The first thing we see are a white family of four having a grand old time on summer vacation in Los Angeles as seen through the family’s videocamera. There they are in front of the Hollywood sign. There they are cavorting in front of Mann’s Chinese Theatre. There they are taking a wrong turn into the wrong neighborhood and getting carjacked. The camera then finds its way into the wands of Kris (Trivell), a 13-year-old kid about to spend his summer becoming a man and a member of the gang that just stole the car and the camera. Hope he survives it. Kris decides to use his newfound toy to document his life. It’s through his footage that we learn about life and death in a warzone.
Kris learns about sex, drugs, guns, and killing. He has two primary teachers in the gang. Alonzo (Darris Love) is still in touch with his humanity and tries to take care of Kris, even as he teaches him how to turn cocaine into rock form. Cyril (Darontay McClendon) on the other hand, is the kind of guy for whom things just aren’t going to end well. The first time we meet Alonzo is picking him up from jail. Seemingly the moment he’s back in his neighborhood he jumps out of the car and beats another man with a tire iron. He’s a little crazy, but even he is not presented as a completely bad guy. He too has a soft spot for Kris. Still, it’s partially due to his actions that events occur that lead to ever escalating repurcussions.
Other films have explored the gang culture of South Central and South East Los Angeles, such as “Boyz N the Hood” and “Menace II Society”. There are some distinct differences here. The one most people will most readily pounce upon is the fact that the filmmakers behind “Gang Tapes” (which would be director/writer/producer Adam Ripp, producer David Goodman, and writer/co-producer Steven Wolfson) are all white. Before you roll your eyes, the movie isn’t lacking for street cred. Shot entirely in Watts, much of the cast grew up in this world and can relate stories of the gang-related deaths of some of their own family members. McClendon, a former gangbanger, also acted as a technical advisor.
The real difference between this film and “Boyz” or “Menace” is in how the story is told. The directors of those two movies made every effort to have them look like full Hollywood productions. The digital camera work of “Gang Tapes” is more familiar to the audience of “Cops”. This, however, is a view from the other side. It’s not all about violence. Kris shoots plenty of footage of house parties, barbecues, and his mom (Sonja Marie). Even though the teenager is mostly unseen behind the camera, through everything the film conveys a strong sense of how fast Kris is hardening and growing up. Fellow gang members even ruminate over how no one will ever escape this environment while blacks are completely consumed with fighting other blacks. Actually, after the camera is stolen the only faces we see are black, except for the cops. In light of the scandals that have plagued the LAPD for the last year and a half, I’m surprised we don’t get any real scenes of police harassment, a contributing factor in why nothing ever seems to get better.
The arrival of cheap digital cameras was supposed to herald a democratization of the filmmaking process. In light of many movies I’ve seen in the last few months, it might just be true. In his feature debut Adam Ripp may have had a low budget but the results are highly effective. It’s a strong, powerful work that while under 90 minutes, will take you much longer to shake off.