‘Colors’--A Gang Film That’s Caught in a Crossfire : Gritty Realism Makes Movie the Subject of Bitter Debate


Without Gerald Ivory, “Colors,” the street-gang drama opening nationwide Friday, might have lacked much of its controversial punch.

“Gerald has known the gangs when they were in the slammer and out of the slammer,” said Robert Solo, producer of the film starring Robert Duvall and Sean Penn. “He really made a difference--he was the main person who made it possible for us to film in gang-dominated neighborhoods.”

A Los Angeles County probation officer for 14 years, Ivory was one of three technical consultants on the movie, which was filmed in local inner-city neighborhoods and depicts a pair of gang-unit officers (Duvall and Penn) cracking down on violence between warring black and Latino L.A. gangs.


Ivory’s wealth of street savvy makes him knowledgeable about everything from gang colors (“a lot of kids wear green now, to signify money--it shows they’re real players”) to lingo (kids who steal cars call it “a G-Ride”--short for Grand Theft Auto) to reading material (The Times Metro section, which gang members refer to as “the Crime Sheet”).

Probation officers are prohibited from carrying guns. But what the slim, black Oklahoma native lacks in firepower, he makes up for with a keen eye.

“There goes a gang member right now,” Ivory told a visitor the other day, staring out a Pico Boulevard coffee-shop window at a black teen-ager walking by. The youngster, about 15, wasn’t wearing any trademark Crips blue or Bloods red clothing.

“The kids don’t always wear their colors anymore,” explained Ivory. “They’re a lot more subtle now because it’s so dangerous. But you can still tell. He’s wearing his cap sideways and tilted on his head, and his pants are real low, with the underwear showing. If (the Los Angeles Police Department) has a sweep tonight, they’ll pick him up in a second.”

What the film makers see as the gritty realism of “Colors,” however, has helped make it the subject of heated debate.

In March, after seeing an early screening, Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Assn., claimed “Colors” would “leave dead bodies from one end of this town to the other.”


More recently, the Guardian Angels--a self-styled anti-crime group--have staged several protests, at Penn’s Malibu home, outside the Venice home of “Colors” director Dennis Hopper, at Monday’s Academy Awards and, on Tuesday, at the Century City offices of Orion Pictures, where five members were arrested on suspicion of battery after clashing with police and security guards. The Angels have called the film “racist and irresponsible.”

Willis Edwards, president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the NAACP, has also attacked the film, asking that it be withdrawn from release.

The 40-year-old Ivory serves an investigator and liaison between the county Probation Department and the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department gang crime divisions. Ivory sees the film in a different light.

“There’s been plenty of blood in the streets and the movie’s not even out yet,” he said. “You don’t need ‘Colors’ to get these kids crazy--they’re nuts already. We just had a terrible drive-by shooting, with 10 or 12 more people wounded. But if there’s another one next week, is it fair to blame it on the movie?”

Ivory shrugged. “This film depicts what’s going on out there. People may want to turn their backs, but you can’t attack the movie just because it makes you see what’s there.

“I live in the Crenshaw neighborhood and I hear gunshots every night of my life. And not just individual shots, but automatic weapons fire. These kids run the streets now.

“It’s like what I heard a cop say recently: ‘After it gets dark, the only people out are the criminals or the victims.’ ”

Ivory calls Rick Morton “my partner.” Actually, Morton is a free-lance photographer, not a probation officer. But he’s spent the past eight years in gang turf with Ivory, where the duo have shot video footage of gang members, some of which aired in an award-winning documentary, “Our Children: The Next Generation,” broadcast in 1986 on KHJ-TV Channel 9.

Morton, who is white, said that “Colors” co-star Penn and screenwriter Michael Schiffer sought out Ivory and him when they began researching the film, questioning them about gang mores and carefully studying the duo’s video footage.

(The other two consultants, LAPD officer Dennis Fanning and Sheriff’s Department deputy Roy Nunez, did not return repeated phone calls from The Times. A spokesman for the LAPD said that the department would have no comment on the film.)

“There are even several scenes, including the opening ones depicting the drive-by shooting, that came pretty much directly--dialogue and all--from our footage,” said Morton, who, like Ivory, declined to have his photograph taken, citing personal safety reasons.

This being Hollywood, the film makers weren’t always eager to take their consultants’ advice. “We did butt heads with the props and wardrobe people, because they tried to overdress everybody,” Morton said. “But if wardrobe didn’t listen to us, we’d call over a real gang member--who we sometimes used as extras--to give some expert opinion.”

