HBO is turning into a gangster’s paradise. Those pining for the loutish charisma of Tony Soprano will find satisfaction in the main character of Jon Alpert’s docu “Latin Kings: A Street Gang Story,” a compelling look at Antonio “King Tone” Fernandez, once leader of New York’s largest gang. The neutral presentation and incredible access granted multiple Emmy winner Alpert (“One Year in a Life of Crime”) to the Latin Kings gives Fernandez, a self-styled savior of Gotham’s Puerto Rican community, sufficient rope to hang himself in front of the audience via his words and deeds.
In early scenes Fernandez is shown in his element, preaching to a several hundred-strong crowd of gold and black-clad youths on a playground. He appeals to the ethnic pride of the men and women gathered, bringing out an elderly Puerto Rican revolutionary and ordering the assembled masses to pay their respects to her. They repeatedly cheer “Amor de Rey” — Love the King — and the furor raised is a combination of tent revival and civil rights protest.
It’s quite a show. Most outraged is Brooklyn assistant district attorney Deanna Rodriguez, whose criminal case against Fernandez is built on a deep sense of personal loathing, which Alpert reveals in a one-on-one interview. She calls his mimicry of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “more offensive than anything I have ever known.” Soon Fernandez, already a two-time felon, winds up with a drug-dealing charge and evidence against him on videotape.
Weaselly defense attorney Ron Kuby opts to begin plea negotiations to avoid a potential life sentence for Fernandez. He is placed on house arrest, and in the intervening months, Alpert takes a close look at Fernandez’s quite literal home life, interviewing associates and relatives who respond with unusual candor.
Part of his success may have to do with Alpert’s doofus behind-the-camera persona. He shoots the subjects numerous questions while filming, not ashamed to make himself look like the uncoolest white man in America in the process. At one point, he exclaims that it would take him three months to learn how to flash the Latin Kings gang sign.
Fernandez occasionally chafes at the camera intrusion, dismissively calling Alpert “a cracker” and teasingly threatening to behead him. The dopey technique does win the trust of the women in Fernandez’s life: interviews with his mother, girlfriend and daughter are wrenching. On jail visitation day Alpert asks the toddler where they are going, and she responds gleefully, “Daddy’s in the cage!”
Eventually, Fernandez is sentenced to serious time in a federal prison and the operation of the New York Latin Kings goes to pieces without him. Wrap up of the story does seem a tad rushed, with a number of Fernandez’s associates simply written off in a screen note as winding up in jail.
Production values are standard for such an intimate docu — look for Alpert’s reflection in a mirror in Fernandez’s parents’ house — and hard-driving rap background music suits tough luck environment.