Now that Tony Montana is on pajamas, it’s time to let his fairytale sleep. Rakontur’s documentaries deliver Florida’s raw, rugged and rich to your home. For real.
By Maclean Jackson
Educational multimedia is a mess. At school, movies in-tune with the curriculum are usually corny melodramas or anti-climatic documentaries, which are only good for mocking like “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” At least they teach you to be funny. One time a rapping puppet show came to my school to teach us about tolerance and all the students booed until the guy stormed off stage. The disassociated wizards who made or okayed these lessons needed a reality check: Keep it real! From the get go, when Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben met in a Miami middle school television production class, they shared an interest in tackling relevant subjects and abstained from the isolation of the audio/video nerd. While in high school, they produced a short film about HIV testing called Waiting… that was eventually shown in classrooms around the country. Now both 28 years old, Corben and Spellman run the production company rakontur, which explores the historical drug trade in their native city of Miami in the hit documentary Cocaine Cowboys. In a market filled with tales from the hood indie films, rakontur separate themselves by intimately engaging both their subjects and audience.
Corben and Spellman both enrolled in the nearby University of Miami in 1996, where they rationally majored in multiple subjects. “You’ve got to know what’s going on in the world in order to keep yourself [relevant]. I talk about independent film like trees falling in the middle of the forest,” Corben explains about his motivation. “The question is, Do they really exist if no one sees them or hears them? In the case of indie film, the answer’s no. If you don’t have an audience, you’re making movies for yourself? Who cares?” In 1999, a scandal of injustice gripped the state when a stripper claimed she was raped at a University of Florida fraternity in Gainesville. Spellman and Corbin took a leave of absence from school, moved to Gainesville and made the documentary Raw Deal: A Question of Consent. They were only 22 years old when Raw Deal debuted at 2001’s Sundance Film Festival. The New York Post immeadietly bestowed the front page headline “Rape, Lies and Videotape” in response to the movie. It’s a powerful story with graphic scenes, frank commentary and lack of resolution presented so plainly, it’s hard for most audiences to watch. But everybody wants to experience money, power and respect. Three years later and back in Miami, Spellman and Corben applied the candid access of Raw Deal to the city’s outrageous era of 1970s and ’80s cocaine trafficking.
Growing up in Miami, the two felt the trickle-down effects of the ’80s drug and money rush—which happened to be during a nationwide recession—from the perimeters of their middle class neighborhoods. So in 2004, rakontur set out to make Cocaine Cowboys, not only to answer their own questions, but to entertain everybody else. “They had Scarface and Miami Vice, but nobody had done it in non-fiction yet,” explains Spellman. After putting out the word, for eight months people popped out of the woodwork with firsthand accounts and leads to key players from Dade County’s golden coke era. “It’s also been a question of verifying everybody’s story. So once we got to [former drug traffickers] John [Roberts] and Mickey [Munday], there were indictments that you could actually look at with allegations from the federal government,” remembers Spellman. “John Roberts’ name is on the same indictment as Pablo Escobar! Once we got to that point, we kind of knew we were where we needed to be in terms of getting first hand information.” They began amassing archived videos and images, as well as conducting interviews, when it was decided Corben would take a more creative role as director, while Spellman would mostly emphasize on business as producer. Composer Jan Hammer, who created the theme for the “Miami Vice” television show, was enlisted to score the Cocaine Cowboys soundtrack. The film premiered at 2006’s Tribeca Film Festival in the Midnight category.
“Cocaine. That was the title and a lot of people commented that was the effect of the movie,” remembers Corben about the initial reaction of the Festival audience. “That was definitely a concept that we had in our minds. Also the 1980s was the advent of MTV and of course Miami Vice, this new, amped-up, colorful style of entertainment. So it was also this question of making it an ’80s piece.” Though the presentation is similar to fiction of the era, Cocaine Cowboys’ plot points read like a producer’s wish list for hysteria-prone ’80s television newsmagazines and tabloid talk shows: White Collar Drug Epidemic! Hard Working Immigrants! Knife Happy Loco Lesbians! Some film critics panned the film for its exploitive elements. Some film critics would also kill to be in the New York Post. “Know your audience. This is not for the History Channel. This is not for fucking National Geographic,” exclaims Corben. “This was for the people who made Scarface a DVD that sold more than E.T. and Jurassic Park combined. This is for a lot younger audience.” The brazen behavior of the drug dealers is immediately exciting, but towards the end, Cocaine Cowboys hypothesizes how drug money planted seeds that grew to make Miami the major metropolis it is today.
But even before the theater release date, bootleg copies of Cocaine Cowboys flooded swap meet stands and overflowed from duffel bags. “[For] something to get bootlegged, that means you’re on fire, the product’s hot,” says DJ Khaled, who has lived in Miami for the last 15 years and is a huge fan of the film. As host of the local radio show “The Take Over” on 99 Jamz and producer of rap albums, the 31-year-old knows about an impatient public. “I try to look at [bootlegging] as a positive thing,” Khaled says. “You win no matter what.” Around this time, Spellman and Corben had been working on the project, “Clubland” and after a television series deal didn’t pan out, they decided to go a different distribution route. “We said, Okay, looking out a year from now, the web video phenomenon would really kind of take hold,” recalls Spellman, speculating from when iTunes video had just launched and YouTube hadn’t exploded yet. “That’s something we look at and say, Okay, let’s be a part of it.” Soon to be released on YouTube, “Clubland” explores behind the scenes of the South Beach nightlife business and follows characters like club swami Nicola Siervos as he prepares to open his new venue, Mokai. Inspired by their own experiences while going to South Beach clubs in the ’90s—another era of excess—rakontur starts production of the film, Rise and Fall, this summer. The story will start in the late ’80s, when many drug dealers were chased out of town, and remains in the South Beach club scene. The timeline’s backbone will be Chris Paciello, a New York kid who arrives in Miami and becomes a nightlife kingpin before he’s brought back to Brooklyn on murder and racketeering charges.
Cocaine Cowboys II: The Godmother Returns, picks up when Griselda “The Black Widow” Blanco goes to a California prison in the first film. Charles Cosby, an Oakland native, writes a letter to Blanco behind bars, the two begin a love affair and Cosby ends up running her multimillion-dollar cocaine business. Rakontur has no qualms producing a spin-off based on the most violent character from Cocaine Cowboys. The sequel, coming this summer on DVD, finds Cosby currently living a rather normal life with his family. Again, Corben and Spellman’s refusal to deliver any dogma with their film is refreshing. “Michael Moore can only preach to the converted, nobody else can stomach his look from the other side,” explains Corben. The only association rakontur strives for is to become the definitive filmmakers of Miami. “There’s a reason why everyone on “America’s Most Wanted” gets caught in Florida,” says Corben. “[Our] most important reason for coming back here is that it was fucking ripe. Ripe with characters and stories that had never been told.” For rakontur, it’s just another day in paradise.