As more states continue to legalize, a disproportionate number of black Americans are still being arrested and incarcerated for minor cannabis offenses. It’s a maddening dichotomy addressed in a gripping new short film “Not Just Another Day,” set to receive a virtual world premiere at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival this March.
The documentary, which runs for fifteen minutes and is produced by From The Earth, a minority-founded and operated cannabis retailer, tells the story of Lionel Tate, a young black man who was arrested in 2015 in Los Angeles for possessing a small amount of marijuana. An aspiring chef, Tate, then 23, was on his way to give a security deposit to a property manager to lease an apartment when a police officer pulled him over and found the money in addition to the marijuana. Using first-person narration from Tate, as well as interviews with key figures in his life, such as his mother and criminal defense attorney, “Not Just Another Day” relates what happened in the aftermath of the arrest.
Though Tate’s case does not have a dire ending—he received three years of probation rather than face a five-year prison sentence— the viewer is starkly reminded that he “was one of 142,000 black Americans arrested that year for marijuana possession. Of those incarcerated, 70% will go back to jail.”
This is a chilling statistic, especially when coupled with the reality of a thriving multi-billion dollar industry. For Ricky Rhodes, the writer and director of “Not Just Another Day,” it was a disturbing paradox that compelled him to make the film. Co-founder of Planet Froth Productions, a production company/ad agency hybrid, Rhodes said “Not Just Another Day” casts a light on “stories that might otherwise go untold.”
This interview was edited for conciseness and clarity.
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Iris Dorbian: Why did you decide to make this short film?
Ricky Rhodes: In 2020 I was shocked to find an ACLU article that detailed how many people were still being arrested for cannabis crimes. It struck me as deeply hypocritical that legal cannabis companies were booming, while users were simultaneously being arrested for it. As the team dug further into the story, we found the dark underbelly of the criminal justice system: black Americans are arrested at a rate 3.6 times greater than white Americans for cannabis possession. Cannabis possession arrests are still being used as a tool of the vestigial war on drugs to arrest black Americans, while the facade of the cannabis industry portrays a glorious renaissance of cannabis legality and widespread enjoyment.
Dorbian: Why did you focus on Lionel? What is it about his case that made him more appealing to you as a subject versus someone who wasn’t as fortunate to avoid a lengthy prison sentence?
Rhodes: His story was the best-case scenario outcome of a cannabis possession arrest and it still upended his life, forcing him into homelessness. If the best-case scenario outcome still includes such detrimental punishments, then it shows how ruthless our justice system is.
Dorbian: How did you find out about Lionel?
Rhodes: We interviewed dozens of candidates with varying cannabis arrest stories. During the process, From the Earth was able to put us in touch with Jimmy Wu, the executive director of a nonprofit called InsideOut Writers. Their mission is to use creative writing as a catalyst for personal transformation for incarcerated youth. Lionel participated in this group and Wu put us in touch with him.
Dorbian: What are the key takeaways you want the audience to come away with after watching the film?
Rhodes: Cannabis companies have the power to build an equitable industry by hiring from the communities that are still being targeted for marijuana crimes. We want to encourage people to take action and support legislation for marijuana legalization nationwide. An easy way to begin support of the movement is to sign the petition that we have been sharing alongside our film.
Dorbian: Was your film shot before the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in 2020 or after?
Rhodes: The film was written and funded before the BLM movement exploded and shot shortly after the initial protests. The overwhelming support for the BLM movement provided a platform to amplify our message. Our team participated in the protests in front of Los Angeles City Hall.
Dorbian: You’re currently making a film about Oregon legalizing mushrooms as a form of therapy. Will this film be similar to “Not Just Another Day” by focusing on a specific person to tell the story?
Rhodes: The documentary will focus on multiple subjects and the movement as a whole. The main subjects will be the pioneers of the movement and the people undergoing the therapy sessions. Oregon is currently in a two-year experimentation period where they are developing the framework of this new industry and how the sessions will be administered. We want to capture the full scope of a society undergoing these radical new treatments. The film will be a mini-series with 50-minute-long episodes. We are currently in development on this project and still assembling the team and acquiring partners.