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July 26, 2023


A Short List of Must-See Movies

In the more than one hundred and twenty-eight years of cinematic history, films have often told stories that shape our perspectives on societal issues; those that are far-removed from our everyday lives and those that relate to our personal experiences. Films have the power to influence how and what we think and what to question. In the United States, today’s expanded entertainment industry is a multibillion-dollar business that sustains global influence through the wide distribution of content on a variety of platforms including theatrical release, home distribution, cable networks, and streaming services. Film remains a popular art form, an entertainment past time for a global audience, and an influential medium. Films educate us.

“Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?” 

- Trainspotting (1996)

Films have often tackled real social issues through fictional or non-fictional accounts. This includes films that share the stories of the devastation and loss caused by alcohol and drug addiction, and stories of treatment and recovery, both failed and successful.

This newsletter issue focuses on several of these films and why they remain important today to our understanding of drug addiction and its impact on the addict and society.

Additional films – see IMDB’s Recommended List


Use Justwatch to find streaming access.


On The Bowery

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Lionel Rogosin’s film On the Bowery (1956) chronicled the real-life existence of many individuals living on the Bowery during a dark and notorious period of the area’s history. Part scripted and part documentary style filmmaking, the film focused on the daily life on what was then New York City’s skid row. The Bowery, a street located in lower Manhattan and approximately one mile in length, was the first main transport route from New York City to Boston. By the 19th century, the street and surrounding area became a vibrant entertainment district. It was home to the largest auditorium on the continent, the Great Bowery Theater, and for decades provided venues for live entertainment, restaurants, bars, and by the latter part of the 19th century, large-scale carnival shows and nickel museums. The next phase for the Bowery was in stark contrast to its heyday. The downfall of the Bowery was perpetuated by a number of events namely the construction of the elevated train in 1878 which darkened the blocks and caused disruption to pedestrians at the street level making the area undesirable for residents and visitors. In addition, social and economic conditions in the country left many individuals destitute. Over the period of several decades into the 20th century, the area became a destination for alcoholics, drug addicts, and the mentally unstable, mostly men and some women, with a population that at times numbered more than 25,000 people. Characterized by the oversaturation of bars, missions, and flop houses, it was a place for the destitute to congregate together. It also became known for its notorious street life, poverty, drinking, crime and violence.

Rogosin’s filming was critically lauded for his realism. He used an observational style with the camera which allowed the subjects and the story to tell itself. Ray Salyer, the real-life central character of the film, was an ex-railroad worker who spent his days looking for work and drinking with his street buddies to excess at night. As a result of his participation in the film, Salyer, a ruggedly handsome man with a measured screen presence, was offered a financial incentive to move to Hollywood for film work but he turned it down. He believed his life was on the Bowery. He, like many alcoholics and addicts, preferred to live amongst others with the same addiction and lifestyle.

Today’s Bowery is nothing like the skid row of the 20th century. What changed? The elevated train was discontinued and in the last decades of the 20th century, the city enacted initiatives to bring in new residents, rid the area of the missions, flop houses, and bars, and disperse the homeless across other areas of New York City. A long and troubled period for this Manhattan neighborhood came to a close.

On the Bowery
(clip from Milestone Films)


The film is available streaming through several streaming platforms.



Boyz n the Hood

Several of the earliest feature films out of Hollywood to tackle addiction in a realistic way were challenged by the Hays Code, a self-imposed industry censorship managed by the Production Code Administration that existed from 1934 to 1968. The Hays Code prohibited profanity, sexual acts, nudity, or graphic violence among other acts deemed problematic or offensive for audiences. This included films that grappled with drugs, alcoholism, and addiction. Even under the heavy-handed review of the Production Code, a number of remarkable films successfully tackled these tough subjects. Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) is a gripping portrait of an alcoholic’s struggles and downfall over the period of four days. The extraordinary creative team won four Oscars for a story of a man who is consumed with finding his next drink. It is an important film because it shows the dire side of addiction and its destructive forces. I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955), a film based on the real life story of the successful stage performer and actress Lillian Roth, provides a piercing glimpse of the downfall and recovery of an alcoholic who hit skid row before finding recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous. Drug addiction was a more challenging topic for film. The film director Otto Preminger defiantly faced off with the Production Code authority with his film The Man with a Golden Arm (1955). The film challenged the censorship which disapproved of any screenplay that portrayed the use or trafficking of drugs. The film did both with a focus on the devastating effects of addiction and how impossible it can be for an addict to return to the environment that nurtured the addiction in the first place. The main character, portrayed by Frank Sinatra, serves six months in a federal criminal hospital for his crime and to cure his addiction. At the completion of his sentence, he returns, optimistic and clean of drugs, to his neighborhood in Chicago and immediately faces the troubles that initially set him on his inopportune path. In one graphic scene, Sinatra’s character suffers through the pain of heroin withdrawal after falling back to using after his treatment.

