Rethinking What It Means To Be “Made In America”

Made In America is a documentary film that explores the history and current realities of gang life in Los Angeles, California. While we’ve become accustomed to some pretty challenging topics on screen – global warming, evil consumerism, and political conspiracies included – most of us don’t want a condemning finger pointed directly our way as we sit down to watch a movie. We’d prefer the message masked in metaphor, symbolism, or fiction – but Stacy Peralta’s latest documentary demands that Americans face their own bigoted perspective head on.

Peralta’s earlier works, Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants, were successful documentaries about sports and the charismatic individuals who excel as professional skateboarders and big wave surfers. Sticking to Peralta’s graphic filmmaking style, Made In America is a well-paced, comprehensive exploration of a world outsiders know little about.

From the initial disorienting shot of a city upside down, we are confronted with a dreadful sense of problems too big to solve, a landscape of despair followed by a montage of crime scene footage. The images are not beautiful or good, but they are true.

One of the film’s strengths is the attention paid to the genesis of the gang lifestyle among young men of color in L.A. during the 1950s. The picture painted is one of a disenfranchised community separated from the prosperity of their white neighbors, and emasculated youth turning to violence in order to claim the power denied them in society at large. According to Peralta, these young people in the 50s and 60s eventually channeled their energies into the Black Power movement, but the following generations were molded by crack, not political and social actions. The tragic irony is that even as they struggled against the injustice imposed on them from outside their communities, the greatest victims were themselves. Each successive generation has subscribed to this violent lifestyle, upping the ante from fists to knives to pistols to automatic weapons, and what used to end in a beating now brings dead bodies. The possibility of extinction looms large when murder and prison are a person’s likely future.

Peralta suggests that gang intervention organizations such as UNITY One, a program that teaches life management skills to communities and inmates across the country, can have an important impact. Interviews with former gang members exude regret and point towards a hope that lies in self-realization. They stress society’s responsibility to transform the way these young people are perceived, that we must seek out the humanity within these gang members. However, many people would be terrified of interacting with the men in this film. Even the filmmaker betrays a fear of gang members and makes clear the many precautions necessary in producing a film like this.

What penetrates the hearts of viewers are not the harrowing statistics or bleak urban landscapes; rather, it is the emotions of the many people in the film. One of the most moving sections features a series of one-shots. Continuous faces of parents flow by, and their tears well and fall as they recall their lost loved ones. What started out as bands of young men fighting over turf in lower-middle class, racially segregated neighborhoods has turned into a situation not unlike the fighting in Northern Ireland – citywide warfare where civilians and gang members alike are losing their lives each day.

“Here there is no choice. It’s like you are waiting for somebody to come save you, man, and you are never going to get saved.”

These grim words, spoken by a gang member, describe emotions to which all can relate. It is natural to feel confined at times, dreaming of relief and rescue from outside ourselves. But most of us have been spared the harrowing circumstances of drug-addicted mothers, missing or imprisoned fathers, and extreme poverty. When bearing the scars of a loveless childhood, it is hard to see a good side to humanity, and when no one positive will have you – not your parents, school, or the greater, richer world on TV – gang membership is the one source of love in sight. And when you’ve never received true love it is easy to be mislead by the picture of unity and protection within the gang, you are happy to accept this false love, even if it bares no good fruit; no joy, no gentleness, no goodness, no peace.

People of faith who have witnessed God’s love in our own lives might find it hard to believe that anyone could mistake gang camaraderie for love. How could anyone be so misled? Maybe we’d like to think that we wouldn’t succumb to such depraved behavior, but such thought only serve to separate us further from these individuals. One of the successes of this film is that it humanizes a group of people few have tried to relate to in decades.

In a New York Magazine interview, when Peralta was asked how he began this project, he answers with a question: “If white American teenagers were forming neighborhood gangs and arming themselves with assault rifles, and killing one another on a consistent basis, what would be the response of our society and our government?” While I am not sure what we would do, I know it wouldn’t look like this.

“Made in America” (unrated) played at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.