Easygoing Southern California documentary wizard Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys, Riding Giants) turns his attentions away from the recreational pursuits of his youth to more serious topics of SoCal culture in Crips and Bloods: Made in America. In his usual dazzling style (half MTV/half Ken Burns), Peralta gives viewers a compact and meaty history of South Central L.A.’s gang problem.
This isn’t some exploitative “Dateline NBC” exposé aimed at frightening middle America with shots of graffiti (it’s invading your town!) and a lexicon of drug slang (the kids call it Apple Jacks, baby T, bobo, bump, caps, Casper the Ghost, cloud, dip, grit, hail, ice cube, kokomo, Roxanne, Seven-Up or white tornado). What the filmmaker lays out here is, instead, a fascinating primer on why and how the Crips and Bloods (America’s largest street gangs) were born. Peralta attacks the subject from several fronts—the purely historical, the largely social—arriving at a clear-eyed portrait that is both disturbing and imminently logical.
That fact that violent street gangs flourish in sectors of Los Angeles seems like a rather unavoidable end result of many long-simmering factors. In the wake of World War II, black families emigrated in large numbers from the post-agricultural American South to the burgeoning industrial economy of California. Forced into a narrow corridor of neighborhoods by restrictive housing covenants, African-Americans formed close-knit communities in Watts, Compton, Crenshaw and other areas. Peralta locates a number of erudite residents who recall well the ’50s and beyond. Early days are spoken of nostalgically. With groups like the Boy Scouts closed off to black participants, impromptu social groups naturally formed among neighborhood youth. These groups were soon labeled “gangs” by the LAPD, who were looking for any excuse to keep nonwhites out of Caucasian neighborhoods.
The anger over police intimidation and invisible social barriers still sounds indignant and thoroughly justified after all these decades. Peralta and his interviewees offer a brief rundown of the Watts Riots of 1965 as the inevitable result of all this pent-up mid-century anger. You would think those violent times would be a wake-up call for people both in and out of those communities. But it wasn’t long before the bloody, drug-running street gangs we know today took over. History even managed to repeat itself with the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. And still we haven’t found solutions to the problems.
There’s plenty of blame to spread around for the growth of these street gangs. We could finger economic racism, we could talk about police brutality, we could cite statistics that say 80 percent of all drugs sold in America are actually consumed by white people, we could point out the fact that the vast majority of black males are now raised by single mothers: all of which Peralta does. Whatever the causes—and they are undoubtedly multiple—the end result is shocking. Crips and Bloods notes that more than 100,000 people have been shot and more than 15,000 murdered on the streets of Los Angeles in the last 30 years. That’s more than died in The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Why, then, has little been done to address it? If those killings took place overseas, wouldn’t the U.N., the president, Congress all rise to condemn them as a humanitarian tragedy? Food for thought, certainly.
The only major drawback to Peralta’s vision is its lack of diversity in voices. He finds some impressive and eloquent subjects—almost all of them former gangbangers who now preach against the lifestyle. He largely avoids talking to current, in-the-life gangsters. That diffuses much of the condescending, anthropological tone an outsider documentary like this could have sported, but it leaves the narrative without much modern voice. Exploitative as it might have been for a white filmmaker to get inside the minds of today’s drug-slinging street gangs, it could have given the film a less academic approach. Similarly absent are more mainstream black political and civil rights advocates, who could have put the film’s assertions in a wider context.
Still, Crips and Bloods creates a fascinating and visually vivid contextualization of the modern-day tribal warfare being enacted on the streets of our richest state’s largest city. Identify the problem—something this film does quickly and concisely—and you might start to find a solution.