The newspapers and magazines of America spend column-inch upon column-inch describing the violence perpetrated by the street gangs of the Middle East (Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Hamas), but they spend considerably less detailing the swath of violence made by American street gangs like the Latin Kings, the Bloods, the Crips, and the Aryan Brotherhood, whose terrorism is actually affecting regular Americans on a day-to-day basis. Granted, gang members killing each other over crack isn’t as sexy as a gang wanting to blow up the White House, but it seems like a massive oversight that a TV show, the History Channel’s Gangland, is left to exhaustively dissect the ups and downs and the various branches of America’s gangs.
Gangland’s first season, collected here on DVD with almost no extras, opens with a special episode detailing the lives of Frank Lucas (who was the inspiration behind the Denzel Washington vehicle American Gangster) and Nicky Barnes (played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in Gangster) who controlled Harlem’s heroin trade in the ‘70s. Lucas (and to lesser extent Barnes) is the real-life arch-villain that doesn’t exist anymore: somehow, even when the show discusses how many people died of heroin overdoses in Harlem from Lucas’ heroin, you still end up rooting for him like he’s the real hero and heroin is the criminal.
The moral ambiguity is pretty uncomfortable. You consciously like Lucas, even as he claims, “Respect is good, but if people fear you, then you got the power” after telling of a murder he himself committed. Granted the first episode plays like a less-exciting counterpoint to American Gangster, but the resulting power void that occurred after Barnes and Lucas went to the slammer led to the gangs in New York that came in the ‘80s and ‘90s that were much worse like the Latin Kings and the Crips.
The rest of Gangland follows a pretty standard set-up: it details a horrific crime, talks about how it is probably gang-related, determines the involved gang, and then goes over the history of said gang. The formula gets old, but the stories rarely do—the gripping tales of the creation of the Latin Kings (which started as a Latin pride group meant to stop racism in Chicago), the Mexican Mafia (a gang that started completely in prison but migrated out after some members were released), MS-13 (perhaps the scariest of the bunch, it is actually international with cliques in South and North America), and Aryan gangs, are all told with exhaustive detail and gritty images to make sure you know how bad each gang is. There’s no more moral ambiguity after the first episode—you know that the leader of the Latin Kings was a horrible man, and you cheer when he gets a long prison sentence.
But the most interesting gang story is that of the Almighty Black P. Stones, which started as Chicago’s black neighborhood’s security guards, and then morphed into a real terrorist group with ties to Qaddafi and plans to blow up buildings in the Windy City. It’s kind of like Stringer Bell on The Wire, who started as a young hood with nothing to his name and rose up to being a prominent black businessman. And like Bell, the P. Stones were dealt an untimely demise (luckily) thanks to ambition outpacing reality, inter-gang problems, and increased police involvement in their actions.
The only problem that arises with Gangland is that the reason gangs exist (economic inequality and a lack of opportunity for impoverished youth) is barely touched upon, passed over for more opportunities to villianize the gangs. Sure, the gangs are undeniably terrible, but it’s not like the young men in them really wanted their lives to be dealing crack and killing people on the orders of a guy sitting in a jail cell (like pretty much all of the gangs)—there’s just little opportunity to do little else.
Lucas again proves to be the voice of reason in this regard. He asserts that judging from where he came from—North Carolina—and his education (uh, none) he actually made quite a name for himself. He says that if he had the opportunities of the white folks in his state, he may have been the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But this line comes near the end of the episode, and it is quickly passed over for a line from the narrator about how evil Lucas is. Sure, I caught that, he’s a bad guy. But did the realities of his upbringing make them that way, or was he born like that? Gangland doesn’t let you conjecture.
But in that sense, Gangland is mirroring our reaction towards terrorist groups in the Middle East. Instead of helping the region out in ways that could cut down on the allure of terrorist groups (like better education, more jobs, more money) we are just trying to capture all of them and throw them in prison—which is exactly our technique towards street gangs in America. Until we address the problems that lead to gangs, Gangland could have an endless TV run.