by Jessica Mosby
– USA –
Forty years of unending gang violence between rival gangs, the Bloods and Crips, has killed over 15,000 people in South Central Los Angeles. It seems counterintuitive that one of the most dangerous places in the United States is so close to one of the most famous places on earth; the sunny palm tree lined streets of Hollywood seem worlds away from the dangerous and economically depressed streets of South Central LA. But the sad reality is that children are regularly gunned-down while walking to school at 10 a.m. a mere twenty-five miles from Disneyland.
The new documentary film Made in America attempts to explain the circumstances that have contributed to decades of lethal gang violence in South Central LA. More importantly, the film presents viable solutions to the systemic problems that have left women (who are most affected by gang war) raising their children alone because their husbands are dead or in jail – and then mourning their children as they are claimed by the same cycle of violence.
The film’s director Stacy Peralta is no stranger to the rough side of Southern California; his rise to fame as skateboarder who revolutionized the sport on the seedy sidewalks of Venice Beach in the 1970s is chronicled in the documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys (which he also directed) and in the feature film The Lords of Dogtown. Besides Peralta, this film has an extraordinary amount of star power behind it, especially for a documentary: actor Forest Whitaker narrates and NBA star Baron Davis, who was raised by his grandmother in South Central LA, financed and produced the film.
Made in America is a true call to action. As Davis said during the Sundance Film Festival post-screening Q&A, he is “not going to stop until there is peace in our community.”
Well-made and expertly produced, there is nothing “low-budget” about this documentary. Peralta weaves archival newsreels and photos (narrated by Whitaker) together with original interviews to create a compelling and interesting 105 minute film that truly affects the audience. Interviews – from an impressively diverse group, ranging from academics and politicians to active and former gang members – provide intelligent analysis of the historical evidence presented, further validating the film’s claims. It is one thing to see new reels that capture people being shot in the back by the National Guard during the 1965 Watts riot, but hearing people who participated in the riot describe their experience while the footage is playing is truly devastating. I actually saw the film twice at Sundance, and, after both screenings, I was reeling from the upsetting realization that the horrors in the film are some people’s daily life.
There is something so distressing it’s almost indescribable about juxtaposing a current gang member candidly talk about guns, drugs, and drive-by shootings, with a mother who describes losing her child in a drive-by shooting.
But the gang members interviewed don’t seem fully aware that they are destroying their own community. The members, who are all stylishly dressed and have an inauthentic air of toughness about them, discuss their crimes with disturbing candor; no one outright brags about the violence, but nor do any active members ever accept responsibility for the consequences of their crimes. B.A., a young attractive female member of the Crips, speaks about her gang membership with a resigned tone of acceptance.
The film begins with a comprehensive history of South Central LA, illustrated by vintage news footage and interviewees’ personal photos, as a means to explain a racially-charged environment that has fomented forty years of gang warfare. By exploring the community’s feelings of disconnection and alienation, coupled with single-parent upbringings and poverty, the film explores the factors that have directly contributed to the formation of gangs.
Today South Central LA is divided into Blood and Crip territory; leaving your neighborhood can result in the death. There are people who have not traveled more than ten miles from their home in years for fear of entering rival turf. Not actively participating in a gang provides little protection from the violence, and in fact just being from a particular neighborhood can be a death sentence for those who venture into rival neighborhoods.
Girls and boys as young as ten join gangs for a sense of family and unity, and also for protection against other gangs. Scrap, now a former gang member, says he felt like he was born into a gang growing up in a Watts housing project – he officially became a Crip at the age of eleven. Current gang members may not even be sure why they are committing horrific acts of violence on behalf of their gang, such as drive-by shootings in rival neighborhoods where innocent bystanders are often hurt and killed – but it has become a vicious cycle of retaliation. And the situation worsened with the introduction of crack cocaine in 1981.
