Four decades of festering gang warfare that has decimated South Los Angeles is captured in a searing new documentary entitled Made in America, an eye-opening expose of two of Los Angeles’ most notorious gangs: the Bloods and the Crips.
Directed by West Los Angeles resident Stacy Peralta, the gritty documentary won raves at the recent Sundance Film Festival, where after the screening many of the men profiled in the film recounted growing up in gang-infested neighborhoods. They unflinchingly pointed fingers at the disaffected society that turns a blind eye to the social ills that helped to produce gangs and their bloody aftermath.
For many of the former gang members, joining a gang was a rite of passage-a place to be accepted in a hostile world, and a way of belonging to something bigger than themselves.
“We tried to become Boy Scouts and we were turned away,” recalled Bird, who said that young men in the 60s began to form their own social “clubs” that marked the beginning of the evolution of gangs. “We formed our own street fraternities-the Businessmen, the Gladiators, and the Slausons. There was a sense of family and a sense of acceptance. Then you realize, now you have the power.”
But chronic poverty, joblessness, lack of opportunities, the crack epidemic, and constant police harassment created a sense of hostility and rage in which young men would turn on each other and eventually on society at large.
“When Chief William Parker was in office, he ran the police department like a military unit,” said Dr. Todd Boyd, a professor of cinema at the University of Southern California. “The cops were treating these young black men like they were enemies.”
In the film, former gang member Kumasi agreed. “You’d be walking down the street and the police would ask, ‘Where are you going? What are you doing here?’” Pausing, Kumasi asked, “What does that do for me psychologically? It’s a spoonful of hatred that fuels anger and frustration. The result is that I’m a walking time bomb. I’m going to go off somewhere, somehow, and on somebody. The only question is, when?”
The documentary also depicts many of the events that helped to fuel tense race relations in Los Angeles, such as the eruption of the Watts Riots in 1965 when Marquette Fry was pulled over for a routine traffic stop for drunk driving. At the time, police brutality was rampant and crowds watching the altercation became belligerent after Fry was brusquely arrested and taken into custody.
“It was one racist cop too many,” said community activist Ron Wilkins in the documentary, who said that outraged over continuous police harassment, the crowd erupted and sparked one of the worst riots in Los Angeles history.
Kumasi crystallized the feelings of disillusioned young black men who felt shut out by society by observing in the documentary, “You can’t whip us. We are already dead. We are immune to fear and harm. You have stepped into a cesspool and you are the only one who will get infected. We turned L.A. into Mogadishu.”
Many black youth turned to the growing black pride movement that brought a sense of hope to the masses-but infiltration by the FBI and COINTELPRO destroyed the movement. The deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X further exacerbated a sense of futility in restless young people seeking leaders.
A new and more insidious element rose up–an element called the Crips. A second gang also formed-the Bloods, whose moniker came from African American servicemen serving in Vietnam.
For over four decades, the Bloods and Crips would erupt in bloodshed and carve South Los Angeles into rival territories. As gang members increasingly fought over beef and turf, the body count began to rise in the thousands–and the documentary captures young, lifeless bodies gunned down in their prime in street scene after bloody street scene.
Reflected one gang member in the documentary, “Ultimately the reward for gangbanging is death. And you don’t come back from that.”
One of the most poignant moments in the film is the montage of mothers crying silently over the memories of their slain sons.
Peralta, who had to solicit permission from the “shot callers” in gang neighborhoods to film the documentary, said he was appalled by the continuing gang violence that still plagues many South Los Angeles neighborhoods.
A number of community activists and professors weigh in on gangs in the documentary, revealing startling insights about the psychology of gang members and gang culture that sheds light on why gangs remain prevalent and continually draw new recruits.
“If white kids were forming gangs and shooting each other with automatic weapons, the country would declare the situation a civil war,” Peralta observed.
Clifford “Skip” Townsend, a former Rolling 20s Blood-turned-community activist, observed that for young men growing up in South Los Angeles, avoiding the hazardous minefields of gangs remains a life-threatening reality. “For most black men in the ‘hood between the ages of 13 and 21, it is the worst time of their lives. When I made it to 21, I cried,” he said.
In an exclusive interview with Our Weekly, former gang members-turned-community activists Townsend, Shaka, and Scrap recounted their trip to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and how they hoped the documentary would spark dialogue and offer solutions to gang participation. Peralta, along with second unit director Apollo, said they all shared a house in Utah where the former rivals let down their guards and got to know each other for the first time. The men said that during the stay, they underwent a “spiritual” connection, swapping stories about their wives and children. “The experience brought me into close proximity for the first time with a rival gang member,” admitted Scrap. “I got to respect my housemates as men.”
Peralta observed, “They were surprised at their similarities of experience because they had been brought up thinking that they were enemies. They had never had a chance to interact with each other.”
Peralta hinted that the pernicious gang activity that has existed for 40 years could possibly be a way for “higher ups” to keep young black men sniping at each other’s necks. “It is beneficial for someone to keep these people divided,” maintained Peralta.
Each man recounted growing up in the “war zone” of gangs, and hoped that the film would help to bring a reconciliation between gangs. “I hope this film gets across the message that we’re rapidly losing each other to gang warfare,” said Scrap. “I want everybody to stop killing each other off and send a positive message to stop the violence.”
And violence was never far away during the filming of the documentary when Apollo, a former member of the Bloods, was shot during the making of the film. “I heard a knock on the door and when I opened it, this guy came at me with a pistol,” he said. “I hit him and he fell down the stairs. He lifted his gun and shot me in the right shoulder.”
Apollo said that working on the documentary showed him that the gang members were people with no way out of their situations. “They need trade schools, jobs, and etiquette schools,” he observed. “They need people to come into the community and say, ‘This is how I made it out and this is how you can make it.’”
All said they are grateful to have participated in the making of the documentary, which is currently seeking a distribution deal. They hope the documentary will help to shed a revealing light on gangs and gang culture. “All the public knows about gangs is what the media tells them,” maintained Shaka. “The movie served as a bridge that was able to transport our voices. I feel like God brought all of us together to sit down and come to an agreement,” he said.
“Society has to open up the floodgates and stop calling us terrorists,” said Townsend. “Society has to change who they think we are. As long as they see these people as animals, they will not be allowed to be seen as human beings,” he observed.