Now with the slow economy and more resources earmarked for the war on terror, funding isn’t there to support these great community programs and you see this gang activity starting to increase again. We’ll just have to see what happens.
— Marc Levin
Money is the evil of the world.
— Moran Ellis, Back In The Hood: Gang War 2
In 1994, Marc Levin and producer Daphne Pinkerson’s Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock exposed the grim extent of the Crips and Bloods, reaching into Arkansas, into the lives of youngsters who had no idea of alternatives. This year, Levin and his crew go back to the hood, to revisit some subjects from the first film, to see how they’ve fared and what’s changed or stayed the same.
Sadly, too much of what goes in Little Rock is the same, less because (though it’s true) cycles govern the lives of young people who live in poverty, and more because any programs once in place to combat gangs are now defunded. “We’re more or less at war with poverty, the system, and everyday life,” says one monumentally well-armed cop. The “war” metaphor looks literalized here, increasingly, as the film presents the young men and veterans who want a way out.
Back in the Hood focuses on Leifel Jackson, erstwhile leader of the OGCs (Original Gangster Crips) and a target of a drive-by shooting in the first Little Rock film. “Killing men was the top notch,” he says. “I’m always gonna be tied to the gang.” On parole after almost 10 years inside (for dealing), Leifel is restricted from associating with any known gang members, which makes it difficult for him to do the work he most wants to do, impress on his younger cohorts the dangers of gang life. As he takes up his cause officially, lecturing to kids and inviting them to see the hardships of his own experience, Leifel hopes to make a difference.
Leifel spends some f his screen time here watching himself as a youngster, as the first film plays on a little tv, looking at once distant and too intimate. The previous Leifel is cocky and hard, aware of his performance for the camera (“Once you in,” observes one of his fellows, “the only way you getting out is dying”). The current Leifel is softer, rounder, surely more tired. “Blood has been spilled,” he says gloomily. “Back in the day we was the blood spillers.” Now, he meets with former enemy, West Side Bloods member Marvin Weathersby, another survivor interested in reconciliation, especially in front of children, so they might see the hopelessness of the war and the sense of the peace (the kids are impressed by the bullet still lodged in his body).
Surely, Leifel’s work now is admirable. And yet it’s also frustrating to see how much of it he must do himself. Though the filmmakers also interview several policemen, their role is primarily concerned with clean-up and lock-up. “It’s always bubbling up beneath the surface,” says Detective Todd Hurd. “These kids don’t have a choice. They’re stuck with who they’re stuck with,” meaning parents or guardians. Dealers and bangers raise dealers and bangers: there’s no upward mobility from one generation to the next, no hope of sending your kids to a different place. Instead, there’s surviving, day to day, even hour to hour.
The film also represents a next generation, specifically in Moran Ellis, recruited by Leifel into the gang at age nine. Now 21, Moran still looks up to his mentor, but also can’t imagine abandoning the life that he chose and that chose him. Moran sees the logic of his life reflected everywhere. “I don’t blame Osama,” he says, thoughtfully. “He’s trying to hustle and survive too. He’s trying to look out for his people.” It’s about respect, loyalty, and payback. Though he understands his enemy, he also recognizes him: “If [Osama] came in my yard, I’d kill his ass.” This is how Moran’s world is organized, and he’s right: it does reflect the broader one outside his hood. Imagining an alternative seems increasingly difficult.