The children and teen-agers in "112th & Central: Through the Eyes of the Children" have the blasted yet resilient look of people enduring a state of siege. The tougher ones, the gang members or ex-gang members, affect a surly comradeship but their hurt comes through as clearly as the pre-adolescent grade-schoolers'. The eyes of the children in "112th & Central" are imploring, accusatory. Their pain gives these kids a gravity that makes their presence almost unspeakably poignant. They are trying to hang onto their childhoods while being robbed of them.
What's remarkable about the film (at the Vista) is that it was co-produced by many of the very same children we see being interviewed on screen. It's an unprecedented kids'-eye-view of the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Professional filmmakers Jim Chambers, Hal Hisey and actor Vondie Curtis-Hall, as well as actors Darnell Williams, Virginia Madsen and Kasi Lemmons and others, struck a connection less than a month after the riots with about 25 black and Hispanic students between the ages of eight and 21 from the LA Achievement Center, a privately funded inner-city youth guidance facility at 112th and Central in Watts.
The children were enlisted as co-filmmakers with the professionals and organized into camera crews, shooting footage with Hi-8 video cameras focusing on their reactions to the riot, their family, friends, the police, the gang truce between the Crips and the Bloods. The film was apparently intended as a kind of therapeutic educational tool--an opportunity for the children of Watts to control and uplift their own media image--but it manages to be a more complex achievement than that. It's a demonstration of the revelations possible when filmmakers just let people speak directly to the camera about their human predicaments without the sound-bite grabbiness of most of what passes these days for documentary reportage.
The cast of characters include some real finds: There's Cleophas Jackson, a plump, even-tempered grade-schooler who interviews his classmates with a gracious seriousness, wielding his microphone with the studied panache of a talk-show host; he relishes his role as moderator and, in the end, when he talks about how he wants to become attorney general when he grows up, you can't think of a finer candidate.
Kartoon, an ex-gang member, recites his brittle furious rap poetry and describes his feelings right after the riots. (When it happened, he thought "It's about time.") Dewayne Holmes, another gang member currently in jail, talks about why he organized the Crips-Bloods truce, and then we see his mother, Teresa Allison, bemoaning what she believes to be the police harassment of her family. (Holmes, whose cousin Henry Pico had been killed in a controversial police confrontation, was given eight years for stealing $10.)
In place of the demonization that often accompanies one-shot "objective" nightly news reports about Watts, "112th & Central" (Times rated Mature) gives the gangs a human face. And it does so without explaining them away or condoning them. Even when the kids talk about taking part in gangbangs, their rage and incomprehension at what their lives have become cuts through the recitation of events.
But most of the gang members that we see on-screen have given up the life or accepted, sometimes joyously, the terms of the truce (now unraveled). Their uplift doesn't appear to be faked. They genuinely want to reclaim their connections to the community--to the former friends and the turf they themselves have demonized. Their concern for the younger kids in the Watts projects has a powerful suggestiveness. It's as if they were trying to reclaim their own ravaged childhoods. One of the children, 16-year-old Yolanda Woods, seems emblematic. She was once in the gangs, where she saw her homeboy shot, and she has already had an abortion. She's so remarkably intelligent that her deep-down cynicism and soul-sickness come across as violations of the flesh; her young beauty has already become hard-bitten.
In her presence seems to rise or fall the fate of her generation; you wish the vacancy would leave her eyes. When she is asked what she would like to become when she grows up, she thinks for a moment and then those eyes light up. "A mortician," she answers.
"112th & Central: Through the Eyes of the Children"
A Flatfields, Inc. presentation. Co-director Jim Chambers. Producers Jim Chambers, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Hal Hisey. Executive producers Stephon Barnatt, Cedric Broddie, David Harrell, Cleophas Jackson, Marzina Scott, Hector Soto, Violeta Soto, Darrell Straight, Lorenzo Straight, Nia Mydra Tiggs, Yolanda Woods, Gabriel Wright. Cinematographer John Simmons. Editor Michael Schultz. Music Delfeayo Marsalis. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
Times rated Mature (scenes of violence, harsh language).