To Be Blunt: Cinema lacks accurate cannabis representation

Seanna Latiff | Daily Trojan

In A24’s slick coming-of-age crime drama “Hot Summer Nights,” awkward and angsty teen Daniel (Timothée Chalamet) gets caught up with dealing weed in Cape Cod, Mass., in 1991. The film depicts the beginnings of his infatuation with cannabis and details the story of his fleeting business.

In one scene, as Daniel tentatively hits a bong for the first time, experienced stoners observe him with careful yet blank concentration. When he takes the entire hit, one of them raises his hand gently, trying to communicate that the rookie inhaled way too much smoke. Daniel’s eyes widen with alarm as he abruptly stands upright, the camera immediately zooming in to catch his expression.

A montage of cartoons and a shot of severe winds blowing back lines of trees in an orange haze follows an omniscient, premonitory voice narrating cannabis’ effects on the brain. When we return to Daniel, he’s already high as a kite, his eyes instantly drooping as he faints onto the floor, the stoner squad following his descent with their synchronized head tilts.

Light, airy music plays in the background as the camera pans to the former cannabis virgin, his body language and facial features indicative of the euphoria he feels as he mumbles, “Oh my God.” 

The first time I watched the scene, I believed it was absurd, comical and ridiculous. That is not what being high feels like, I thought. But, while dramatized, the depiction is honestly not too far off.

Considering the fact that inhaling a large amount of smoke in one breath can make a person feel faint and that Chalamet’s character has asthma, it’s not too outlandish to think he could be so strongly affected by the bong hit. 

Even more so, highs come in many different forms, especially with various consumption methods. Bong hits are particularly notorious for hitting really hard, really quickly — kind of like a train (but in a good way), a “whoosh” as I call it or, in Daniel’s case, like a wind blowing back some trees.

But what I appreciate most about “Hot Summer Nights” is that it’s a film about weed that offers so much more than most because it avoids cannabis cliches and worn-out tropes.

The best films and television shows, which arguably comprise the pinnacle of American popular culture, play with the idea of the subversive, the deviant and the taboo. Cannabis, along with other drugs, is at the top of the list, with entire movies dedicated to depicting its possession, sale, consumption and cultural impact. 

Weed movies aren’t even that niche or specifically tailored to stoners but rather span genres like comedy, romance, crime and drama. When we look at the prevalence of cannabis depiction in film, it’s interesting to see what this portrayal looks like.

While we’ve come a considerably long way from the bizarre inaccuracy of “Reefer Madness” —  a 1936 propaganda film that depicts weed as a gateway to committing acts of violence — and films like it, it’s not like we’ve exactly transcended far beyond stereotypical representations like the “criminal outcast,” “foolish philosopher” or the “lazy stoner” archetype. 

After “Reefer Madness,” there was a significant 20-year gap between the next generation of stoner movies because of the Motion Picture Production Code, which restricted the showing of drug use on screen.

The 1960s, the counterculture movement brought along with them the revival of stoner movies, which portrayed weed in a considerably different (yet still stereotypical) way, with the iconic duo of Cheech & Chong and their late ’70s comedy film, “Up in Smoke.” 

In the ’90s, stoner comedy films saw an increase in representation, with Black men starring as protagonists in classics like “Half Baked” and “Friday.” However, this was short-lived, as the turn of the century brought a return to played-out, predictable comedies led by white men. Think “The Big Lebowski,” “Dude, Where’s My Car,” “Pineapple Express” and “Ted.”

Let me step back for a second: Far be it from me to call for the end of all comedic depictions of stoners. Most stoner comedies are hilarious, and poking fun at stoners is too easy — what with the poor reaction time and tendency for paranoia. 

I live for the iconic weed circle in “That ’70s Show,” the absurd weed dream scene in “Harold & Kumar go to White Castle,” the strange monologue about George and Martha Washington’s weed habits in “Dazed and Confused” and even the horrible giant cartoon joint in the god-awful “Mac & Devin Go to High School” as much as the next person. 

But I am tired of the boring, repetitive portrayal of the white male protagonist stoner who ends up on a misadventurous journey with an equally unintelligent sidekick because they got high. I’m tired of the lack of representation of women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities in stoner narratives. 

“It became depressingly clear how often films failed to represent the varying identities of smokers by bundling anyone who’s ever enjoyed a joint into the same patronising pile,” writes Charlie Graham-Dixon in Dazed, an English style magazine.

Not only do stoner comedies exclude marginalized identities, they also portray cannabis in the same basic way, without taking into consideration the complexities of pot nor the various reasons why people use it. Where are the stoner dramas where cannabis is used to treat severe illnesses? What about telling the story of the War on Drugs and how Black and brown men are exponentially more likely to be imprisoned for posession than white men? What about stoner comedies led by women of color? What about more documentaries?

Better yet, I want to see films treat cannabis like they now treat alcohol — like a normal thing any person would do. It can be a major plot point, but I’d rather see it depart from that mold. Pot no longer adds a risqué factor to films, and I desperately want Hollywood to do better.

Films like “Dude,” a coming-of-age story about young women in high school and shows like “Broad City,” “High Maintenance” and “Atlanta” have started breaking the mold in unique ways. These shows treat weed seriously, tackling topics like mandatory drug tests and self-medication in ways that are poignant and funny.

At the same time, we have shows like “Weeds” and “Disjointed,” which try to break molds but ultimately fail. While “Weeds” tells the story of a suburban mom who has to sell weed to survive, the show also makes it very clear she does not smoke and is forced into the cannabis business. 

“Disjointed,” a show about a medical dispensary, takes strides for great representation through characters like Travis, who is business-driven, rational and occasionally smokes weed, and Carter, an Iraq veteran and Muslim who uses cannabis to combat his recurring PTSD. But it falls into annoying stereotypes with the portrayal of the absurd, stupid duo Dank and Dabby who (spoiler alert) realize they used to be academic geniuses when they get stuck on a roof deprived of cannabis for many hours.

While we have made leaps over the past several decades, I would venture to say we’re not too far removed from the likes of “Reefer Madness.” Our modern stereotypes are seemingly better and more accurate, but they’re still profoundly ignorant, dangerous and ridiculous. 

Now, more than ever, we need nuanced cultural depictions of weed in television and film. Popular culture drives change, and as legalization efforts sweep across the country, we need more accurate, touching films than stoner comedies can offer. Cannabis has more stories to tell, if we let it.

Natalie Oganesyan is a sophomore writing about weed culture and politics. She is also the Arts & Entertainment Editor at the Daily Trojan. Her column, “To be Blunt,” runs every other Thursday.