It seemed so obvious to me, a slam-dunk, a downright compelling true life American story. The story of how the Crips and Bloods -- two of the world's most 'iconic' gangs -- have been allowed to wage a virtual war within one of the richest cities in the world for 4 decades, a war that has taken over 15,000 lives in that time.
Yet I couldn't find any studio or production company interested in financing my documentary. I went door to door, pitching my project to all of the 'right' people in Hollywood. All of them said it was a great idea and needed to be done -- but no one would write a check.
This went on for close to a year until I finally met a man who showed a glimmer of interest. His name was Baron Davis and he's an NBA All Star point guard currently playing for the Los Angeles Clippers. His initial interest seemed obvious, he had grown up in South Los Angeles and had first hand experience of the everyday violence that accompanies life there and he wanted to do something to help heal his community. He said he was primarily interested in financing a documentary that would help draw compassionate attention to the gang wars that have consumed his community for over four decades. After weeks of talking back and forth he agreed to put up 50% of the budget. So now all I needed to do was find the other half. I thought that would be a piece of cake. It wasn't. Another eight months went by and nothing. No one was interested even though I've got 50% of the budget covered.
So I began wondering what I could say in my pitch that I wasn't saying to get people interested. I needed to say something about this subject that was more complete than what they've learned from the evening news, the local newspapers and gangsta rap. So I came up with a question to pose to potential funders: "If affluent white teenagers in Beverly Hills were forming neighborhood gangs, arming themselves with automatic assault rifles and killing other affluent white teenagers who were also living in upscale neighborhoods and were also arming themselves with AK 47s and shooting to kill, what would the response of our society be? Would society respond or would society ignore it? Would our government respond, if so, how would our government respond?"
Well I finally hit on something because it was this question that I asked a Silicon Valley businessman named Steve Luczo. He thought for a moment and then answered: "Affluent white kids would never be allowed to gang-bang as our society would do whatever means was necessary to make sure a problem of this magnitude was stopped immediately."
Everyone else I asked this question to said something very similar: "Our society and our government would never allow white kids to do this. Everything would be put into place to prevent it, all the necessary programs and resources would be funded to make sure something as tragic as gang-banging would never take hold in the white community."
So with Baron Davis and Steve Luczo in place as co-financiers I got to make my documentary film; Crips and Bloods, Made in America and I made this film because as a citizen of the United States and a native of Los Angeles, I could not understand how this problem of gang violence, now entering its fifth decade with more than 15,000 dead, has gone on for so long in the African American community of South Los Angeles without any effective solution.
It didn't make sense to me how this could happen year in and year out, decade by decade without our government finding an effective remedy. We Americans defeated Nazi Germany and Japan in a single war and in far less than a decade yet we can't defeat gang violence.
I made the film in over a year and a half period and I was able to meet with gang members of all ages, 12 to 65, current and former, Bloods and Crips, and sets from many different neighborhoods spread throughout the affected region. It was so troubling to me to see how confused these young men are and how hurt so many of them seem to be without any idea of why. They know that life is different 15 to 20 minutes in either direction from where they live but they don't know why it's different. They don't understand why things are so bad where they live and they don't understand why no one from the outside seems to care. They don't understand why there so few job opportunities in their community and why are so many of their fathers, uncles and friends are serving time in the penitentiary?
The more time I spent with them in their community the more I began to see a far different America than the America I was raised in. In fact the America I was raised in, average middle class America, has very little resemblance to the America these young men grow up in.
It's not just that most of these young men come from broken homes, it's that most are born into non-homes of unwed teenage girls who were also born to unwed teenage girls, on and on. Ask them and they will tell you they have never sat down at a dinner table with a mother and father present. These young men attend public schools that are at the very bottom end of the American educational food chain, less learning centers than just straight out day care centers. From a tender young age they see dead bodies in their neighborhood streets, they hear helicopters flying over day and night, and the sound of gunfire is as common as birds chirping. Most cannot venture out of their own neighborhoods as doing so can lead to being gunned down. These young men live in conditions that most of us would consider un-American with no traces of the American dream.
And through the entire process of making this film, I realized that if we are ever going to break this cycle of violence, we need to find a way to look at these young men with a compassionate frame of mind. Stopping gang violence is going to require that we understand that conditions in these communities are only perpetuating the problem and if those same conditions were suddenly found in affluent white communities perhaps we would look at this problem differently.
My film premiered to standing ovations at the Sundance Film Festival and is now playing in selected theaters across the country. It is my very deep hope that the film will help motivate a much-needed dialogue on this subject, a subject that affects not just the African American community of South LA, but ethnic minorities in cities across this nation and indeed across the world.
Stacy Peralta is the award-winning director of Dogtown, Z-Boys and Riding Giants. DVD and theatrical listings are available from www.cripsandbloodsmovie.com.