Looking for the Origins of the Gangs of Los AngelesBy MANOHLA DARGIS
If the historical record (and common sense) did not insist otherwise, you might walk away from the documentary “Crips and Bloods: Made in America” thinking that the story of two of the most notoriously violent gangs in Los Angeles and the story of that city’s nongangbanging African-American population are one and the same.
That they are not identical goes without saying. And yet, in his excavation of Los Angeles gang life past and present, the director Stacy Peralta conflates these separate if at times overlapping black histories to such a ridiculous degree that he undermines even the most persuasive parts of his argument.
Among the most convincing of his points, one laid out right at the start through Forest Whitaker’s voice-over narration and an abundance of archival imagery both still and moving, is that racist housing covenants written into leases and deeds prevented blacks, Latinos and Asians from living in white neighborhoods.
Those discriminatory practices helped establish and entrench the homogeneity of traditional black neighborhoods like the now mostly Latino South Central, among other racial and ethnic enclaves. This was Jim Crow, Cali-style — the covenants were statewide — a means to keep minorities of different colors geographically separate and consequently unequal. In 1948 the United States Supreme Court ruled that these covenants were illegal, but the discrimination continued until the adoption of the federal Fair Housing Act in 1968.
Housing discrimination is part of the Los Angeles narrative, as are the disappearance of factory jobs from the city, the state’s investment in the booming prison industry and the country’s history of slavery, all of which Mr. Peralta touches on. These pieces might fit more convincingly into the Los Angeles gang narrative as well, if he embraced a less deterministic attitude toward history and human behavior. It is one thing to argue that racism helps create the material and psychological conditions that lead to violent gangs; it’s another to argue, as he basically and perhaps unwittingly does, that these gangs can be all but excused by racism. “I didn’t choose my destiny,” a man says early on, “my destination chose me.”
That’s clever, but the overwhelming majority of poor, black Los Angeles children do not pick up an AK-47. I’m certain that Mr. Peralta, who can be heard lobbing off-camera questions at his subjects (“You can’t have a heart?”), knows this. Yet in his effort to be evenhanded, to understand the former and current gangbangers who share their stories, poses and colors on camera, he comes dangerously close to giving them a free pass.
Part of the problem lies in his decision to chop up the time line and jump from the present to the past and forward again, a strategy that, like the frantic editing, dilutes the historical momentum he is trying to build. There is something too jarring about his leap from the cotton fields to gangland.
Mr. Peralta, who was on far firmer ground in his documentary about the origins of the modern skateboard culture, “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” has approached his new subject with heart but not enough intellectual skepticism.
With the help of various talking heads culled from academia and from the mean streets, he manages to put a human face on a subject that tends to inspire inflamed debate and has produced calamitous laws and policies, along with a lot of pop culture. It’s just that when one former gang member characterizes gangbangers as “urban soldiers,” it’s hard not to think that one man’s soldier is another’s terrorist, a distinction that Mr. Peralta may reject but he should have engaged.
CRIPS AND BLOODS: MADE IN AMERICA
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Stacy Peralta; written by Mr. Peralta and Sam George; narrated by Forest Whitaker; director of photography, Tony Hardmon; edited by T. J. Mahar; music by Kamasi Washington and Matter, performed by DJ Krush; produced by Baron Davis, Dan Halsted, Mr. Peralta and Jesse Dylan; released by Verso Entertainment and Balance Vector Productions. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. This film is not rated..