Judge David Packard is always hard. Come talking that trash and he'll pull your card.
Not everyone who leaves Little Rock leaves it behind.
Gang Banging 101 Quiz. True or false:
1. If your son is "strapped with a gat," he'll need bed rest,
plenty of fluids, and a few days off from school.
If you answered true to any of these questions—or you simply have no idea what the hell I'm talking about—slip these discs into your DVD player for a little reality check. Gang Wars is a revealing and stark look at one city's challenge at recognizing and fighting a deadly lifestyle that appeals to youth without regard for race, gender, or wealth.
Facts of the Case
Gang Wars is a 2-disc set about the gang violence that gripped Arkansas's capital and propelled its 1994 per capita homicide rate to levels greater than that of New York and Los Angeles. The first disc includes the original documentary at the height of the violence, when gangs were primarily concerned with carving out territory. The second disc contains a retrospective documentary that looks at the gang situation in Little Rock ten years later while focusing on one ex-gang member's attempts to turn things around.
Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock
The documentary soon delves into other gangs, largely affiliated with larger groups like the Bloods or the Crips. Gang members, some preferring anonymity under dark glasses and handkerchiefs sporting their gang's colors, testify to a life of no opportunities, a life where you have to be on your guard with every passing car because of the constant possibility of a drive-by shooting.
Weaving throughout these profiles of Little Rock's gangs is Steve Nawojczyk, the county coroner who can no longer stand idly by as the endless stream of people killed by gang-related violence is passing through his morgue. With a simple, home-made poster board of photos of those killed by gang violence, Nawojczyk pounds the dangerous streets of Little Rock, using his poster to show kids the grim realities of gang life while pleading with them to "put the guns down."
Back in the Hood: Gang War 2
Jackson has earned awards for his program from various levels of government, yet cannot get insurance and must work odd jobs to support his wife and daughter. He talks with others who were in the gang life a decade earlier. He meets with both friend ("Blue," lying in a hospital and struggling for breath after being shot ten times and paralyzed from the waist-down) and foe (a member of the Bloods who visits Jackson's after-school program and lets children feel the shot still peppering his arm from a shotgun blast) alike.
Ah, the early '90s. Yes, I remember it was around that time that my love for rap music grew from the friendlier fare of acts like Run-D.M.C. and L.L. Cool J to include the grittier, profanity-filled rhymes of emcees like Eazy-E, Ice-T, and N.W.A. As a white kid born and raised in the midwest, I was fascinated by the violent world so often painted by the lyrics of these "gangsta rappers." Films like Colors, Juice, and Boyz N The Hood brought life to those lyrics, and it wasn't long before I felt that Los Angeles (or at least the south-central part of it) was a very dangerous place to be.
With the stilted conception I had of gang life, one can imagine the shock I had when I saw Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock when it debuted on HBO over a decade ago. Not only were gangs an issue in places other than typical big cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York, but white kids were in these gangs as well! Less than five minutes into the documentary, my ill-conceived, media-fueled perception of gang life in America was completely shattered.
Director Marc Levin certainly could have gone the typical, west coast "Compton" route, but it's refreshing that he chose to focus on a place you might not expect to have this kind of problem. Yes, many of the gang members profiled are black, but I applaud Levin for choosing to open his documentary with a focus on the "Hoover Folk" and its many white gang members. It immediately dispels the stereotype that the gang problem is a black problem and hopefully wakes up more than a few Caucasian parents who would otherwise never think that their kid could be pulled into this kind of lifestyle.
I also appreciated the "this is what it is" presentation, which sides neither with the gangs nor those combating them. Levin's films suggest some answers to the question so many of us must share: Why would kids get involved in such a dangerous lifestyle in the first place? Interviews with gang members convey their sense of hopelessness, a lack of a strong family foundation, and the poverty they would otherwise face. Moral issues and legal repercussions aside, I found myself not blaming some of these kids for making the choice they made. In gang life, they believe they've found the respect and the love for which they've been longing. They believe they've found a viable job selling drugs and making hundreds—even thousands—of dollars each day. The high-rolling glitz of gang life, glamorized in so many of those songs I listened to back in the day, promises so much to these kids. It's no surprise that the harsh realities of choosing such a life seem oblivious to them.