Morton grinned. “After a few minutes with one of the gang kids, the prop or wardrobe guys would say, ‘Sure! OK! We’ll do it your way. Anything you want!’ ”

Initially, Ivory was not enthusiastic about using gang members as extras. “We advised Dennis Hopper against it, but he wanted the real thing,” Ivory said. “So we picked some clean kids--who were in gangs, but weren’t on probation. We thought it would be good for the kids to see another side of the story, to see people getting paid for doing a real job.”

The experiment wasn’t a complete success. Of the 15 to 20 extras, Ivory said, one is awaiting trial on charges that he murdered a rival gangster. Another is up for possession of a deadly weapon (an Uzi machine gun). “But one of the kids was in and out of jail almost every week, and now he’s making some honest money and has stayed out of jail since the film,” Ivory said.

Ivory acknowledged that “Colors” occasionally used bits of dramatic license. “The car chases are pretty overdone, Hollywood stuff,” he said. “And you wouldn’t ever see the Crips and Bloods right next to each other in jail, like they have in one scene.

“Otherwise, it’s in the realm of realism. My only complaint is that it doesn’t show how the kids got into drugs and guns and all that stuff. What frightens me is that these kids are treated like they’re Robin Hoods. You see a 15-year-old kid who’s dealing in drugs--and he’s dripping in gold, wearing necklaces with big diamonds in them.

“And a lot of parents will take $500 from their kids and not even ask where it came from. In fact, I’ve had parents call me up, all upset, saying that we’d arrested their kid with their money--and they want it back! They say it’s their rent money or bill money. And I say, ‘What are you doing letting some 15-year-old go around with the rent money’ ”?

One of the film’s more striking scenes depicts a crowd of Crips, in full regalia, at a funeral service for a dead gang member--a service interrupted by a drive-by shooting.

Morton said similar events have occurred “several times” in real life. “It’s not at all unusual for gang members to appear at the funerals,” he said. “At one service for a member of the 59th Hoover Crips, they actually had a wreath there, which said ‘59HC.’ ”

Ivory nodded his head in agreement. “You know, I talk to kids who are 12 or 13 years old and I say, ‘Aren’t you afraid of being shot?’ And they’re way beyond that. They just say, ‘Well, I gotta die anyway.’ ”

Still, where does realism end and romanticism of violence begin? It’s no secret that media images, from TV as well as movies, can have an enormous impact on youngsters.

Ivory agrees--but he said “Colors” is being unfairly attacked. “If you want to talk glamorization of drugs and violence, let’s talk ‘Miami Vice.’ It’s full of fancy cars, elegant houses, speedboats and expensive clothes--all of which are tied up with drugs. That show has done more to shape kids’ attitudes than ‘Colors’ ever could.”

Ivory wagged his head. “My own kid, when he sees a really fancy home, he’ll say--’Oh, look, Dad, that’s a “Miami Vice” house!’ ”

Still, many “Colors” critics have complained that the film, for all its graphic realism, doesn’t offer any answers. “Maybe that’s true, but what are the answers?” Ivory asked. “I can detain a kid for a whole year for vandalism if I catch him spray-painting a wall. But if I get him for possession of a gun, he only gets six months!

“The drug situation is terrible--there’s crack everywhere. It’s put so much money in these kids’ hands that we’re seeing 16-year-old kids buying new cars, with cash. But I’d like to see as much outcry about guns as drugs. After all, it’s the guns that are killing people.”

The drugs are everywhere. Leaving the coffee shop, Ivory pointed to an alley behind the parking lot where two kids, wearing Crips-style blue bandannas, were talking to the driver of a gray Toyota. “It looks like they’re selling crack right here,” Ivory said. “Or at least they were--notice how they’re moving away now. They don’t look too happy to see us.”

In “Colors,” the cop played by Sean Penn also spots a drug dealer, one surrounded by small kids. He’s so angered that he roughs the man up.

“We shot that scene at the Jordan Downs housing project, which is probably the worst project in the city,” Ivory recalled. “And I was worried that we might have a negative reaction from the people who’d crowded around to watch. I thought they’d be upset seeing a police officer--even one in a movie--beating up a local guy.

“But it was funny. When the scene was over, you know what all those 200 people in the project across the street did?”

He flashed a hint of a grin. “They broke into applause.”