Stacy Peralta’s Crips and Bloods: Made in America tracks the evolution of America’s most infamous gang war. From its origins as a Civil Rights era Sidewalk Club, to its development as a system of neighborhood protection (and conflict), to the introduction of crack in 1981, the film attempts to construct a timeline for the gangs, their necessity and their dire outcome. As highly stylized and Southland-centric as Peralta’s Dogtown and Z-Boys, the film maintains a constant tempo and balances out the inevitable gloss it lends to gang culture with a constant and gruesome body count. We are never far from images of death in this film, which, one imagines, might be Peralta’s conscientious reaction to the reality his movie about gang war is slick. Neuvelle Vague filmmaker Francois Truffaut’s asserted that it’s impossible to make an anti-war war film (because scenes of war are inevitably thrilling). That string of conscience is tenuously plucked in Crips and Bloods, and to varying results, but the project as a whole should garner more attention than it likely will, leading to a smaller box office and a wider span of attention online and on DVD.
Los Angeles seems a surprising location for a 40-year war that takes the lives of 15,000 a year, but Peralta, in a stroke of well-timed map-obsession, constantly shows us the city in broad view; we see Watts and South Central from overhead, the houses and buildings laid out grid-like with derelict buildings and abandoned lots punctuating the otherwise military conformity of the space. From the distance it looks like a forgotten city, and that’s precisely what Peralta proves it to be: these are our modern Olvidados grown up, or put in other terms, this where the plantation workers are housed. Not just Made in America, but specifically “Made in L.A.,” the history of the gangs is a history of Los Angeles. From the migration of ex-slaves into metropolitan areas, to the police maintained housing ordinances segregating people (of specific races) to specific neighborhoods, to the closing of the Los Angeles tire companies; the city’s ups and downs parallel the degrees of gang cohesion and escalation of gang activity in L.A. But gang creation, according to the founding members, is an outcropping of the Civil Rights Era.
Bird, Kumasi and Ron Wilkins were founders of sidewalk clubs. In a time when black men were ritually arrested without explanation, these sidewalk clubs kept rigidly to their neighborhoods and participated in competitive fighting. As much a reaction to the explicit racism of the time as it was to these men’s overt braggadocio, the gangs were a surrogate family for the young men who’s fathers were largely absent and their mothers largely breadwinners.
But this information isn’t news. The absence of male role models in the black community isn’t news. Neither is the death toll or the reality that children in South Central suffer from more PTSD than kids in Bagdad. It’s awful, but it’s not new information.
Balancing talking head interviews with historians and politicians, and man on the street interviews with gang members and victims of gang war, Crips and Bloods serves its functions as a primer and a document. Peralta is clearly interested in being thorough, as a fair amount of time is dedicated to the psychology exposed by his interviews with current and retired gang members, all of whom express a wisdom hard won by hard circumstances. One particularly beautiful moment—a moment that poignantly stops the film’s otherwise up-tempo clip—features a gang member in interview. The gang member begins a sentence that’s intruded on by a siren outside. Peralta asks him to stop because he’ll “lose the line” but the sirens just keep going. The interviewer confirms the suspicion that these sirens don’t stop. It’s an interesting and potent moment, resonant largely because no tension seems to reside between the film’s interests (i.e. the history of gangs and L.A.) and its representation of them.
It’s inevitable that, to represent the gang war one would have to demonstrate the allure of the gang, and to do so is just one step shy of glorification. (So here, we’re back to Truffaut.) Anti-Gang grass roots groups swoop in during the third act to show there’s hope and a future for the residents of South Central, but the ending feels tacked on. The heavier goal of this production is to tell the story of the founding gang members (for years it was referred to as The Ron Wilkins Project ) but it doesn’t do that so much as explore the evolution of the gangs and explain the context that produced them. Additionally, there’s the tricky matter of profit motive (the drug trade) that’s shamefully under-explored. In one sentence we hear that the landscape of gangs and Los Angeles was changed with the addition of crack cocaine, but that’s all we get, and there’s no question the subject deserves more attention.
But Crips and Bloods is too interested in the human story (which it does provide well) to explain staple subjects like the drug trade or the definition of the gangs as projected/presented by the media. A solid picture that leaves much for discussion, Crips and Bloods maps the paths, even if it leaves some lots vacant along the way.
Cast: Bird, Kumasi and Ron Wilkins; Narrated by Forrest Whitaker
Director: Stacy Peralta
Producers: Dan Halsted, Baron Davis, Shaun Murphy, Gus Roxburgh and Cash Warren
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: January 23 NY, February 6 LA and February 20 SF