Gang violence has claimed more than lives – it has destroyed the traditional family structure and made it almost impossible for children to grow up in stable two-parent households. According to the US Census Bureau, over sixty five percent of African American babies are born to single mothers – their fathers are dead, in jail, or simply gone. Single mothers try their best, but are not necessarily able to create loving homes with strong role models while simultaneously having to put food on the table. Instead of looking to their absent parents for guidance, kids must look to their neighborhoods’ omnipresent drug-dealers and gang members. Many young men are raised in fatherless households with mothers who must work three jobs to survive; they come to think that they can become men by committing acts of violence, and, so in turn, they look to gangs for a sense of family.
The film personifies the impact of this unending violence during interviews with mothers and grandmothers who have lost their children and grandchildren in the crossfire. Women like Annette Ford McCoy and Bettye Sweet emotionally breakdown into sobs while telling their stories of innocent children gunned down in broad daylight, and how difficult it is to go on after the violent death of a child – especially in an economically depressed area with few available resources.
These interviews were one of the most inspiring portions of the film; even though these mothers and grandmothers – many of whom are holding a picture of their murdered child while being interviewed – have had their lives destroyed, they want to help others and end the cycle of violence by speaking out in schools and counseling other families. Vicky Lindsey, a stylish middle-aged woman who frankly says that you just can’t “get over” having your child murdered, has founded Project Cry No More, a support group for fellow families who have lost loved ones to gang violence.
Dr. James Gilligan – a former prison psychiatrist, who has written a number of books on the psychology of violence and the failures of the prison system – explains, during an onscreen interview, that a disproportionate number of African American males, over twenty eight percent, will be incarcerated in their lifetime. Life after prison is filled with stigma and many men resort to drug dealing and gang activity once they are back on the outside. Women should not be expected to financially and emotionally provide for their children alone; it’s unacceptable for so many men to abandon their families and relinquish any responsibility for their community. The emotional toll of absentee fathers is painfully obvious during interviews with active and former gang members; it is heartbreaking to hear that so many men, including Kumasi, never knew their fathers.
Ironically even the most hardened gang members are obsessed with their appearance. The film’s only funny scenes involve gangs discussing fashion, notably the importance of starching and ironing pants and button-down shirts. Each gang has a signature color (red for Bloods and blue for Crips), and members are expected to work the color into their stylish outfits while incorporating trendy accessories, such as hats, jewelry, and perfectly folded bandanas. The film shows a number of gang photos where posed members are all dressed in color-coordinated, and expertly ironed, outfits while toting guns and trying to look tough. This style, and the accompanying musical genre of gansta rap, has ironically gained international popularity with privileged white kids emulating the style on MTV and other fans, in as unlikely places as New Zealand and Europe as pictured in Made in America, wearing Blood or Crip attire with an ignorant sense of pride.
Gangs are as much about looking good as they are about violence. It struck me that there is a very false sense of masculinity when being a man is defined by violence, and yet is simultaneously concerned about perfectly ironing the crease on his pants, just like his mother taught him.
After a number of failed government programs, including the short-lived Rebuild Los Angeles that never delivered on its $6 billion promise in the wake of the 1992 Rodney King riots, privately funded groups are taking the lead with street-level intervention by having former gang members work within the community. By speaking at schools, detention centers, prisons, and by just approaching at-risk kids hanging out on in their neighborhood, these grassroots groups are trying to stop the cycle of violence. Amer-I-Can, founded by pro-football player Jim Brown, and Unity One advocate a message of love, not hate, to children who do not know a life without gang violence. By connecting with former gang members, children abandoned by their own fathers learn what it really means to be a man, and that it has nothing to do with using a gun. It is a promising start to stopping this war before it goes on for another forty years.
There are no easy answers to the devastating realities that the residents of South Central confront daily, but Made in America starts an important discussion that can lead to change. People in and outside the South Central community must advocate for real solutions to stop the systemic violence, crime, and poverty that are the root of the war between the Bloods and the Crips. As Davis said during the Q&A, “We’re all the same people.” And we cannot let another generation of women in South Central mourn the deaths of their fathers, their husbands, and their children.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she’s not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.