Film Reviews Of
Crips And Bloods: Made In America; 5 Broken Cameras; and The
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/3/14
I recently streamed three Netflix documentary films that dealt with political themes. These three films were Crips And Bloods: Made In America; 5 Broken Cameras; and The Camden 28.
Crips And Bloods: Made In America is a 2008 documentary film, directed by Stacy Peralta (apparently a former world class skateboard champion) that attracts big names- such as narrator Forest Whitaker and talking head Jim Brown, ex-pro football superstar and actor, has some promise displayed- such as in early segments on Los Angeles in the 1950s, and the background surrounding the formation of the two notorious street gangs, but, by the end of the filmís 93 minute running time, one is left with the notion that this film should have been about more than just stating the obvious, that a) gang violence is bad, and b) that gang violence is a way that the people in actual charge of most of American life maintain their power by having those they oppress do the dirty work for them.
At its best, the film details how the closing of major industrial centers in Los Angeles, in the 1960s, helped to undermine the black middle class that rose up in the 1950s, and send young blacks into street gangs to help alleviate some of the ills of poverty, but, mostly, the last hour of the film acts as a glorious commercial FOR gang life. Yes, there is the requisite parade of grieving mothers, but mainly the film is a non-stop recruitment video for thug life, replete with well edited scenes of old photos showing young blacks in full gangster pose and regalia, backed up by cool rap songs. Even worse, no real names are ever used. So, in effect, Peralta plays right into the mythmaking the gangstas love.
Both the 1965 Watts and 1992 Rodney King Riots get some play, but very little analysis from anyone outside of some over the hill geriatric gangstas pontificating on this or that injustice. Not that they are not stating truths, but these are so obvious, and so uncinematic that one can tell that Peraltaís main talents lie elsewhere. There are no voices that ever add depth nor dimension to the film, such as suggesting that, despite oppression, one should NOT go about making the lives of those suffering with you even worse. The film is moralistic, but in the worst way: it merely apes conventional ideas, and never challenges assumptions held by anyone, neither in nor out of the gang life, even as it lets be known certain facts, such as a claimed 15,000 gang related deaths in Los Angeles in the last two decades- a death toll that is three times that of Northern Irelandís in the same time frame, and the fact that, as in my New York City gang related youth, kids in gangs almost never leave their neighborhoods, and some have never even seen the Pacific Ocean.
Peralta and Sam George penned the filmís narrative, and cinematographer Tony Hardmon and editor T. J. Mahar do yeomanís work, as does the musical scoring by Kamasi Washington and Matter, performed by DJ Krush, yet, despite it all, Crips And Bloods: Made In America is a mediocre film at best: much style, little substance, and by the end, the viewer will want more to much on than mere gangsta posing.
If the prior filmís forty year blood feud were not enough to dissuade the viewer that most violence is pointless, then the 2012 film, 5 Broken Cameras, by Palestinian director Emad Burnat and Israeli director, Guy Davidi, which documents an even longer blood feud, should. However, like Crips And Bloods: Made In America, the directors of this film gloss over major historical and political factors involved in the ultimately successful battle of one small West bank town in repulsing the encroachment of Israeli settlers on their lands, via demonstrations, riots, and civil court actions brought about by sympathetic Israelis.
This 94 minute long film follows director Burnatís 5+ year odyssey documenting, via 5 broken video cameras, his townís struggle against the Israelis, while also documenting the first five years of his sonís, Gibreelís, life. Yet, despite the brief scenes and mentions of cohorts and friends of Burnatís, including deaths and hospitalizations and arrests, the thing that comes through most clearly is the fostering of continual hatred on both sides of the divide. Two scenes are especially revealing: one wherein Burnat seemingly tries to dissuade Gibreel from hating Israelis, yet achieves the opposite result, for one moment cannot undo years of hatred the boy has witnessed in his father and elder, as the child descends into mindless hatred, and the second one comes when one sees that one of the Palestinians is wearing a t shirt with the iconic image of the lying, mass murdering Che Guevara on it, rather than a shirt with Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. on it. Hell, even one of Black Muslim Malcolm X would have been more appropriate. Hence, it is no wonder that non-violence does not follow the protesters (which, sadly, almost always includes children whose childhoods have been stripped from them by their parents).
As someone who has long felt that the Arabs are not wholly to blame for the situation in Israel (and, like the first film under review, this film gives little history, as the British Empireís role in this madness is not even mentioned), it is sad to see that Burnat actually does film some scenes that clearly show the Palestinians as the aggressors. While one might argue this shows an evenhandedness, in reality, these scenes were meant to convey things Burnat clearly did not intend. The film ends with Burnatís family getting to bathe in the Mediterranean Sea, a place many West Bankers never see (just like the LA gangstas).
That this mediocre, at best, little film, both narratively and artistically, has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature shows just how politicized Hollywood and the award giving machinery really is. The filmís title comes from the destruction of five cameras during the filming of Burnatís documentary, but thatís about the most creative thing in the whole film.
Another political documentary that utterly failed to present its story in an interesting manner was Anthony Giacchinoís 2007 film, The Camden 28, which is pretty much an off the rack hagiography of 1960s activists who, decades later, look back and pat themselves on the back for having been a) correct in opposing the Vietnam War and b) having won a trial that proved their innocence in a minor flap that flew under the radar just before the Watergate years. At 82 minutes in length, the film feels three to four times as long, even as the cast of characters- mainly liberal minded Roman catholic clergy and layety that broke into a Camden Draft Board in 1971- would seem to be, on the face of things, sympathetic.
Part of the problem is that the film begins with a courtroom reunion, before you know the people or details of what they were tried for, and when you first hear them pat themselves on the back, all you can do is sigh and roll your eyes. Worse, a number of anecdotes are spun that seemingly have no relevance to the criminal charges the 28 were up on. All in all, the film muddles along in its first half, but by the midway point, it becomes a predictable and standard hagiography. This film did not debut in theaters, but was originally shown as part of PBSís Point Of View series.
There is no reason to go into the details of the trial, nor the
defendantsí, their lives before and after the trial, etc., because, well,
itís all standard issue. So and so is now a teacher or preacher, and they all,
it seems, remained good liberals who, at the time this film was made, were out
protesting the Iraq War.
As for the film itself? Technically, it is not well made. Perhaps it was just the streaming from Netflix, but the filmís footage, shot especially for this film, was often blurry, and, given that the two prior reviewed films did not suffer from this defect, I have to suppose that this blurriness was part of either a bad print, or in the film, as a whole, and unable to be fixed on a limited budget. The stock footage used, for the period shots, was often greatly at odds with the narration of the film, as well. And I wonít even go on about how unctuous most of the questions asked were, as well as the personalities of the defendants cum talking heads.
To end, skip The Camden 28 for, unless youíre a guilty white liberal in need of an ego stroke, this film offers nothing of value.
To end, none of these three films is really worth the viewers time, and each succeeding film was worse than the one before. The lesson is that documentary films are difficult enough to make, but adding in oneís own obvious political bias is almost a guarantee for artistic failure. Go on and ask the directors of these films.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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