In chronicling the evolution of gang violence in Los Angeles, "Crips and Bloods: Made in America," which screens Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, opens with an upside-down aerial view of downtown L.A. The image is striking, if unsubtle " a visual announcement that this iconic sun-drenched oasis of opportunity has been thrown topsy-turvy.
Documentarian Stacy Peralta doesn't get much more perceptive than that, although he barrels through a confluence of factors that gave rise to L.A.'s most notorious black street gangs. The film's dearth of real insight, however, is nearly compensated for with stylistic flair. Peralta, who showed the genesis of skateboarder culture in 2001's superb "Dogtown and Z-Boys," imbues his storytelling with a visceral sensibility. "Crips and Bloods" boasts a nonlinear narrative, fast-motion, slow-motion, flashy edits and a first-rate, hip-hop soundtrack featuring the likes of Tupac Shakur and Public Enemy.
With narration by Forest Whitaker ("Vantage Point"), woven with interviews and archival news footage, the doc examines the past and present of street gangs in the City of Angels. The picture's first third is the most fascinating. Peralta relies heavily on interviews with three old-timers of South Central L.A. " Ron Wilkins, Bird and Kusami " who were among the first members of the Slausons, a 1950s-era gang widely considered the forerunner of the Crips. Racist policies precluded black boys from joining a local Boy Scouts troop " a rejection the men say prompted them and their friends to form their own street-front "clubs."
Institutional and unspoken racism metastasized anger among many black L.A. youths. Housing covenants ensured the existence of segregated communities, while a police force headed by Chief William Parker harassed blacks who dared venture beyond their preordained neighborhoods. Bottled-up tensions finally exploded in the Watts area on the night of Aug. 11, 1965. What whites labeled as "riots" is characterized here as rebellion against an oppressive power structure.
"I was rejected before I was born," says Kusami with barely concealed rage. "So how does it mean anything to me that I should try to salvage it or I should respect it or I should try to preserve it?"
Buttressed by a slew of academic experts, Peralta pieces together events and developments that he contends made street gangs an inevitability. Expect no revelations here. The loss of manufacturing jobs, the breakdown of the traditional family " particularly the absence of fathers in many black households " and the prevalence of crack cocaine in the early 1980s are cited as contributing to a disconnected and disenfranchised generation that Kusami describes as "born in a state of suspended animation."
The documentary loses steam once it arrives at present-day L.A.. Peralta lets us hear from several current and former Crips and Bloods, but the results are hardly edifying. The filmmaker's off-screen questions ("You can't have a heart?") are a little mushy-headed, and too many of his interviewees are too full of braggadocio and posturing to be particularly useful.
Co-produced by NBA star Baron Davis and high-tech mogul Steve Luczo, "Crips and Bloods: Made in America" is ultimately more well-intentioned than it is executed. The film effectively depicts the horror of its subject matter. Over the past 20 years, gang violence in Los Angeles County has taken more than 15,000 lives. One study cited in the film indicates that children in South Central L.A. suffer higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder than do children in Baghdad.
But what do we make of such alarming information? "Crips and Bloods" does not stretch itself beyond the familiar targets of liberalism. Its eagerness to identify the causes of gang crime veers disturbingly close to excusing it.
And there is something a bit patronizing about Peralta's " which is to say the movie's " viewpoint: The vast majority of blacks, even in the most impoverished communities, are neither Crips nor Bloods. The racism that Peralta traces can help explain Watts in 1965 or the L.A. riots in 1992, but the film leaves a gaping hole in connecting those incidents to black-on-black violence."Phil Bacharach