Bright Lights Film Journal

Turning to Stone: Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street (2000)

Going down in San Francisco’s street-kid heroin underground

Behind the image of San Francisco as a creative epicenter and ultimate party town drawing talented, disaffected kids from around the country (if not the globe) are some disturbing statistics. In the last ten years, the mean age of heroin users has dropped from 27 to 19. White powder heroin (China White) has been replaced by the dreaded chiva, cheap black tar heroin from Mexico, making the habit and all that it brings accessible to a much wider crowd. And drug overdose is the leading cause of preventable death in San Francisco, claiming an average of 100 lives a year.

This is the grim backdrop for Steven Okazaki’s documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street, a caustic look at five young addicts coping with lives that are a relentless pattern of fixing, whoring, stealing, rehabbing, and almost inevitably, fixing. If they’re lucky, o.d.’ing isn’t added to that roster. Covering a two-year period from 1995 to 1998, the film has the feel of a kind of anti-MTV Real World, with this group a distorted mirror image of that show’s insufferably self-absorbed middle-class brats.

There is a phenomenon of middle- and upper-class junkies who survive quite nicely in this realm, but they’re not the ones on view here. Jessica, Alice, Oreo, Jake, and Tracey have the double bind of being users and poor or homeless. Their situation has mostly stripped them of defenses, and the interviews are pitilessly candid. Jessica, 18, describes unflinchingly how she was raped by her grandfather at age 5 and hurt so badly that her hips were thrown out of joint. It’s not hard to trace her retreat into the heroin haze from this event, which apparently went unrevealed and unpunished.

Jake, like Jessica, is young – 21 – with little in the way of social support. He’s bitter in the way junkies inevitably are about this. Of his “friends” he says simply: “When the dope’s gone, so are they.” To keep himself going, he works as a prostitute on Polk Street. But that brings its own darkness, perhaps equivalent to the habit itself: Jake says he’s been raped by johns four times. The film follows him in and out of homelessness and into an AIDS diagnosis that shows in his increasingly drawn face and jerky movements. We see him go from pathetic but stoic, saying he has too much of a conscience to rob anybody for junk, to tragic, as he’s booted back onto the street by a non-using boyfriend who’s had enough.

Unlike Jake, 19-year-old Oreo is a situational homosexual, brought to the streets by economics and always returning to his strung-out girlfriend. Oreo’s typical of the rest of these kids in being blunt about his life without quite understanding why he’s in the situation he’s in. “I’m bored with my life,” he says.

The film is littered with the dire accoutrements of junk – books by patron saint William Burroughs, droning spacey music, hellish apartments with a hotplate and a wrinkly midden of clothes made up to resemble a mattress. But there’s no moralizing here, just a picture of young people sucked into something they can’t handle that’s gradually taking over their lives. They’re mostly castoffs in every sense, with families either distant or nonexistent. One exception is Alice, 21, who begins the film claiming “shooting up is a meditation for me” and ends it by kicking the habit, at least during the time we see her. Less lucky is Tracey, a highly intelligent woman who spends 8 months in jail, comes out determined to kick, and ends up in an abusive relationship and back to using and dealing.

Black Tar Heroin challenges the viewer by ultimately refusing to assign blame. The kids are innocent in a real sense, consigned to a private hell by a collusion of circumstances, from their own temperaments, to horrendous abuse, to the chance encounters with users whose personal charisma seduces them into the life. The family could be the culprit, but in the word portraits we get of this mostly missing group, they’re as fucked up as the kids. Social service agencies appear to be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. In the final analysis, the film seems to say, these addicts are simply acting out one of the more grisly scenarios of the human condition.