The first major nonfiction film to term the decades-long gang strife in South Central Los Angeles as a war on the scale of Kosovo, Mogadishu or Northern Ireland, Stacy Peralta’s bracing “Made in America” grimly examines the causes and nature of the area’s epidemic violence. Laying out a history while talking directly to former and current members of the Crips and the Bloods, pic assumes a wide aud that’s little informed on the horrors; therein lies its importance, though B.O. and vid returns will come more from overseas than locally, where the reality will be deemed too tough to swallow.
Having established his signature filmmaking style of pell-mell editing, motion-control graphics, driving music soundtracks and big-scale characters in the skateboarding chronicle “Dogtown and Z-Boys” and the surfer-centric “Riding Giants,” Peralta has deepened his ongoing study of young male tribes. Despite a resounding swivel from sports to social reality, Peralta’s kinetic, often electrifying cinema remains consistently his own.
The historical context of South Central’s endless bloodbath (over 15,000 dead in the past 20 years) carries an unexpected twist: According to oldsters Kumasi, Bird and Ron Wilkins, their rejection from the local (all-white) chapter of the Boy Scouts prompted them to form their own clubs with names like the Businessmen and the Slausons. Fists, not guns, were the weapons.
Even though he fails to consider the area’s declining economic and industrial base in the ’50s and ’60s as a cause for social decay, Peralta leaves no doubt that the single greatest spark for violent upheaval was the heavy-handed, military-style methods of the Los Angeles Police Department. Ample archival footage shows rampant racial profiling of the sort that sparked the so-called “Watts riots” of 1965; Bird and Kumasi, however, insist the five days of violence were “guerrilla warfare,” not rioting.
Peralta’s use of vivid graphics reaches a visceral level when pic describes the growth of late-’60s/early-’70s militant black politics and self-organization, followed by killings, incarcerations and assassinations of many of the movement’s leaders. Resulting vacuum (and a steady absence of fathers) was filled by new and violent gangs, with Raymond Washington holding the dubious honor as Crips founder while the Bloods (an alliance of opposing gangs) formed in adjacent ‘hoods.
Using maps, photos and the words of surviving gang members, “Made in America” presents a portrait of a city section gone crazy with blood vengeance. Because Peralta constructs his work as a symphony, with music continually pushing it forward in delineated sections, auds are unlikely to be conscious of how pic carefully delineates the gang war’s roots and causes. Result is a doc with the thrust of entertainment, but the content of a thoughtfully researched book.
A gallery of silent images of mothers of gang war victims is monumental in effect, and a powerful slap in the face to uncontrolled macho rage. While the academics here tend to point outside the community for targets of blame, Peralta finds that the area’s residents are much more likely to mention faults in their own community. Closing credits stress new initiatives for quelling the violence, but it’s unclear how much effect they’re actually having.
Amazing music selections match perfectly with the images. As ever with Peralta, it’s as impossible to take in everything on a first viewing as it is to look away from the screen.