Gang Tapes is one of the most powerful and topical films you’ve never heard of. And with good reason: it was never released in theaters. The would-have-been distributor claimed it as too graphic and violent. According to fledgling director Adam Ripp, the film was canned because theaters were afraid of the threat of “gang violence” (read: black) wherever it was shown. Such is the racially coded space into which this film explodes, a space that Ripp firmly occupies in perhaps one of the most explosive of ways: thing is, he’s white.
But make no mistake. Though the director’s race might complicate his relation to his material, it does not undermine its authenticity. Ripp earned his ghetto pass by teaming up with associate producer Quentin Drew, a brother from the ‘hood who brings first-hand experience and technical expertise in gang life. He’s an ex-banger who, in the lengthy and engrossing “Making of” portion of the DVD, speaks emphatically about the real-life challenges posed not only by living in the turf divided between the Bloods and the Crips, but also, shooting film there; the production was shut down more than once while the cast and crew ran for cover as a gang war raged around them.
Darris Love, Darontay McClendon, Don Cambell, Sonja Marie, Six Reasons, Trivell
US DVD: 10 Dec 2002
Drew isn’t the only element in this film with vital ‘Hood affiliations; all of the actors here are ex-bangers, current gang members, or first timers from the South Central area. Their connections to the life, the ‘hood, and the aesthetic is crucial to the movie’s loyalty to black space and place; placed in concert with the film’s pseudo-documentary style, which affords the characters a “voice” with which to “tell” their stories, this lends the film an authenticity that begins to undermine the traditional exploitation and/or romanticization of stereotypical thug characters in many other (particularly Hollywood) films in the gangsta/ghetto genre.
As Ripp contends in his DVD commentary, his intention was to create a film where actors don’t play “gang members,” but rather play “individual gang members,” with individual problems, dilemmas, motivations, and complexities.
The film’s premise is this: a white, suburban family is vacationing in Hollywood and gets lost in South Central. While stopped at a streetlight, they are carjacked, and their belongings, including a digital camcorder, are stolen by members of the Eastside Red Riderz gang. Eventually, the camera falls into the hands of Kris (Trivell), a 14-year-old aspiring gang member. What follows is a fairly traditional coming of age saga, in which Kris must navigate the contrary demands of his mother, his gang mentors, and various bangers who regularly and powerfully meditate on topics from gang life and death to the nature of love and loyalty to the social, political, and economic pressures in the ‘hood.
The majority of the film is framed through Kris’ camera; it is his eye—and ours—on his world. And it nods to Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood in more ways than one. Like Boyz, Gang Tapes explores the complexities of gang life - its violence, tenderness, community, appeal, and seeming inescapability—in such a way that audiences identify with the characters, despite their brutality. Also like Boyz, Gang Tapes unseats the social Darwinist notions of inner city life by humanizing its subjects, exposing not only their violence, but also their tenderness and fierce loyalty.
But Gang Tapes is more aggressive than Boyz. Certainly, its violence is more brutal, more in-your-face; the sex, tender and violent, is often startlingly graphic; and instances of criminal behavior, from drug running to rape to assault and murder, are more relentless in both pace and scale.
More compelling, though, is Gang Tapes‘s first-person approach. These elements—the poor lighting and sound quality, sometimes unscripted action, and performances by inexperienced actors—lend it a kind of “truth-telling” voice. Kris’s limited perspective helps to dramatize the ways in which he exercises power (usually ineptly) or is totally denied agency in his world. More often than not, Kris is absent from the frame, relegated to the position of voyeur.
But when he does appear in the frame, it’s clear that he’s trying to make sense of the roles thrust on him by his environment. Early on, we see Kris mugging for the camera, performing the “fuck you” kind of posturing that he sees in the bangers around him, free-styling, and interacting with his mother. These moments serve to remind us of his youth—he’s only 14—and underscore the peril that surrounds him. They also make him a real kid; ultimately, he’s awkward and kinda sweet, naïve even as he’s “performing.”
At other times, Kris’ presence within the frame is attended by violence (as when he’s jumped in to the gang) or sex (he loses his virginity to a girl at a party). Here, Kris is “coming of age” in violent and violating ways, now framed inside the world he’s usually watching, the world of the Eastside Riderz. Unsurprisingly, this world demands that he murder a rival gang member in retribution for the killing of his closest homeboy and mentor Big Alonzo (Darris Love).
More surprising are Gang Tapes’ emotional centers, including the aggressive and alarming Cyril, a.k.a. “Serial Killer” (Darontay McClendon). He commits a series of cruelties, from an inexplicable crowbar attack to rape to drive-by shootings. Cyril distills a traditional (and potentially stereotypical) urban black male rage into an almost crystalline form. But he’s impossible not to watch, and this is underscored by the fact that Kris’ camera follows him closely. His intensity is multi-faceted and complex; his charisma, though scary, is undeniable. And perhaps this complexity is the film’s real threat. It makes Cyril comprehensible, not dismissible.
Gang Tapes is not without problems. There are moments when Ripp’s direction seems too heavy-handed. Early on, we see stark juxtapositions: Kris being jumped in is set against his junior high graduation; his loss of virginity (mostly off camera, because of a convenient battery failure) cuts to a Sunday morning church sermon; or fellow Red Riderz homeboy Travis’ (Cambell) insightful meditation on his obligations (“To not claim the ‘hood, that’s like disowning your family”) cuts directly to a home invasion. At other times, such as the many interconnected but seemingly spontaneous reflections on gang life, loyalty, and pressures (presented through a variety of characters and voices), Ripp sets up unforgettable resonances and connections that serve dramatic purposes but don’t feel as forced.
Maybe Gang Tapes biggest problem isn’t in the film at all. Its official website features “crime scene” photos of the characters, and an explanation that these images are from a “videotape found on a murder victim.” How very Blair Witch. Indeed, the website insists, “This is real,” that the source material is now in the hands of the police, who will, of course, follow every lead. This apparent promotional move seems completely antithetical to Ripp’s stated project, because it recasts the characters as criminal stereotypes to be feared, not understood or engaged.
The website reinforces the “real” criminal identities of these characters—isn’t that just another exploitation, granting hordes of viewers access to the “scary” criminals who live “over there,” but still promising to protect them from those criminals? That’s the problem with creating and marketing a film such as this: how are Ripp and his crew to avoid commodifying the experience they’re trying to represent?
Though tensions exist between what seems to be Ripp’s central project (to undermine stereotypes) and the marketing (particularly, recasting the characters into those very stereotypes), Gang Tapes is a smart and political work. By filming in a pseudo-documentary style, Ripp allows his characters to speak largely for themselves, in their own neighborhoods. In doing so, he gives voice to those usually silenced, challenging stereotypes of black urban gang members and gang life. And in that, Gang Tapes is tantamount to social activism.