[12 May 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
When you sit down and watch this, you actually see it’s not “gangs,” it’s deeper. What I take from it, I think, the gangs ain’t gon’ stop. They’re not gon’ stop period, but I think that they can become something different, because everything can evolve. I’ve evolved, we all evolved as humans as people period.
You raised into it.
“I was rejected before I was born. I am the most rejected.” As Kumasi speaks, he sits before a red wall, painted with graffiti: blurred flames alongside aggressively stylized lettering. The backdrop alludes to the neighborhood where Kumasi grew up, South Central Los Angeles, as well as his internal state—violent, frustrated, desperate. As a child and young man, he recalls, he was regularly stopped and harassed by police, reminded of his limited future. “Every time I get rejected,” he says, “It takes a little something out of me.”
As revealed in Crips & Bloods: Made in America, airing as part of Independent Lens 12 May, Kumasi’s memories and self-reflection are typical of his generation. His story, along with those of fellow Slausons Ron Wilkins and Bird, serves as a foundation for Stacy Peralta’s documentary, which traces the emergence of gangs in L.A., as well as their contexts and causes. Produced by Baron Davis and narrated by Forest Whitaker, the film presents an overview that is at once familiar and startling, sensational and mundane. Comprised of archival images and new interviews, animation and a hiphop soundtrack (Public Enemy, Tupac, Gnarls Barkley), Crips & Bloods observes that 30 years of gang warfare have left L.A.‘s children feeling more traumatized than those now living in Baghdad.
The information here isn’t especially new—but that’s exactly the problem. The crisis of young black men in gangs is ongoing; the number of annual casualties would be catastrophic in any other population. Along with the gang members themselves, the documentary includes interviews with academics (USC’s Todd Boyd, Josh Sides of Cal State North Ridge, Gerald Horne), researchers (Leon Bing, who wrote the much-praised Do or Die, James Gilligan, author of Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic), and gang interventionists (Jim Brown, Aqeela Sherrills).
They all tell the story of gangs, beginning with their inception as neighborhood clubs for kids who were denied entrance into the Boy Scouts during the 1950s (Kumasi remembers, “We built an auxiliary alternative”) and their evolution into protection units. Members felt increasingly disenfranchised by the larger society, as the police under Chief William Parker were trained as military troops, instructed to treat suspects as “enemies” (as Gerald Horne says, “They’re viewed as people that commit crime”). Josh Sides adds that the police at this point were effectively maintaining borders between communities. Though black community members were briefly galvanized to resist such treatment following the uprising in Watts 1965 and the FBI’s COINTELPRO activities (joining with the Black Panther Party, they found ways to organize against oppression and look after their own neighborhoods), next generations of young men, increasingly alienated and angry, began to fight with one another rather than the state per se.
Kumasi describes his own experience in abstract terms: repeatedly stopped by cops, he asks, “What message am I being fed every day? Every day he’s feeding me a spoonful of hatred… It’s just a question of when is this going to erupt and on whom is it going to erupt? Will I attack my own image in the mirror or the cause of my anger and frustration? The point is, I’m a walking time bomb.” It’s a sentiment repeatedly expressed in old school hip-hop, managing rage by flipping it into threat. Kumasi describes the onset of the Watts uprising, calling the kids in the streets “opportunistic fighters” who use whatever’s at hand to combat the invading uniformed force. “That whole building, brick by brick, that’s what coming at your ass,” he says, the literal becoming metaphoric. “The filth, the funk, the shit you can’t stand, that’s coming at you.”
The movie argues that the pathologies frequently attributed to individual gang members—tangles of hopelessness, fear, and nihilism—are produced in and by the broader culture, seeking to cordon off the perceived threat, essentially leaving the gangsters to police and destroy themselves). The film looks at a specific toxic mix of elements, including the historical migration of blacks to urban centers, followed by shifts in the economy, both abrupt and gradual (say, the loss of auto factory jobs during the 1950s and ‘60s), on top of the ongoing and devastating effects of poverty, lack of education, drugs, and racism—and misogyny, though the film doesn’t detail this last (an interview with female Crip Big Chan lasts about 20 seconds; other than this, the featured women are mothers who have lost sons to street violence and police assaults).
Crips & Bloods makes the usual case that the imprisonment of black men in the U.S. has reached epidemic proportions (“I’m from a place where the fucking terminator is the governor,” raps Ice Cube over shots of prisoners and Schwarzenegger signing papers). Though the academic experts tell you what you already know and Peralta can be heard off-camera, asking leading, sometimes reductive questions (“How do you deal with the moral argument, man?”), the Bloods and Crips take on their dilemmas with a combination of pragmatism, resignation, and resilience. Born into this circumstance, they make choices, certainly. But so does the political and social system that reproduces the circumstance.