do I skim three or four years and make it feel like a cohesive film ... with a cohesive, comprehensible emotional through lines?"

He says the FBI informant angle alone could have taken up a whole film.

"It was a miniseries, really," says Demange of the many aspects of Wershe's real life. "(It was) the challenge of adapting a true-life story, but one where you don't want to just take liberties because you have a moral and ethical obligation — because the guy's still in jail — to make sure you explain certain pivotal points as to why he's there, how it all happened and then you've obviously got to be entertaining ... and entertaining's the wrong word, but you have to be engaging in the effect."

Says Demange, "It's a big American story."

Read more:

Who is White Boy Rick? 7 facts about the 14-year-old FBI informant

'White Boy Rick': See the cast and the real-life people they play

The makers of "White Boy Rick" haven't been able to arrange for Wershe to see the movie in his Florida prison. Franklin says he speaks to Wershe a couple of times a week.

Burnstein, who has an e-book debuting this week on his 10 years of Wershe coverage, says he thinks the real Richard Wershe has one hope for the movie.

"I think he's keenly aware that the story you're going to see on-screen isn't 100 percent married to the life he led. He's aware it's a Hollywood fictionalized version of his teenage years."

Says Burnstein, "He wants people to understand that although he takes ownership for what he became, the groundwork, the foundation was laid by a government exploiting a 14-year-old kid."

Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or

'White Boy Rick'
Rated R for language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references, and brief nudity

Opens with some Thursday evening screenings; opens wide Friday
Be Kind to Someone Today.