Stacy Peralta, a whiteboy straight outta Santa Monica, is not the most likely director for a movie about African-American street gangs in South Central Los Angeles. After all, Peralta’s first documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, was autobiographical, and its follow-up, Riding Giants, focused on a related subculture, big-wave surfing, in which he was equally at home. Yet, in both films, Peralta showed a talent for conveying intricate histories concisely, and it is this quality, along with compassion, that he brings to his flawed but ambitious Crips and Bloods.
From the opening tracking shot, an upside-down aerial view of the downtown skyline, Peralta embeds his tale of a local civil war in the broader history of the Southland — and for that matter, as the film’s subtitle implies, of the Union itself. Crips and Bloods traces gang violence back to the Southern migration, when African-Americans came to California in search of factory work. Because of so-called covenant laws these workers and their families were confined to the South Central neighborhoods that, by the 1960s, comprised one of the nation’s worst ghettos. As Peralta and his chorus of historians see it, modern-day gang-bangers are the cancerous but entirely organic outgrowth of a Black Power movement stymied three decades ago.
Crips and Bloods resonates most as evidence of the sheer difficulty of staying alive as a black man in America (our newly inaugurated President notwithstanding). While the film’s talking-head format is conventional and repetitive, Peralta’s far-reaching conclusions are comparatively radical. As an optimistic administration takes office, Crips and Bloods serves as a timely reminder that there is more than one war with no end in sight.