For as long as cinema has existed, drugs have played a substantial role in the narratives of a wide variety of films that run the gamut from low-brow exploitation films to award-winning feature films. Starting with Thomas Edison’s 1894 film Chinese Opium Den and tracing the history of drug cinema to its modern era, it becomes clear that the way drugs have been presented on screen has varied greatly over the past century, shifting from positive to negative to neutral representations, all of which are often a reflection of greater societal and cultural trends.
This infographic analyzes both how film shape our understanding of drugs and how popular usage and legislation have shaped filmic depictions of drugs. Whether it be a film where drugs act as a “Mulligan”—a plot device to move the story forward—or a film in which they form the heart of the narrative to explore the effects of drugs on its characters, drugs are ubiquitous in the history of film and are only growing more prevalent on screen as well as in society. To chart the rise and decline and rise of drugs on film, the New York Film Academy Los Angeles has identified a number of recurring themes, films, and statistics that demonstrate both the effect of drugs on film and how filmic representations can shape our collective perception of drugs.