Netflix’s Grass Is Greener Connects the History of Cannabis and Music
In a new documentary, director Fab 5 Freddy talks restorative justice and sharing blunts with Snoop Dogg.
Back when Fab 5 Freddy was the host of Yo! MTV Raps, he once drove up to the Bay Area to tape an interview with Oakland’s Digital Underground.
“We’re talking back in the early ’90s,” Freddy says. “I hadn’t even gotten to the city yet, and I had a vibe. I was like, ‘Man, I really like this town. It just fits me as a New Yorker much more than Los Angeles.’ I just developed a love for San Francisco.”
The artist, filmmaker, and rap pioneer has now returned to the city for the premiere of his new documentary, Grass Is Greener. Framed as an exploration of the shared histories of music and cannabis, the film includes contemporaries like Snoop Dogg and Cypress Hill’s B-Real as well as subjects focused on the endemic nature of drug policy as a vehicle for racism and prejudice.
Speaking with SF Evergreen the day before his documentary’s premiere at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Freddy explains that part of his goal was to make a movie that would appeal to the widest possible audience.
“I think it’s pretty clear that this film is not just, ‘Let’s all smoke weed and talk about how high we are,’ ” he says. “It’s about feeling good and understanding the cultural role that music played in pushing cannabis out there.”
Indeed, some of the stories Freddy highlights in Grass Is Greener are truly fascinating. Did you know Louis Armstrong was a major stoner? Have you ever heard of Mezz Mezzrow, the clarinetist who supplied most of the jazz community with their reefer?
For Freddy, the origins of his interest in the bond between cannabis and music stretches back to his childhood listening to Phil Schaap, WCKR-FM’s legendary jazz radio host.
“Growing up in my house, he was the jazz guy,” Freddy says. “When any of the great jazz musicians had a birthday, he’d do an entire weekend or sometimes even an entire week to celebrate them. He was a staple in my house.”
Getting Schaap to appear in his film wasn’t quite as easy.
“He was a little reluctant,” Freddy confirms. “He told me he wasn’t a cannabis smoker. That’s when I realized that the stigmas associated with cannabis use are deeply embedded in our psyche and that they’re still apparent.”
In addition to the joy of learning about figures like Branson Belchie — a Harlem pot dealer who rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. and Redman name-checked — Grass Is Greener also offers a sobering look into the ties between drug policy and outright racism in the United States. The chief offender is Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Freddy acknowledges that while he’d previously heard of Anslinger, he wasn’t aware of the extent to which one man masterminded a system intended to oppress minorities and suppress the truth about cannabis.
“It was like an unfolding nightmare when I dug into the history,” he says. “Anslinger hated the fact that this music was bringing people together. That’s why he wanted to target jazz musicians. You’ll notice, in [the 1936 propaganda film] Reefer Madness, there aren’t any people of color. He’s trying to scare white folks by telling them that they’ll become criminally insane, but between the lines, it’s really about that evil jazz music and those Black people making it.”
Now streaming on Netflix, Grass Is Greener also features an eclectic soundtrack that celebrates a number of songs released prior to the prohibition of cannabis in 1937. Naturally, it also showcases some of the hip-hop tracks and artists that brought the topic back to the mainstream in the 1990s.
In one scene, rapper Snoop Dogg encourages Freddy to take a hit off of a blunt. Arriving from off-camera, he accepts the offer but finds himself battling through a coughing fit.
“That was Leafs by Snoop’s Bubblegum,” he laughs. “I mean, that was a moment that, luckily, we kept in the film.”
The scene stands in contrast to the film’s more serious moments, including a montage devoted to Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and other victims of police brutality. In the case of each person Freddy pays tribute to, law enforcement posthumously attempted to suggest that minute levels of THC found in the victims’ blood caused them to suffer temporary psychosis.
“It was shocking to learn that people are still out there fueling that bullshit,” Freddy says. “It’s a damn shame. I hope that people will take a look at this film and tell a friend. I hope those friends will tell a friend, too. I hope they’ll tell an enemy to watch this film. We need to open everyone’s eyes a little bit.”
Grass is Greener is currently streaming on Netflix.