Listen to South-Central Los Angeles today and you'll hear the too familiar sounds of gunfire, sobbing and screams in the night. The city's homicide rate is rising, and most of the recent murders have occurred in South-Central, half of them gang-related. Remember the early '90s, when movies like "Boyz N the Hood" and "Menace II Society," and rap groups like NWA conjured an indelible image of the south-side community as a gang-ridden, crack-addled combat zone?
Now listen again, this time to filmmaker Adam Ripp. A 35-year-old writer, director and producer whose first feature film, "Public Access," won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Ripp recently turned his digital camera on South-Central's enduring afflictions, the subject of his latest feature film, "Gang Tapes."
Told from the viewpoint of a 14-year-old boy who uses a stolen video camera to record his gangbanger friends' activities, the movie is a fictional but harrowingly lifelike portrait of the gang's summer spree of robbery, rape and crack dealing. Several characters wind up dead, and another is severely disabled.
Ripp, who grew up in L.A., says he wanted to make a movie that would do for the gangster "lifestyle" what Oliver Stone's "Platoon" and Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" did for warfare: strip off its flashy veneer. Young men "watch MTV and they see the glamour of the gangster image," says Ripp, who also is a Los Angeles Police Department reserve officer. "What they don't see is the young man who ends up with a colostomy bag because he got shot."
Two years ago, when Ripp was filming "Gang Tapes," murder rates were in decline in most U.S. big cities. Outside the neighborhood, memories of the chaos and carnage in South-Central during the '80s and early '90s had receded. But Ripp, who began frequenting South-Central music clubs as a high school student and was familiar with local gang culture, knew the statistical dip wasn't proof that the area had healed.
"The problem has persisted, it's always been there," he says. "Over the years it's been cyclical, it's had its ups and downs, and now we're reaching back to the early '80s when there was an implosion with the gang wars, leading up to the riots, and we're seeing those problems again."
At first Ripp asked himself: Did the world really need another movie about South-Central gangs? Only, he decided, if that movie could tell a realistic story without flinching. He resolved to recruit much of his cast from the ranks of local gang members and first-time actors, and to use real locations and mostly improvised dialogue. He wanted to create a fictional film that would read like cinema verite, or perhaps even Grand Guignol.
"I wanted to make a film that didn't Hollywood-ize gang violence, that showed the brutality and the language of the streets, that didn't sanitize it," says Ripp, who also is a Los Angeles Police Department reserve officer. "Like with 'Menace' and 'Boyz,' one of the things that hurt those films for me was that you're looking at rappers, you're looking at actors. I wanted people to see kids who had grown up in the community and lived this life."
Caught in the downward spiral
Shot in 12 days on a $500,000 budget in the summer of 2000, "Gang Tapes" has proven sadly prophetic, not only about rising violence but also about the difficulty many young men face in escaping its devastating spiral. In the 1 1/2 years since filming wrapped, several of the movie's stars have run afoul of the law, mostly in connection with armed robbery. Ripp says that 90% of the 500 locals he auditioned for the film had lost a loved one to violence.
One of the film's stars, Six Reasons, who was born 20 years ago in Watts as Ravel Damion Towns, had a brother murdered at age 22. A younger brother has just entered college after serving a five-year jail term. Once, Six Reasons says, a cousin of his was supposed to pick him up at the "Gang Tapes" movie set after filming. He never showed up. He'd been murdered.
"I was proud of Adam that he didn't give the film a happy ending," says Six Reasons, whose nickname is a tribute to his mother's attempt to provide for her six children. "He didn't show us driving around in lowriders, with big gold chains. He showed the raw."
Ripp may have shown it, but how many people in Los Angeles will get to see it? After no one in Hollywood wanted to release the film theatrically, Lions Gate sent "Gang Tapes" straight to video and DVD (it comes out Tuesday). Ripp sounds frustrated in discussing why his movie isn't playing in theaters, despite earning positive reviews in Variety and the New York Times. "Theater owners have kind of a fear that the film will inspire or incite some kind of riot," he says. "I think it's a really racist perception that black audiences cause violence."
Greggory Watkins, director of development for Magic Johnson Entertainment, one of the theater chains that Ripp approached, says, "We looked at [the film] and we gave it some consideration. Actually, it's still under consideration, but it's a pretty sensitive topic. It's being presented as a tool by which it can be educational, and that's true. But there's a lot of violence."
Watkins says he fears a repeat of the '80s and early '90s, when pop culture depictions of South-Central often deteriorated into sensationalism and exploitation. "Do we need another film about" gang violence, he asks rhetorically. "That's a loaded question. Everybody's at different points on that journey. It's not about age or race. It's about culture and maturity."
Ripp believes that films like "Gang Tapes" "need to be made" and seen because "the truth is the truth, and the truth hurts," he says. "This is our country, this is the future of America, these are our young men and women. Sure it's important to do what we do globally, but it's also very important to look into our own backyard."
No movie, any movie, can bring peace to South-Central. But if more people shared Ripp's conviction that the time for confronting the ugly truth is now, it could keep L.A. from writing another tragic screenplay, one murder at a time.
Reed Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.