The first image that you see, in the opening scenes of Stacy Peralta’s powerful documentary, “Crips and Bloods: Made in America,” is the central Los Angeles skyline turned upside down. I was enraptured with this image and thus was immediately taken into this urban scene in a unique visual way. It is both striking and unnerving. With this image of Los Angeles, Peralta telegraphs a theme that will resonate in chilling ways throughout this film–geography matters. Through the medium of this film you are entering a world that’s been truly turned upside down over the last five decades, the world we know as south central LA.
This geography has been more violent than any place of geography in the United States for the past twenty-five years. Into a social and cultural vacuum created by numerous social and familial problems arose the famous gangs that we know as the Crips (Blue) and the Bloods (Red) gangs. But where did this story begin? How could more people die in these few square miles than have died in most war zones over the past three decades and yet so few of us know or care?
“Crips and Bloods” is a first-person look at these notorious gangs that powerfully examines the conditions under which these two groups came into existence, creating a devastating scene of continual violence in South Central Los Angeles. (The documentary is narrated by the famous actor Forest Whitaker.) This is, says one, the longest standing civil war in the history of America.
Peralta takes this story from the cotton fields of the South, through industrialization, to the migration North and West of the newly freed slaves, through the shutdown of the great factories in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s, to the Watts riots and then those that followed the infamous jury decision in the Rodney King trial in 1992.
This film, shot mostly in 2008, tells us that the body count over the last 30 years exceeds 15,000 deaths. Let that sink in as you read it again. This is staggering.
Peralta interviews former members of the Slausons, the first known gang in the city, and shows how it was formed by boys rejected from joining the whites-only Boy Scouts. Eventually a largely fatherless culture led young boys to look for role models to become men. As these boys came of age they had been trained to be “men” who rob, kill and get killed. What is clearly at the heart of the problem is the almost complete breakdown of the African-American family in the hoods of LA.
As a result of numerous efforts, some shown in this film, gang violence is down in the last few years and the vice-grip of the Crips and Bloods shows some signs of loosening. This amazing film closes with the voices of those involved in efforts to break the cycle for the next generation. One of the heroes, who is not featured in the film, was the former USC head football coach, Pete Carroll (who now coaches the Seattle Seahawks). Another is Hall-of-Fame football star Jim Brown, a man who tends to be both outspoken and driven by a good bit of anger. Brown is worth listening to if you want to hear the truth without varnish and in this film he comes across in just this way.
I was not prepared for how I would experience this film. If you can find it (I watched it on Netflix) be prepared to experience deep emotion as you watch grieving mothers bury their babies at funerals and then, as one reviewer correctly puts it, simply stare into a camera blankly as tears run down their pained faces.
Documentary film-making is almost always done with a very decided opinion behind the film. This film is no exception. But the opinion here is given with a lot of powerful, nagging facts. Now that the south side of Chicago has become a new “killing field” in America I ask myself often, “What can we do if we care about a generation of young black men who have never had a positive male role model?” Can churches somehow make a difference? The question is not hard to ask but the answers trouble me deeply because I have found so few who can and will make a difference. There are a few, a precious few, and they deserve your respect and support. If this was happening in another country it would be the subject of regular news coverage. Have we lost all sensibility to such happening in this country?