Crips & Bloods: Made in America
Regular airtime: Tuesday, 10pm ET (PBS)
Cast: Kumasi, Bird, Ron Wilkins, Terry Goudeau, Big Girch, Nikko De,
Jim Brown, Tom Hayden, Todd Boyd, Gerald Horne, Forest Whitaker (narrator)
US release date: 12 May 2009
By Cynthia Fuchs
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
12 May 2009
Spoonful of Hatred
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 stateviolent, 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 newbut 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 memberstangles of hopelessness, fear, and
nihilismare 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 racismand 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.