In this nightmarish world of distant bullets continuously ringing out in the night and the very real possibility of death at any given moment, Steve Nawojczyk's tireless crusade to stop the madness brings a semblance of sanity to the craziness. Nawojczyk is constantly putting in the "sweat equity" needed to fight the problem: He brings pizzas and take-out chicken to gang members' hang-outs as he talks with the key players with the most influence to calm things down. The meals are more than an opportunity for kids to indulge in free food; Nawojczyk is trying to show these kids that someone cares about them. It's truly inspiring to see this man, obviously well-versed and educated about the gang scene and its history, using his own time and resources in a constant effort to stop these kids from killing each other. It's also jarring to see just how much Nawojczyk and his proactive approach differs from that of the police profiled in the second documentary. Nawojczyk starts direct, honest dialogue with the gang members in their own neighborhoods; a police officer rides with a shotgun across his lap and refers to gang members as "terrorists."
Still, Nawojczyk never glosses over the horrific consequences of gang life, something that both of Levin's documentaries do without being overly bloody or gory. It's difficult to see an 18-month old infant on a stretcher after being hit by a stray round, a chunk of flesh missing from a child's arm that was "grazed" by an assault rifle's bullet, or a young girl literally being beaten into her gang by those who were supposed to have love for her. Some of the madness is purely emotional: A weeping mother collapses at her son's funerals; a brother spills quiet tears and fights back a trembling jaw as he visits the grave of a sibling who found suicide to be the only way out of the gang life of which he'd grown so tired. It's truly unsettling to think these events could have anything to do with a life that is supposed to provide so much respect, love, and wealth.
Bonus features are sparse but well done. An update on some of the "Hoover Folk" gang members on the second disc is the true standout here, with one of the members today looking much more like a Saturday morning soccer mom than an ex-gang member. Russell Simmons provides his take on the gang situation in a short interview that, for some reason, is not listed as a bonus feature on the disc packaging. I would also advise viewers to stay through the credits on disc one, as a brief "what happened to…" segment does a nice job of bridging the first documentary to the retrospective aspect of the second film.
There's not much to note about the disc audio and video. Neither is pristine, but given the nature of the subject matter, both are very appropriate.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My beef withGang Wars lies primarily with what it didn't include in either film, and it's really more of a nitpick because I think both documentaries did an excellent job in showing all aspects of the gang problem.
True, Leifel Jackson is a man who has made plenty of mistakes in his life. He's done his time in prison, and rather than fall back into the life that put him there, he's decided to try to turn his life around and educate children on the false promises and grim realities of gang life. We see that Jackson must be doing somewhat of an admirable job, as we get glimpses of several awards (including "Juvenile Worker of the Year") that he has received; Jackson even states that the Lieutenant Governor has recognized his efforts. How, then, can the system trust this man to educate young children but, at the same time, prohibit him from talking to current gang members, lest his parole be revoked? That makes no sense to me. Jackson is apparently good enough to discourage younger kids from making the wrong choices, but he's forbidden to attempt to persuade those still "in the game" to leave the lifestyle while they still can. He can receive recognition for his efforts, yet he can't get insurance and must work odd jobs that amount to roughly $140 of income per week. Is it any wonder some of these kids find the "promises" of gang life so appealing? It would have been insightful and intriguing if Levin's documentaries could have addressed some of these questions with those in the judicial and political system.
The police are involved sporadically throughout the second documentary, and just as I was left with questions regarding Jackson and his life post-prison, I was left wondering if the police are doing anything on a proactive nature to combat the gang problem. A gang member asks why the police aren't in his neighborhood, playing ball or trying to talk to them. I think it's a good question. Is Nawojczyk the only person taking his kind of approach? Does the police department share a general attitude that gang members are terrorists, or was that the opinion of one officer with obviously no interest in trying to help these kids?
Finally, I have to call out the box art for this release. Aside from a clean-cut photo of Jackson, we see various gang members wearing their rags, brandishing weapons, and flashing gang signs. All of them are black. For a documentary that crushes the notion that this is strictly a black issue, I found it incredulous that not one photo of a white gang member made the cover.
Gang Wars rips the covers from and exposes the hard truths about a problem that many Americans would just as soon ignore. Yes, there are beatings, the effects of gunshots, and kids lying in caskets as families grieve in agony, but any documentary focusing on the reality of gang life shouldn't be an easy watch. Once again, HBO Documentary Films serves up another stellar product.
Not guilty. Those involved in the creation of these documentaries are to be commended for taking the high road and showing us that this problem can happen anywhere and involve anyone.
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Scales of Justice, Gang War: Bangin' In Little Rock
Perp Profile, Gang War: Bangin' In Little Rock
Distinguishing Marks, Gang War: Bangin' In Little Rock
• Audio commentary with producer/director Marc Levin, producer Daphne Pinkerson and former county coroner Steve Nawojczyk
Scales of Justice, Back In The Hood: Gang War 2
Perp Profile, Back In The Hood: Gang War 2
Distinguishing Marks, Back In The Hood: Gang War 2
• One Decade Later
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