Thursday, April 2, 2009

A brief history of LA's most feared gangs

Before he's done, Stacy Peralta may wind up exploring every known subculture in southern California and a few we've yet to unearth. Peralta started with skateboarding ("Dogtown and Z-Boys") and advanced to big-wave surfing ("Riding Giants"). In what amounts to a major expansion of previous interests, Peralta now turns his attention to another LA phenomenon -- gangs, notably the Crips and the Bloods.

"Crips and Bloods: Made in America," which shows at the Starz FilmCenter beginning Friday, might be the most powerful and important documentary Peralta thus far has attempted. It deals with economics and race, and it tries, as few films have, to put gang activity in a social and historical context. It also charts the evolution of a gang mentality that increasingly has relied on the kind of firepower usually associated with small armies.

Peralta -- and I think this is one of his strengths as a filmmaker -- is not a fly-on-the-wall kind of guy. He seems to believe in underscoring the drama in his material. As it turns out, South Central has no shortage of drama, much of it lethal. According to the film, more than 15,000 young men have died in Los Angeles during the last 20 years as a result of gang-related activity.

"Crips and Bloods" revolves around testimony from former gang members who've been on and around the block. They explain how they became involved in gangs, and of how gang activity has morphed into an apparently intractable problem. Factors contributing to gang membership -- back in the day and now -- include rejection by the larger society, a proliferation of fatherless households and brutality at the hands of the LAPD, which is portrayed less as a law enforcement agency than an occupying army.

In reviewing "Crips and Bloods" in the New York Times last January, Manohla Dargis argues that Peralta wrongly conflates the history of Los Angeles' black population with that of the gangs. While I was watching the film I had a similar reaction: The difficulty with Peralta's approach, I thought, mirrors the difficulty we have in thinking about gangs at all. In trying to understand gang behavior, how do we determine where social forces leave off and personal responsibility begins? It is possible -- if I may coin a word -- to "sociologize" the problem out of existence?

Having said that, I wouldn't back off a strong recommendation for "Crips and Bloods," which is both harrowing and heartbreaking. How heartbreaking? As heartbreaking as the silent tears that roll down the cheeks of mothers who've lost their sons to gang violence. Toward the end of the film, Peralta photographs these mothers without asking them to speak. The camera lingers on faces etched with sorrow. Nothing more needs to be said.

The pain and grief of these women makes a good starting point for our own response: How long are we going to tolerate so much violence and wasted potential? The value of Peralta's film is that it asks us to grapple with such questions while insisting that we not dismiss gang members as part of some hopeless criminal rabble.

No matter how you feel about that, it's difficult to argue with Peralta's overall approach; commendably, he tries to give us something most gang-related movies lack: perspective.

No comments: