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Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock

This terrifying installment of "America Undercover" sets out to infiltrate the hearts and minds of young gang members in the nation's interior. The images and stories that emerge cut far deeper than the brands these teenagers have burned into their skin.

This terrifying installment of “America Undercover” sets out to infiltrate the hearts and minds of young gang members in the nation’s interior. The images and stories that emerge cut far deeper than the brands these teenagers have burned into their skin.

Like a cancer, Crips and Bloods and all the other variations on inner-city gangs have metastasized at a frightening rate. If the tumors were originally diagnosed in the troubled urban sprawls of Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, their poisons have since spread to America’s midsection, where they continue to eat away at a generation’s future.

In Little Rock, the focus of this mesmerizing hour, the per capita murder rate actually surpassed those of New York and Los Angeles last year, the great increase flowing on the blood of the city’s children.

From its opening sequence — a chilling juxtaposition of images of an apple-pie heartland over stark news reports of random violence –“Gang War” establishes that its purpose is to bore in beneath the surface and to try explaining, rather than exploiting, what it finds. It fulfills that aim with a stunning emotional power and visual clarity.

Part of the show’s brilliance is its ability to go beyond the expected ethnicity of inner-city violence and disaffection. Several of Little Rock’s gangs are either white or multiracial.

The pictures, sounds and stories are disturbing: teenagers, white and black, discussing killing and retaliation as nonchalantly as if they were debating box scores; the beating of a white girl as part of her initiation ceremony; kids rapping about rape and murder the way previous generations sang about little red Corvettes; tales of abuse at home that have led teenagers to seek family, and love, on the streets with their peers; young blacks talking about hopelessness; parents, white and black, who don’t understand and don’t seem to want to understand the roots of despair that have entangled their children.

Weaving through the hour is the heroic leitmotif of Steve Nawojczyk, Little Rock’s coroner since 1983. He is a true voice in the wilderness, a man whose job daily touches the results of too much wanton bloodletting, and whose decency forces him to do something about it.

But rather than enter the community of gangs to preach, he goes in to listen; he wants to hear them, understand the roots of their loneliness and anxiety, and , through simple photographs of their colleagues on marble slabs, give them an idea of the direction in which they’re headed.

What he hears — and what the filmmakers capture — is heartbreaking. What he experiences — toward the end of the film he is caught in the middle of a drive-by — is horrifying.

Yet he doesn’t lose hope. “We need to listen to the children,” he advises. “What we’ve got to recognize is that they’re children and if we reach out to them, they’ll respond.”

The alternative, as “Gang War” bravely demonstrates, is much too awful to think about. Thankfully, though, that’s exactly what “Gang War” forces itself, and viewers, to do.

Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock

(Tues. (2), 10:15-11:15 p.m., HBO)

Production: Filmed by Blowback Prods. Inc. for HBO. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins; producers, Marc Levin, Al Levin, Daphne Pinkerson; director, Marc Levin.

Crew: Editor, Alison Ellwood; sound, Tony Volante, Margaret Crimmins, Soundtrack Facility.

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