Beginning with a panoramic, ominous series of God’s-eye shots of the Los Angeles skyline flipped on its axis so that skyscrapers jutting down like stalactites, Crips and Bloods: Made In America is director Stacy Peralta’s third look at an underground L.A. subculture in as many films. After tackling the origins of skateboarding (Dogtown and Z-Boys) and surfing (Riding Giants), Made In America takes a look at the decades-long-running feud between America’s two most notorious gangs. Lacking any of the attention to detail, unique insight and, frankly, familiarity and sensitivity to its subject matter that made his earlier efforts compelling accounts of SoCal youth culture, Made In America, whether out of reverence or fear, starts out with a distant, wide perspective and never tracks in.
At a Q&A session following Saturday night’s IFC Center screening, Peralta dutifully faced questions regarding everything from whether he was, in fact, Stacy Peralta the skater to whether he did, in fact, intentionally ignore the ‘well known fact’ that the CIA funded and perpetuated the crack epidemic to fund their illegal covert wars in Central America (West Village Militia stand up! That dude definitely has a blog). And as audience members peppered him with questions, asking why the role of women, or the presence of powerful Mexican and Central American gangs had been ignored by the film, Peralta’s answer was the same: the subject matter was too big for one film to take on all the various elements. No one, it turned out, was courageous enough to ask why the director couldn’t choose even one angle to do well.
Solemnly narrated by Forrest Whitaker, Peralta’s film is structurally jagged, flitting back and forth from post-WWII Los Angeles to modern day to pre-WWII without much rhyme or reason. Our guides around this space-time roundabout are a series of talking heads ranging from ex-gang members, O.G.’s, bookworms, and bereft family members of the departed. Nobody would ever call into question their familiarity, understanding or sensitivity on the subject at hand, least of all Peralta, who allows things to very quickly devolve into boilerplate, until all you’re hearing is well-worn statements amounting to, ‘out here it’s kill or be killed,’ or ‘this is what it is.’ Sets are thrown, tears are shed, and archival photos are given the Ken Burns-treatment. The movie’s soundtrack — DJ Krush cutting together a selection of trip-hop’s greatest hits, plus “California Love” — harkens back not to indigenous L.A. but to an upscale shopping experience, circa 1998
What the film needed was curiosity. At one point, after a long preamble setting up the social and environmental conditions that laid the groundwork for the rise of gangs, Whitaker states that little is known about who founded the Crips and Bloods, who fired the first shot, etc. But rather than, like, investigate this obvious hole in the narrative, Peralta is content to let his camera wander over LA again and again. “I have to say, it was an enormous relief to be back on the freeway heading home after spending all day in these neighborhoods,” said Peralta, speaking to the constant threats and stress under which his subjects live. Too bad Made in American is just as desperate to escape. — Chris Ryan