×

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.

Filmed by Blowback Prods. Inc. for HBO. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins; producers, Marc Levin, Al Levin, Daphne Pinkerson; director, Marc Levin; Like a cancer, Crips and Bloods and all the other variations on inner-city gangs have metastasized at a frightening rate. If the tumors wereoriginally 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 — many just a stray bullet away from the governor’s mansion that Chelsea Clinton once called home — 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 tangled 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.

Popular on Variety

Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock

Production: HBO, Tues. Aug. 2, 10:15 p.m.

Crew: Editor, Alison Ellwood; sound, Tony Volante, Margaret Crimmins, Soundtrack Facility. 60 MIN.

More Film

  • Dreamworks Abominable

    'Abominable' Release in Malaysia to be Abandoned

    Plans to release the increasingly controversial Chinese-U.S. co-produced animation film “Abominable” in Malaysia have been dropped, after the distributor said that it would not be cut. The film includes a scene which depicts a map showing the South China Sea and the so called ‘nine dash line’ which China uses claim to most of the [...]

  • Hui He

    RAI Com Takes World Sales on Italy/China Doc About Star Soprano Hui He (EXCLUSIVE)

    Italy’s RAI Com has taken world sales on high-profile documentary “Hui He, the Soprano From the Silk Road,” which is about the personal and artistic journey of one of the world’s leading sopranos and also marks a milestone Italian-Chinese co-production. Hui He was born and trained as a singer in the Chinese city of Xi’an, [...]

  • Bruce Springsteen arrives for the New

    Bruce Springsteen Returns to NJ Hometown for Surprise 'Western Stars' Introduction

    Bruce Springsteen returned to his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey to offer a surprise introduction to the first public multiplex viewing of his concert/documentary film, “Western Stars.” Dressed simply in a brown jacket, Springsteen took a moment to say a few words at the AMC Freehold 14 movie theater on Saturday night. “We knew we [...]

  • Backstage in Puglia del film SPACCAPIETRE:

    'Gomorrah' Star Salvatore Esposito Set For De Serio Twins' 'The Stonebreaker'

    Salvatore Esposito, the Italian star who plays young mob boss Genny Savastano in Italy’s hit TV series “Gomorrah,” will soon be hitting the big screen toplining upcoming drama “The Stonebreaker” by twin directorial duo Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio, who are known internationally for “Seven Acts of Mercy.” The De Serio twins are now in post on “Stonebreaker” [...]

  • Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s

    Box Office: 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' Tops 'Joker,' 'Zombieland'

    “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is on track to give Disney another first place finish after scoring $12.5 million in Friday’s domestic ticket sales. If estimates hold, the Angelina Jolie-led film should finish the weekend with about $38 million — well below earlier forecasts but enough to top holdover “Joker” and fellow newcomer “Zombieland: Double Tap.” [...]

  • Maelle Arnaud

    Lumière Chief Programmer Maelle Arnaud: 'Film History Doesn't Have Parity'

    LYON, France   — As the Lumière Institute’s head programmer since 2001, Maelle Arnaud helped launched the Lumière Festival in 2009 and has watched it grow in international esteem over the decade that followed. This year, the festival ran 190 films across 424 screenings in theaters all over town. The festival will come to a [...]

  • Girl with Green Eyes

    Talking Pictures TV: Bringing the Past Back to Life in the U.K.

    LYON, France – Since its launch in 2015, Talking Pictures TV has become the fastest-growing independent channel in the U.K. with a growing library of British film and TV titles that span five decades, according to founder Noel Cronin. Noel Cronin attended the Lumière Festival’s International Classic Film Market (MIFC) in Lyon, France, where he [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content