I had the Cherry Poppin' Daddies' "Zoot Suit Riot" stuck in my head the other day. Ever since it came out, I've been slightly conflicted about it. One the one hand, it's a super catchy song. On the other hand, the Zoot Suit Riots were not a happy chapter in America's racial history, and bopping happily without acknowledging that doesn't sit well with me. Then again, that whole album is brilliant in that it's all fairly subversive material; all the others songs are also about a darker side of reality, set to swing. With art, discomfort is usually a good sign. It spurs discussion.
I think I subconsciously got the tune stuck in my head because I've had American Me in my movie queue forever. Any movie about violence, prison, and prison gangs is not going to be a happy one, and American Me was no exception. It starts with the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943 and ends in the early 1990s, and traces the lives of three friends who form a street gang in East LA, get sent to juvenile hall, re-form their gang, get sent to state prison, re-establish their monopoly on the drug trade, then get out of prison and re-adjust to getting on top of the drug trade outside. It's a brutal, disturbing, uncomfortable tale that doesn't spare any details of the killings, rapes, drug overdoses, and racial and ethnic tensions it depicts.
Back in undergrad sociology classes, we had to do a lot of readings on gang formation, prison group dynamics, and "street" economics. It's possible to study and explain social structures without justifying them. But part of me, probably because I went to an urban public high school, albeit in a small wannabe city, finds it pretty scary. It wasn't some distant issue I can discuss from the "safety" of the suburbs and the supposedly "better" schools -- from grade 6 onwards we had speakers come and talk to us about the dangers of joining gangs, why we shouldn't join gangs, why we should turn in peers if we know they're bringing guns and knives to school. Most of it was adult paranoia., which is not to lesson the reality of the cycle of violence involving gangs or drugs and prison. But I do also know the colors of some local gangs, and have friends who were affected by family members who joined gangs.
However, most of me doesn't like the gang film genre. Because one, movies about gang wars highlight only the gang aspect of life in a particular locale, ignore everything else around it (the schools, the families, the churches, the positive stuff that goes on, etc), and present an image that "those people" in "those neighborhoods" live, breathe, and die only gang-related activity. And two, "those people" are usually Latino or black or Italian or Irish working class, and they're always, always, always men. And based on heavily prevalent cultural images like that, everyone "knows" (it's necessary to bust out the postmodern quotation marks) what life for "everyone" is like in Compton, East LA, South Chicago, the Bronx, or South Boston.
The movie is based on true stories, there's no denying that. It presents the reality, filled with drive-by shootings and gang retaliations and prison rape, for many, many people. But another part of me also wonders if movies like this one actually feed conservative policy stances. Lock them all up! Harsher sentences! Get them off the streets! Ignore the root causes of poverty and crime! Ignore why kids form gangs to begin with! More band-aid solutions! Keep standing downstream! It was the kind of shocking and tragic film with the statistics at the end and no concrete advocacy positions: "Last year, 3000 people died in gang-related activity. . ." leaving the viewer to infer their own course of action.
So THEN! I called up my bro-in-law, who hails from East LA, whose sister is a cop in an anti-gang unit there, who is getting his doctorate in American Ethnic Studies, and whose Netflix queue I stole the movie from, to rant about the movie. It turns out we have ...different views. One of the first things he said was, "Yeah, I grew up there," and then proceeded to say that the movie spurred a lot of dialogue and was one reason why neighborhoods got grants for community centers and other youth activities. Drawing from my own advocacy experience in getting federal afterschool funding, I know that the messages you spin to different partisan lawmakers in order to get an appropriations bill passed can sometimes be drawn from unhealthy stereotypes: "Look what these kids will do if they don't get a community center! They'll go out, get guns, and shoot innocent bystanders, possibly you!" Then he pointed out that the film is trying to highlight the cycle of violence (by starting in the '40s with the zoot suiters and pachucos, then ending in the 90s with the third generation of kids forming their own gang), and how it will continue to be a cycle unless something is done. He pointed out that the film came out about the time as Boyz n the Hood, and has a lot of similar elements, such as humanizing stories from the hood, and that these LA gang movies were from the era of Pete Wilson, who is not well loved in the non-affluent sections of California. But that brought me back to how the film doesn't suggest anything on its own, and the "solutions" a mainstream audience can draw are that kids in East LA are naturally prone to violence, will all drop out of school anyway, should all be locked up, more cops should patrol their neighborhoods, and again, root causes of violence and poverty and power can be ignored. I am definitely more cynical. But then, my city wasn't the one with the Zoot Suit Riots. Or the one where the Crips and Bloods began.
We reached a happy medium eventually, and agreed that the film can be interpreted in many ways, that we each had valid points, and that he was not as jaded as me.
The documentary in the Extra Features section of the DVD was actually better than the movie itself. I think the "Making of" section did more of the humanizing and explaining than the film's script -- they interviewed gang members and community members who'd been affected by gang violence, highlighted positive community activities, and put things into better social perspective.
And now, must find happiness and subliminal messages somewhere, to get my mind off the movie. Where's Winnie the Pooh????