Stabbings, shootings, brutal fistfights, drug peddling, a drive-by killing of a little girl--it could be the nightly news, but these grim events are part of "Gangs," today's "CBS Schoolbreak Special" airing at 3 p.m. on Channels 2 and 8.
The faces of these home-grown terrorists are young. Some are defiant, some are anguished. In Paul Cooper's uncompromising script, directed with care by Jesus Trevino and performed by an exceptional cast, we see a suffocating, war-torn world consisting of a few city blocks.
David Labiosa is Anthony, a former gang leader who has discovered a bigger world after a stint in the Army. He comes home to find his 14-year-old brother, Luis (Gabriel Gonzales), running with his old gang and dealing drugs.
Panchito Gomez as Reuben, the new gang leader, at first welcomes Anthony home, then resents what he sees as a challenge to his authority when Anthony tries to get Luis out.
Anthony is no crusader. Despite his anxiety about Luis, to him gangs are a way of life. In a disturbing statement of justification, he explains to his anxious mother (Lupe Ontiveros) what a street-gang means.
"It makes you feel like something. . . . \o7 Mexican \f7 is a dirty word here. I want to stand with my brothers and show everybody we're a proud people." About drug-dealing, Anthony says it's the only way they can be like people "outside." "Everywhere we look, everybody has so much. What do we have?"
The violence depicted is ugly, an intensely stark portrayal of the endless cycle of defending "honor" and taking revenge, appalling in its hopeless inevitability.
There are no heroes in the film, and little hope--just a few struggling consciences. But one wonders if any film about street gangs can be non-exploitative. Questionable here is the depiction of a powerful brotherhood, however illusory, that regards scars as badges of honor and refers to gang members as "soldiers." In a film targeted at young viewers who are so concerned with peer support, that message may be the overriding one.