August has been a month to examine depressingly intractable problems on HBO’s “America Undercover” series, first with “Death in Gaza” — highlighting disaffected Palestinian youth — and now this sequel to the 1994 docu “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock.” Thematically similar to the decade-later follow-up to “Scared Straight!,” there’s a predictable melancholy surrounding the hopelessness of the subject matter, which unfortunately doesn’t shed much new light on these well-traveled issues.
“Gang War” exposed the twin forces of poverty and drugs fueling an intense and bloody feud between Crips and Bloods even in a heartland town like Little Rock — situated, not incidentally, in then-President Clinton’s home state.
Producers Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson revisit the city — pointing out that more than 400 people have died from gang-related violence since the original — with their cameras trailing Leifel Jackson, a former Crips leader paroled after nearly a decade in prison on drug-trafficking charges.
From a viewer’s perspective, the problem is that both in reality and fiction Jackson’s is such a familiar story — the reformed crook determined to help others escape the life (in this case, by running a city-funded after-school program), fruitlessly struggling against the patterns of crime and violence. It’s a variation on that theme, in fact, that has made HBO dramas “The Corner” and “The Wire” so compelling.
Moreover, even those profiled recognize the circular path they’re walking, with a cop drawing the obvious parallel between his job and that of U.S. troops in Iraq. As one former gang member puts it, “This shit will never cease.”
Yet both “Death in Gaza” (which continues to repeat on various HBO nets and whose director, James Miller, was killed during production) and “Gang War 2” derive additional power from being viewed in tandem, and neither is wholly satisfying alone. Put together, they paint a dispiriting portrait of an important foreign-domestic connection between youths that feel life isn’t worth much — and the horrible consequences of that mindset.
“Gaza” refers to “children caught up in a grown-up war,” just as “Gang War” features a young man who was previously shown scouting for the Crips at the age of 9. In an exchange that could just as easily apply to that boy, a masked Palestinian in the former is asked about the danger 11-year-old Ahmed faces fighting Israelis. “When we say goodbye to Ahmed, there are 1,000 more kids like him,” he replies.
A thousand dead here and a thousand there, in two places that display tragedy in abundance but precious little in the way of answers.