In an era with a paucity of real heroes, a genuine one emerges in “G-Dog”: the inexhaustible Jesuit priest Greg Boyle, whose Homeboy Industries has saved countless lives in Los Angeles’ gang-plagued neighborhoods. Freida Mock’s documentaries have been only as good as their subjects (and sometimes, as with her portrait of playwright Tony Kushner, not even that), but here she has made a movie that vitally captures an extraordinary character in extraordinary circumstances. Boyle’s story will reach across a long roster of fests and easily garner distrib interest, with socially minded tube play assured.
Boyle is a familiar name to Angelenos and those who closely followed gang-war violence in the 1980s, when it reached a dangerous climax in such enclaves as the ironically named Boyle Heights, just east of downtown L.A. As pastor of Mission Dolores in this hood’s heart, Boyle personally intervened in countless turf disputes, and forged a sturdy gang peace agreement instrumental in a reduction in violence that has taken hold. Mock’s camera (with Erik Daarstad and Hiroki Miyano sharing vid-lensing credit) follows Boyle through a particularly tough period in the life of Homeboy Industries, as it risks financial ruin nearly two decades after its founding.
“Nothing stops a bullet like a job” is Homeboy’s ingenious, says-it-all slogan, and in its offices, located at downtown’s edge, Boyle is seen juggling a busy staff and interns, most of them former gangbangers. With a thriving cafe, bakery and other businesses employing individuals who would have been rejected by most other companies, Homeboy is perhaps the country’s most successful working model of the transformation of young criminals into productive citizens, with a retention rate that far outstrips the 30% of most similar programs.
Politicians have noticed: The camera spots former mayor Richard Riordan dining at the Homeboy cafe, and California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris meeting with Boyle and touring the facility. In a memorable sequence, former first lady Barbara Bush invites Boyle and three Homeboy workers to Washington, D.C., for a White House dinner. Boyle’s political knack is remarkable, in that he has forged alliances with a wide array of figures across the political spectrum, from community activists to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.
But the jolly, rotund Boyle — a dead ringer for Santa Claus — reserves his best bonding for the kids he’s saved and is still trying to save, made most evident in the unabashed emotion they express when they encounter him. All this makes the layoff of 300 Homeboy staffers during the recession a shocking blow to everyone involved, raising the possibility that the businesses may even have to close.
They don’t, and in fact, continue to thrive as lensing wraps in 2011, testament to the solid foundation Boyle constructed. Much of the final third of “G-Dog” (Boyle’s affectionate street moniker) is an account of Homeboy in full-on fundraising mode, surely prompting a question in the minds of some viewers: Where are the so-called job-creating members of America’s 1% in helping to sustain an organization that’s amply proved its value and even genius?
Mock’s shrewd approach pays fine dividends: Get out of the way and let her figures do the talking, including not only Boyle but a roster of subjects like Homeboy staffer Hector Verdugo and artist Fabian Debora. Warners provided post-production facilities and talent such as ace re-recording mixer Skip Lievsay, resulting in picture and sound far above the norm for a lower-budget docu.