As a documentary filmmaker, Stacy Peralta came into his own with Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants. Both films examined subcultures within the United States--skateboarding and surfing, respectively--offering rich historical perspectives on subject matter that could just as easily have been dismissed. Peralta was able to find a comfortable balance in those two documentaries that made both films informative and entertaining. But while both films had moments of human drama, and perhaps even a bit of tragedy, there's no denying that by and large, Peralta's work was lighthearted in tone. The same can't be said for his most recent documentary, Crips and Bloods: Made in America.
In Dogtown and Z-Boys, Peralta traced the history of skateboarding, a cultural phenomenon that came into its own on the streets of southern California. Peralta himself was part of that movement that began in the 1970s, while just a few miles away, in another part of greater Los Angeles, the African-American street gangs the Crips and the Bloods were still in their formative years. In this world, far removed from the surf culture that lead the way to skateboarding, young black men were waging a war with an ever-increasing body count.
Through a wealth of interviews, vintage photographs and archival footage--much of it devastatingly heartbreaking--Peralta pieces together the incredible history of the Crips and the Bloods, rival street gangs whose ongoing battle has lasted for over four decades. The documentary traces the origins of contemporary gangs to 1950s Los Angeles, where crews like the Slausons were formed by young black men. By the 1960s, many of these gang members became politicized by the growing Civil Rights movement and organizations like the Black Panther Party. But as political leaders were felled by assassin's bullets and the Black Panther Party was systematically destroyed by the FBI's counterintelligence program, many of the black youth in the city of Los Angeles--a city plagued with years of racism and police brutality--became lost in a directionless community with no real leadership. In that environment, the Crips were born, followed soon thereafter by the Bloods, resulting in a war that has lasted for four decades, and claimed more lives than the violence between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. As unemployment grew, creating poverty on an epidemic level, and as crack cocaine was introduced to the inner city, the violence increased as the black community spiraled further out of control.
Crips and Bloods: Made in America dedicates a fair amount of its running time developing a historical overview of Los Angeles, and in doing so creates a deeper context for understanding the bigger pictures of violence, poverty and oppression. But the film is not just a historic look at how this incredible cycle of violence began, the film also looks at the here and now, featuring interviews with current gang members, as well as the former gangsters who are now trying to break the cycle of death and destruction. This mix of past perspectives intertwined with contemporary reality makes for a compelling examination of how the American Dream failed so miserably on the streets of South Central Los Angeles, resulting in an ongoing urban nightmare.
Not always an easy film to watch, and not entertaining in the way his earlier documentaries were, Crips and Bloods: Made in America is Peralta's best film simply because it is his most urgent, addressing issues of societal importance that simply can't be denied. Not to take away from Dogtown and Z-Boys, which itself is an important and inspiring film that achieves a level of brilliance; but Crips and Bloods is something else. Along with Cle Shaheed Sloan's similar documentary Bastards of the Party, Peralta's film creates an important historical document that reveals some of the uglier truths about America. But in doing so, both films create the opportunity to move forward, for in order to create a better future, we must first understand the past. Crips and Bloods: Made in America goes a long way to creating a level of understanding and opening the door to dialogs that need to occur in order to end a war that most people don't even know about. This is documentary filmmaking that is powerful and evocative, and stands as a movie that should be required viewing, not just for inner city black Americans who need to understand the systemic problems faced within the community, but by all Americans, so they can understand the harsh realities that exist in this land of freedom.