Director Stacy Peralta’s “Crips and Bloods: Made in America” is far more ambitious and less focused a film then its title would lead you to believe. Peralta ‘s previous films were highly personal, focusing on his boyhood experiences surfing and skateboarding. “Crips and Bloods” begins with a mile high view of the city of Los Angeles, and traces the history of its African American community from the 1940’s to the 1950’s to the Watts riots that shocked the nation and set off a historic period of urban unrest.
The boys in the hood are always hard...
To a certain extent, the film seems very much like an illustrated thesis paper, with talking heads ranging from community activists to history professors, presented in rapid succession. They hammer home the film’s points – that the white establishment insured that blacks were kept in South Central, where there was little economic opportunity once the large auto factories of the postwar 1940’s began to shut their doors. Rental and sales contracts contained restrictive clauses that prevented blacks from living anywhere but South Central, and Police made it a policy to harass them anytime they ventured out of their established communities.
The film employs all sorts of graphic panache as it builds towards the Watts riots, from internet age maps, to archive photos that have been post processed to extrude elements, to a dynamic soundtrack full of sound effects, overlapping dialogue and culminating in a stylishly animated recreation of the events that sparked the riots. Peralta includes interviews with a number of participants, morphing to photos of them in their youth, amongst the assembled crowds.
These men give testimony to their frustrations as young black men with little to occupy them as youths. The film's main argument is that its inevitable that the disenfranchised would turn to gangs as a way of fulfilling their need for connection, support and self esteem, in a society that saw them as threatening and subhuman. As neighborhoods turned to ghettos, and poverty decimated the landscape, drugs eventually swept through communities, offering an escape either through consumption or sales. Peralta asserts that “The War on Drugs” ultimately has been the systemic undoing of these communities, leading to the imprisonment of more than a quarter of African American men. Without a father figure, the young men of South Central joined street gangs in droves, and the territorial isolation and undercurrent of violence and murder has claimed an astonishing fifteen thousand victims over three decades.
The mother of one victim, describes how upon return to her job at a local school, discovers that nearly every child in the class has a family member or friend who has been a victim of the epidemic violence. Peralta employs a simple but powerful conceit, opening with a montage of women whose sons have been murdered in gang related violence, each woman staring into the camera as tears stream down her face.
The second half of the film turns its attention to the emergence of the Bloods and Crips, interviewing a number of former gang members who range from stoic to philosophical. Peralta isn’t totally forthcoming about these interviews, as the film reveals in the end that all the participants are no longer active gang members, and many work with groups that attempt to provide outreach and counseling for gang members and their families. In an effort to humanize them, Peralta white washes his subjects, who never offer words of apology or contrition for crimes they committed. Also largely absent from the film are any establishment law enforcement or political figures to provide an alternative viewpoint. The film's points are made with concise and often articulate precision, but detractors can easily argue that the film oversimplifies complexities omitting even a passing reference to the dramatic effects of immigration from Mexico and Latin America, and the emergence of Latino gangs. In summation, “Bloods and Crips: Made in America” manages to entertain and illuminate, even if it lacks the ambiguities of the truly great documentaries. With this film Peralta demonstrates that his adroit handling of pop culture subject matter is equally applicable to more substantial material.