After-school specials are arguably the best-known (and perennially popular) category of educational film. This has to do more with the unintended irony and outdated rhetoric, rather than their originally intended purpose as informational and instructional media.
A prime example of one of the leading sub-genres, anti-drug campaign films, is surely Reading, Writing, and Reefer released in 1979 as an episode in the (ironically titled) series “NBC Special Treat.”
The film follows in the precedent long established by such war-on-drugs classics as Marijuana (1936), Reefer Madness (1937), The Terrible Truth (1951) and The Marijuana Gateway (1968). While it is important to understand that these films were not meant for the same audience and are frequently reflections of the political and sociocultural debates of the time, such films help us understanding the history of medical, civic and pedagogical understanding of psychotropic substances, including – in the most prominent case – of canabis.
Reading, Writing, and Reefer was co-sponsored by Robert DuPont who would later become the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the White House’s anti-drug czar. As one contemporary review put it, the TV special aimed to “portrayed a nation of schoolchildren turned into zombies by pot”; it thus anticipated an apex in the War on Drugs promotional campaign of the 1970s, that started with Richard Nixon’s 1971 press conference on the issue and ended (for the most part) with Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” rallies.
The film is particularly pointed in its language and imagery, with scenes of “15-year-old heroin addicts and 12-year-old middle school students from affluent suburbs who skipped class and smoked upward of five joints per day.” In addition to it being broadcast on a national network, it had a very wide circulation within schools and a quick search reveals several 16mm prints in circulation today some three and half decades after its premiere. Its use of exaggerated and untested statistics (“five joints is equal to smoking 112 cigarettes”) and the sarcastic stance it takes toward an “idle” youth culture deviate from the more scientific tone of similar films that have not had the cult afterlife of Reading, Writing, and Reefer.
Major educational film catalogs consistently included entire categories dedicated to substance-abuse information films and separate publications like “99+ films on drugs” (1970) and “Selected Drug Abuse Education Films” were issued. In future editions of our blog we will be highlighting films produced throughout this period and the different ways in which they tackled this sensitive but culturally important issue.
CLIR-Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for the Visual Studies, The Internet Archive