By Charlie Bass
Struggling to balance the modes of entertainment and enlightenment that so many documentaries face, Stacy Peralta’s new film, Crips and Bloods: Made In America, ostensibly about the long-standing rivalry between LA’s crips and bloods gangs, consistently undermines itself. Oddly structured and tonally inconsistent, the film alternates heartfelt stories of loss, genuine South Central LA history, and shallow sub-VH1 interviews that repeat much of what we already know about gang life from far richer cultural sources (NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Menace II Society, even Colors).
A former skateboarder turned respected documentarian (Dogtown and Z Boys, Riding Giants), Peralta gets access to not just philosophical ex-gang members, assorted academics and celebrities, but also to many current members on both sides of this 40-year long unofficial war. But in the end, there’s so little history or information on hand here about either the Bloods or the Crips that the film comes off as, at best, uneven.
It opens strong, with the specific stories of boys being refused by the Boy Scouts, illuminating the limited options for young black men in South Central LA in the post-war era. With no where else to turn, gangs form quickly on the streets, and continue to grow through the history of failure and neglect that is the story of South Central LA.
Touching on the Watts riots and several noticeably weak attempts at revitalization, the film works best when it tries to tell the overarching history of this isolated sliver of poverty nestled between some of the richest neighborhoods in the world. But whenever Peralta refocuses his film specifically on the Crips-Bloods rivalry, the resulting gang member interviews simply reiterate the kind of empty tough talk we know well from myriad fiction films. This rhetoric of the “You kill one of mine, I kill one of yours” stripe might prove revelatory to someone not alive during the early 1990s, but today it’s like someone’s grandpa telling you about this new thing called gangsta rap.
There’s a telling moment early in the film where Peralta cuts to a cemetery and we hear how most of the stories about the Crips and Bloods will never be told because so many have died. It’s an honest statement but it doesn’t excuse how little information Peralta gathers from his current and ex-gang members.
Aping the Hughes Brothers hollow but entertaining doc American Pimp, he quick-cuts the interviews up into flashy sound bites so that we rarely get a full story; for example, a female gang member gets all of five seconds of screen time, when surely she could offer a different perspective. It’s a shame, because when he does let people tell their full story, as with the mothers who have lost children (some purely innocent bystanders) to the rivalry, Peralta’s film conveys the mix of sorrow and indignation one should feel about the senseless loss of lives.
With the history to be told here mostly squandered by a filmmaker who clearly possesses the chops to pull it off, it’s evident that the approach to the material is what’s off. The larger story of gang rivalry and South Central LA history seems better served by a longer form more akin to Lanzmann’s Shoah or a multi-part TV series. Of course, it’s easy to fault Peralta for the movie he didn’t make, and he should be commended for drawing attention to this oft-neglected issue, but the resulting movie is more frustrating than enlightening.