The film industry experienced two important changes in the late 1960s. The dissolution of both the Hollywood studio system and the Hays Code program of censorship. These events gave way to a new independent cinema which would produce scores of films that tackled societal problems and drug use. John Singleton’s brilliant directorial debut, Boyz n the Hood (1991), is in part a coming-of-age story for three young men, Tre, Ricky and Darrin “Doughboy”, living in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s, a neighborhood plagued by drugs, gangs, guns, violence and racism. Each character is on a different path but face the similar brutal challenges that add to a stressful environment which could be described at times as a war zone. Tre’s character is centered around his family and the dynamic father and son relationship. He, like Ricky, wants out of Los Angeles. Doughboy spends time with drink and drugs which recklessly have him on the edge of danger every day of his life. Singleton wrote the screenplay drawing from personal experience and in telling the story of these three young men, he addresses the larger societal issues of the time: gentrification, systemic racism, and police brutality and the collective impact these issues have on communities of color. More than thirty years later, the film still resonates in large part due to an exceptional screenplay and, painfully, because these problems still exist.

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The mid-20th century films depicted the ill-effects of addiction on the addicts, families, and society. The films featured characters that graphically presented what an addict looks like under the influence, what an addict would do for a next fix, the criminal acts, prostitution, the resulting homelessness, and the challenges even for those in treatment and recovery. These films, at times shocking, were steeped in realism and provided audiences with a view into often sordid worlds far removed from their personal experiences. This was in stark contrast to the long history of films that glamorized or normalized drinking, smoking, and drug taking. In the subsequent decades, films like Boyz n the Hood addressed larger societal influences. Singleton was focused on showing characters in relationship to their environment and how the problems of gangs, drugs, and violence are a symptom of larger societal issues.

Boyz n the Hood



Chicago Med

The United States is currently confronting a large-scale epidemic of drug addiction and the ill-effects from powerful synthetic drugs like fentanyl which have become widely available as an additive to heroin or other opioids. Without alternative policies on how to remedy the drug problem, harm reduction has become the platform for many politicians and advocacy groups. Harm reduction practices focus on meeting drug addicts where they are, saving lives, and preventing overdoses. The practices focus on the rights of the addict by not requiring long term rehabilitation or recovery treatment, both recognized as favorable treatments for addiction. One aspect of harm reduction is to prevent overdoses by providing a safe and supervised environment to inject or use their own illegal drugs, receive clean needles, and find access to naloxone, a medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration to reverse overdoses. In the United States, these facilities, safe injection sites or overdose prevention centers, are not federally sanctioned and they are not widely known or understood outside of major urban areas that have either permitted the opening of sites on a local level or are in the process of moving legislation that would authorize them. This is a contentious program that has been implemented globally with varying levels of success, when coupled with required treatment, and prolonged failure, without extended care. New York City permitted two overdose prevention centers, known as OnPoint, in Manhattan in 2021.

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It comes as no surprise that the safe injection site has made it to the small screen. The NBC television series, Chicago Med, recently renewed for a ninth season reaches anywhere from five to eight million viewers globally. The show is a formulaic series that depicts a medical team, their interpersonal relationships and the challenges of working as first responders providing emergency medical care. In Season 5, the series introduced the audience to the operations and legal issues of a safe injection site (the term used in the series). Dr. Halstead, one of the featured characters, remains ambivalent about the safe injection site and, importantly, his potential legal liabilities for working in an unsanctioned operation that could cause him to lose his medical license. In one episode, he receives a visit from a young woman who returned to the safe injection site to thank the doctor for saving her life. She is cleaned up, healthy, clear-minded, and presents a gift to the doctor to show her gratitude. Spoiler alert: the young woman is a doctor with a drug problem. For the millions of viewers, first learning about safe injection sites, the message is that the safe injection site is a step towards recovery, dramatizing that one save from an overdose and the addict is cured. This messaging likely encourages those watching to support the safe injection site as a remedy for drug addiction. Unfortunately, this portrayal sorely overlooks the problematic issues of this service. In the real world, left unanswered or addressed are questions of rehabilitation, recovery, actual overdoses, and the devastatingly negative impact on the neighboring communities. The episode of Chicago Med engages the audience with an easier look at drug addiction. This is not the realistic scene that takes place every day at either of the two safe injection sites in New York City, or any of the safe injection sites in the world. It is in stark contrast to the harsh depictions of addiction portrayed in films from the 20th century. 

Chicago Med


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