Since 1999, roughly 841,000 people have died from drug overdoses. Over 4,700 teens alone died in 2019 from a drug overdose, and the numbers continue to rise. As our society has become increasingly aware of the importance of discussing and confronting drug addiction, the entertainment industry has attempted to propose new viewpoints and stories about the issue.
Beautiful Boy, released in 2018, uses repetition to show the vicious cycle that encapsulates teenage Nicolas, played by Timothée Chalamet, as he suffers from a methamphetamine addiction. The film moves slowly, giving the audience a unique insight into the boy’s life; it humanizes him and helps us empathize with his struggles. Perhaps contrarily, Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho uses drugs to reinforce and idolize a counterculture lifestyle. The film focuses on characters Mikey and Scott (played by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, respectively) who are living as hustlers on the streets of Portland. Van Sant illustrates the hardships of their situation, and validates their experiences but uses drugs only as a prop to enhance the story. Although the film doesn’t really focus on the withdrawals or long-term effects of drug use, the film was revolutionary because it provided a more liberal take on drug use.
This almost-glorification of drugs has become a common theme in Hollywood and the overall entertainment industry. Shows such as The Queen’s Gambit or movies like The Wolf of Wall Street confront drug addiction using a more humanistic approach, which some critics argue invalidates the experiences of drug addicts.
This normalization of drug use in media is a newly recurring topic. In the popular Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, depicts a chess prodigy who uses drugs to try to heighten her playing ability. The show portrays her addiction in what some have called a controversial manner, but a deeper look proves that what may first appear like glorification is really showing someone who unwittingly fell victim to drugs at a very young age.
Another somewhat common take can be seen in films such as Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, where a young businessman quickly becomes corrupt as he’s overwhelmed with power and money—much of which he spends on extravagances and drugs. The film demonstrates in an almost comical manner the harm of persistent drug use, as well as the denial that comes along with it. Similarly to My Own Private Idaho, however, the film doesn’t show the tiring struggle that comes with recovery. This way of telling the story can be justified, considering many drug addicts are not always able to fully recover or even begin the journey to do so.
What none of these films address, or even hint at, are the heightened disparities in the drug industry, with specific reference to race. Films that do address this topic are either not well known in Hollywood or not very widely distributed. The deep-rooted oppression built into laws and stereotypes surrounding drugs has disproportionately affected people of color, and this is not often represented in the entertainment industry. This makes it very difficult for any of these films, as well as our entertainment industry as a whole, to claim an accurate representation of drug use in our society.
While the dangers that come with these oblivious forms of entertainment may lead to the promotion of drug consumption, they also allow for a different perspective of drug addiction. Instead of laying it out for the viewer or exaggerating the effects of drugs to prove a point, these films give the viewer room to challenge the perspective and find their own meaning behind the stories. In film, drug abuse is often used as a device to augment or express another concept, such as greed in The Wolf of Wall Street or societal othering in My Own Private Idaho. Due to the complexity of any conversation surrounding drug use, these narrow-minded representations cannot be expected to present the full picture of drugs and their potential consequences, which is why we must be open to a variety of interpretations.