Crips and Bloods: Made in America

Stacey Peralta
Forest Whitaker, narrator
The Setup: 
Documentary about the two most famous African-American gangs.

So my watching of movies like Step Up 3 and Stomp the Yard led me to want to learn the history of that style of dancing, so I watched the documentary Rize. And that pointed out the massive influence of gangs on urban black youth, which made me want to understand that, which led me to see this.

A brief perusal of the IMDb prior to viewing this movie found many commenters saying that this movie is yet another installment of "Guess what Whites? It's ALL YOUR FAULT," so I was alert to that aspect of it, but found to the contrary that the movie is quite even-handled and in the parts where it does fault racism, it is backed up by believable historical and social reasoning.

So the area in question here is Los Angeles. We begin with a quick overview of the situation, informing us that 15,000 people have been killed in the gang war between the Bloods and the Crips, which is five times more than the people killed in the Northern Ireland feud. We then meet three old-timers who recall the 50s in L.A., where blacks were often unwelcome and found little to do. Powerful social pressures--including the police--would keep them West of Alameda avenue, arresting them for nothing if they ventured elsewhere. One of the older guys recalls not being allowed into the Cub Scouts, leading him and others to form "clubs" that would hang out together and occasionally have fights with other clubs--but these were fistfights. Tension with the police grew until one particular traffic stop and arrest for a black man being in a white neighborhood led to a group forming, which led to a standoff, which turned into the Watts riots of 1965. You may feel like these bad times were exaggerated, but here we have the Mayor of L.A. referring to blacks as the "criminal element" and saying that "force is all they understand." The older guys recall the attitude of their parents, which was that progress would be made by standing down, swallowing one's pride and going along with White rule, hoping to slowly change minds over time. Their reaction? "You took it--we're not."

In here are two quotes I found particularly interesting. One of them reacts to white comments that the rioters showed no respect for statues and monuments and other nice social stuff. One of the guys says something to the effect of "These are all monuments to white society and are in places I'm not allowed to go--why should I have any respect for that?" The second quote points out "Blacks are not supposed to use violence in any situation--yet [instutionally] the U.S.'s first solution in any conflict is ALWAYS violence."

After the Watts riots, the Black Panthers and other nonviolent groups formed, and for a while the city threw money at the problem, creating centers and funding groups that would give youths in the area something to do. But as usual, eventually money ran short and these community groups were the first to go. Meanwhile, the FBI was rounding up, jailing and assassinating leaders of black movements.

Now we have the emergence of first the Crips, and soon after, the Bloods. Here is where information becomes notably sketchier, because no gang members want to talk on camera, so around this time we back way off on first-person insight and start looking in from the outside. The only thing we get is one of the old-timers saying that the new gangs are "completely disenfranchised" and have "nothing to hold onto." We learn that kids in South Central get their first gun at 10-12, and that they've created an atmosphere where "if you go in the wrong neighborhood, you die." For this reason, many gang members, who live maybe 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, have never seen it in their lives! Gangs have become entire ways of life in these neighborhoods, you are either in them or controlled by them, which is why the hip-hop dancing in Rize is presented as one of the only alternatives. We hear about the higher incarceration rates of black men, and how the area can't build a decent society because of this. Around now is where you start to become aware that alternate sides are NOT being presented, responsibility is NOT being demanded, in fact, the film just stands back and tut-tuts about how awful it all is. We learn that most kids in South Central exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Then we have the typical "signs of hope and change" documentaries feel they have to tack on at the end, so as not to just be massive bummers and to suggest that "something can be done," and that's about it.

So please note that all the interesting information in this film comes in the first half, but once we actually get to covering the gangs of the title, information drops to near-zero and it's all a lot of outside looking in. And while it's true that blame may be justly aimed at racist whites toward the beginning, NO blame or responsibility is asked of ANYONE toward the end of the film. So when you hear that it's impossible to rebuild a stable society because so many fathers are in prison, you're left to think "Oh, and the residents of this neighborhood WANT to build a more stable society? They're just sitting around wishing for that?" which leads to even more, less politically-correct questions, and this is why I think in many cases this kind of well-meaning documentary actually works against its subjects by leaving out crucial criticisms--which just drives them underground, and allows them to fester in the minds the film seeks to change. For example, if you were to wonder after this movie "So, all these guys were put in prison for selling magazine subscriptions door to door to raise money for their local school? Is that it?" You would find no information to support or rebut it. As I said, the movie has well-supported reasons for holding whites responsible for some things, and the others, it doesn't hold ANYONE responsible for. But obviously it is not alone in this.

Anyway, still a decent, interesting documentary that will illuminate the origins of gangs, if it falls conspicuously uninformative once they have been created.

Should you watch it: 

If you're interested in gangs and their origins.