"Crips and Bloods: Made in America," a documentary feature airing tonight on the PBS series "Independent Lens," begins with the arresting picture -- not a picture of an arrest, although those come soon enough -- of downtown Los Angeles hanging upside down in the sky. It's a simple but surprisingly potent image -- the city stood on its head -- and it captures as well as anything the menace and nonsense of its subject, the self-destructive assertion of territory and tribe.
With a rivalry going back nearly 40 years, the Crips and the Bloods have long since become symbols of Southland life as iconic as swimming pools and movie stars, yet they belong to a circumscribed world most of us know only through the news or as a background for cop shows. Even given the body count -- some 15,000 dead according to this film -- they remain easy to ignore because -- to paraphrase an earlier L.A. gangster, Bugsy Siegel -- they mostly kill each other. (And when the bullets go stray, they kill only their neighbors.) Romanticized and demonized and in either case forbidding, they are hard to see straight. "Made in America" is not without its faults, but it does pull back the curtain a little; it cuts a few holes through the haze.
Director Stacy Peralta, former skateboarding champion and the director of "Dogtown and Z-Boys," about the rise of modern skate culture, writes that he made the film to answer the question, "If affluent, middle-class white American teenagers were forming gangs, arming themselves with automatic weapons and killing one another, how would our country respond?" And, given the obvious answer -- with concern -- "why is it that young African-Americans have been involved in this spiral of death for over four decades with no viable solution in sight?"
Of course, the reason that affluent, middle-class white American teenagers aren't forming gangs and killing one another with automatic weapons is, because they're affluent and/or middle class, just as poverty in black neighborhoods is a contributing factor to the persistence of the gangs. ("I didn't choose my destiny," says one young man. "My destination chose me.") Peralta's questions inevitably lead to certain conclusions -- a lack of options and better role models keeps gang life attractive, or more attractive than the alternatives. But he never really questions why such a fatally counterproductive way of life goes on and on, and most of his talking heads, scholarly or street, are on the same page about these things.
Though he lays historical groundwork for the appearance of the Crips and Bloods -- not until a third of the way through the film do they actually enter the story -- Peralta is less informative on the origins of the gangs themselves -- "Much of the first-hand knowledge has been taken to the grave," is his way out of that -- and how they operate. You would almost not suspect they engage in organized crime. And the film sometimes succumbs to a magazine-spread prettiness, and here and there to sentimentality.
But it mostly avoids sensationalism, and it gives a platform to voices not often heard. By and large, his subjects are articulate, and even those currently in gangs seem to have few illusions about that life. Most would prefer something less stressful. Ironically, the remaking of neighborhoods into exclusive turf replays the segregation that created the ghetto in the first place.
And yet nothing is set in stone. The film ends on a hopeful note, nodding toward grass-roots attempts within the community to reform the community. And we get stories of individual change: One young man recounts that when he stopped wearing the colors, his life changed immediately. "I go to anybody's neighborhood and it's not a problem," he says, with a smile that contains a world of possibilities. "I love it, I really enjoy it."
'Independent Lens: Crips and Bloods: Made in America'
When: 10 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for coarse language and violence)