Judge Victor Valdivia's gang isn't too popular, probably because their color is plaid.
"If you ain't from where I'm from, then f—-- you. That's just how I feel."—Crip gangbanger
Crips and Bloods: Made in America is the most frustrating kind of documentary: one with good intentions badly executed. It's possible to admire director Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys) for having done the actual footwork to enter South Central Los Angeles without coming off as exploitative. It's easy to be impressed with the stories he has uncovered and the way he tells them and to be equally laudatory with his efforts to find solutions to the gang problem. Judged as a film, however, Crips and Bloods cannot get by purely on good intentions. It's muddled and uneven. Peralta seems unsure of what story it is he wants to tell. Even when he does focus in on one, it's overshadowed by his filmmaking technique.
There are moments when Crips and Bloods shows that it could have been the definitive documentary on South Central's gang culture. The first half-hour is devoted to a history of '50s South Central gangs and the 1965 Watts riot, and this seems like a fertile area for exploration. Most gang documentaries focus on the gangs themselves, but the history of South Central itself has almost never really been explored. There is also another fascinating section in the middle of the documentary that relates the rise and fall of the postwar industrial boom of South Central and how that affected the black population of L.A. These two sections are easily the high points of the documentary because unlike most gang-related documentaries, they attempt to put the rise of gangs in some sort of historical context.
The key failure, however, is that these are the only sections that do so. For whatever reason, Peralta abandons the idea of historical context and fills the rest of the film with random unrelated content with little coherence. Rather than actually explain how this elaborately detailed history actually relates to the Crips and Bloods, the documentary just shows various gangbangers and their victims, relating their personal histories. These are not necessarily bad segments, but there's absolutely no attempt made to tie them in to the historical content. This makes the film seem disjointed and sloppy. Why bother giving a detailed, minute-by-minute account of the '65 Watts riots if none of that information is going to be used anywhere else in the film? Peralta never gives more than a one-sentence history of how the actual Crips and Bloods gangs were founded or how they grew in the '80s. Only Crips cofounder Raymond Washington is briefly mentioned and the documentary doesn't even attempt to explain the origin of the name "Crip." Based on what the film shows, one could assume that there is a clear line that relates the history of South Central to the formation and rise of these gangs; why doesn't Peralta make it clearer?
It doesn't help that on these interviews and reenactments, Peralta tends to go overboard with the flashy filmmaking tricks. The excessive reliance on fancy swoops, swooshes, and camera effects seems unnecessary. These are already interesting stories; there's no reason to diminish them with fancy directorial flourishes. All these tricks are so intrusive that they sometimes make the stories hard to understand. At a certain point, Crips and Bloods seems more like a film geared to an audience that will already know this material in depth and is looking to confirm its opinions. That will make its target audience very happy, but anyone who actually wants to learn about the story of L.A.'s gang violence will have to do some considerable research before watching it. It's simply too insular and disorganized to work for most viewers. Even those who do know a lot will probably find much of it slapdash and patchy.
Technically, the disc is as uneven as the documentary. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer looks crisp and sharp with no flaws to speak of. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix, on the other hand, is awful. The sound effects and music are so loud that they completely drown out the words from the interviewees and even Forest Whitaker's narration. In this case, it's actually better to use the Dolby 2.0 stereo mix, because even though it's not as flashy and intricate, you'll have a much better chance of understanding what people are saying. The extras are not especially useful. The best is "The Making of Crips and Bloods: Made in America" (27:06), in which Peralta explains what he was trying to do, although he seems rather unaware of the flaws in his methods. The interviews with ex-gangbangers who praise the film wholeheartedly actually confirm that the film isn't going to translate well if you don't already come in with a lot of knowledge on the subject. There are also some mildly compelling deleted scenes (30:55), none of which fill in any of the holes in the documentary. Finally, there are some interviews with rappers Snoop Dogg (4:34) and Lil' Wayne (2:28), both of which are rather useless. Snoop is a former Crip, but he's far too cagey to really say anything revealing and he does little more than praise Peralta's filmmaking abilities. Lil' Wayne is even worse: by his own admission he's never been to South Central and knows nothing about Crips or Bloods, so why he's treated as some sort of expert is inexplicable.
Crips and Bloods, then, is not nearly as authoritative as it would like to be. This is a topic that deserves at least one definitive documentary, but this sure isn't it. Too many viewers will be put off by Peralta's techniques and approach. Unless you already know a lot about L.A. street gangs and are prepared to overlook some majorly irritating filmmaking quirks, start elsewhere.
Guilty of not doing justice to its subject.
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