Sunday, November 13, 2011

Real-life in the movies

(Alternate title to this blog entry: My Brain Takes an Intellectual Dump After Watching 27 Horror Movies in October, then Overcompensating with Documentaries and Dramas)
Two years ago I happened upon the documentary Crips and Bloods: Made in America in my local video rental store (before it closed down). I didn't rent it at the time but watched it for free online (feeding the monster that closed down the rental store in the first place). Later on I rented Crips and Bloods from Netflix (that monster's fattening up real good) to show to students and begin a discussion about gang mentality and its long-term effects. The film itself is filled with amazing, insightful quotes and observations about oppression, discrimination, and the extent the mainstream press will go to create an illusion of safety for the general public living in the 'burbs away from all the "trouble."

Working at a school where wearing solid reds or blues violates the dress code, and working with youth that, for the most part, lack a perspective of the history of the gangs of which they are a part (or that they fear -- in the abstract, everyday, etc.) opened up a lot of doors for communication. I didn't document everything that was said but I remember they made very acute observations and that some connected the intellectual dots that lay before them, when they might not have been encouraged to before.

I'd recommend anyone and everyone watch Crips and Bloods. Yes, it was heart-breaking, but it was also a hard-hitting and exposing of a reality that a whole helluva lot of people aren't exposed to either out of privilege or due to location. Although I spent seven or eight years of my childhood living in the vicinity of a maximum-security prison, there was never the threat of violence or danger. (Just ignorant "rednecks.")
I'm not promising any answers about where gang violence originates, I've just been slowly watching more movies that confront it through the eyes of African-American youth, particularly boys. Earlier this year I watched, and re-watched Boyz N The Hood with Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Ice Cube. It was the perfect film to accompany Crips and Bloods.
This past weekend I had the chance to see Fresh, another amazing film about a 12 year-old boy (amazing acting done by Sean Nelson) doing what he needs to survive living in the projects of Brooklyn.

A Wiki listing of 'hood films is here, and I feel compelled to stock up my queue knowing full well that not all of them will deliver as Fresh did, or represent the demographic in the same light as Boyz, but it's worth it to look. Although each of these movies I've seen has broadened my perspective and knowledge of living in a world of gangs/drugs/other shit, I can't help but feel like I'm "studying" this subject of humanity as if a student enrolled in a classroom, keeping myself at an appropriate distance from the location and population I'm "researching."

Don't get me wrong, I'm not about to move to a poverty-stricken neighborhood in hopes of conducting an anthropological ethnography -- but I also don't plan on merely watching movies to educate myself. I feel lucky to work in a setting where I can engage in powerful, sometimes painful one-on-one conversations with teens about their past experiences or the present fears. Not every child is living this tough life, but the overall feeling of allowing youth to voice their opinions when they are not always able to is gratifying.

If ever there was a moment when I had to abandon my college career in math, I think I would have fallen back either on Spanish studies or cultural anthropology. Spanish is pretty easy for me (at least I don't have to overly exert myself), but Anthro involves a lot of critical thinking and connecting these dots, putting yourself in another's shoes (they call that "cultural relativism").

What further inspired me towards working class struggles was reading The Broken Fountain by Thomas Belmonte. It was required reading, and, in addition to monthly protests against state university fee hikes and the military presence at career fairs (mandated by the Solomon Amendment), The Broken Fountain was a perfect stepping stone towards my out-of-classroom education on the ins and outs of class war.

Later on I accumulated Resistance Behind Bars,

How Nonviolence Protects the State (download as .pdf here),

and several articles from Bitch Magazine
The article entitled, "I'm not a feminist, but. . ." is amazing.

(especially one analyzing the class disparity between vampires/elite and werewolves/lower-class in popular culture), among others.


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  2. You covered a lot of territory!

    Dated haircuts and clothes aside, Boyz N the Hood and Fresh still resonate. To this day licquor stores still reside on every corner in poor neighborhoods. After glancing over the list of "hood" movies that you linked to, it's sad to observe the inferior efforts of 8 Mile, Training Day and Gran Torino, all of which make a muddled attempt to say "something" about the struggles of inner city life but ultimately say NOTHING. I'm glad you connect with your students directly instead of, as you said "merely watching movies to educate" yourself.

    Thanks again for recommending Crips and Bloods by the way. I knew almost nothing about the sinister deep seeded origins of gang violence before watching it.

  3. Territory . . . gang violence . . . I get it :-P

    You'd love The Broken Fountain, after you've read the umpteen other books you've got lined up plus ones we've talked about. I remember donating it to the Long Haul library years ago so if it's not checked out at the moment we can swing by and pick it up :-)