Christian Niedan’s History Storytellers — Part Eight: The Outsider

The eighth installment of a twelve part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of historians and history-infatuated filmmakers. The series continues with a look at the story of Los Angeles’ most infamous modern gang wars via an interview with director and professional skateboarder/surfer Stacy Peralta…

People fortunate enough to live through — and be a part of —  a historic, celebrated era of time have the ability to uniquely retell its story through the lens of their own experiences. However, that privilege can carry with it the suspicion of narrative bias. An alternative to these potentially predisposed viewpoints is the tale being told by an outsider with (theoretically, at least) an unbiased perspective. Director and professional skateboarder/surfer Stacy Peralta has told screen stories of Los Angeles as both an insider and outsider. Perhaps the best example of Peralta the insider is his 2001 documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys — which charted the birth of skateboarding from surfing roots, and the role of Peralta and the Zephyr Competition Team (or “Z-boys”) he was a part of in popularizing the sport worldwide during the 1970s. That story took place amidst the broken piers and sunburned asphalt of the “Dogtown” section of L.A., which comprised beachside neighborhoods of South Santa Monica, Ocean Park, and Venice — where Peralta attended high school.

Yet it was further east, far from L.A.’s oceanfront, that Peralta utilized his geographic outsider status to retell the story of L.A.’s most infamous modern gang war, via his 2009 documentary, Crips & Bloods: Made in America. The film delves into societal factors that spawned two of the most notoriously-violent street gangs in the United States, and the long-term repercussions for the African-American community of South Central L.A., where those groups live and operate. With his outsider status in mind, I spoke with Peralta for a March 2011 interview published on my film website, Camera In The Sun. Specifically, I asked Peralta if any Crips and Bloods he interviewed expressed concern about a white director getting their story right:

Stacy Peralta: “No, and I thought there was going to be lots, and there wasn’t. In fact, it was the other way around. I had people thanking me for coming to their neighborhood, thanking me for spending the time to tell their story — and I never expected that. I thought they were going to look at me like, ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What do you want? We don’t want you here.’ But that’s not the way it was at all. They were like, ‘Hey, don’t be a stranger.’ They know how bad their situation is. They want their story told, even the worst of them. But I approached them as a person first, and I didn’t ask them demeaning questions. Because they told me a lot of times, when newspaper reporters would come in there, they would ask really demeaning things like, ‘Hey, can I watch you do your next drive-by, so I can document it?’ You know, one reporter that had been there prior to my arrival, he actually had a death threat put on his head because he’d been so disrespectful to them. I never went in with that. In fact, before I even shot a role of film, I went in there alone to meet everybody and say, ‘Look, this is who I am. This is what I want to do, and I’m looking for your approval, and I’m looking for you to be involved in this, and I want your involvement. What do I have to do to make that happen?’ And they really appreciated that, because they’re not used to people treating them that way.”

It turns out that Peralta’s profound familiarity with surfing culture (which he showcased in his 2004 documentary, Riding Giants), and its social protocols, helped ingratiate him with his gangland interviewees.

Peralta: “A lot of people ask me, ‘How did you get these guys, many of them killers, to sit down and talk with you?’ One of the things that I understood from surfing, that when you go into another person’s territory, that territory belongs to them. You have to show them respect. You have to carry yourself a certain way, and you have to aim everything that you’re trying to get from them in a way that shows you respect them — that you respect where they’re from, and you respect their rules. But also, let me tell you something, this entire thing — whether it’s Dogtown, Riding Giants, or Made in America —  it is all about identity. It’s all about wanting to belong to something as a young male. It’s super-duper important. I wanted to belong to skateboarding and surfing. The big wave riders that I focused on in Riding Giants, they wanted to be surfers when it wasn’t a cool thing to be. And these gang guys, they know what they do is wrong, but they want to belong to something that gives them some sort of identity and self-esteem.”

To give the film’s viewers a wider perspective on L.A’s modern-day Crips and Bloods, Peralta delved into the history of societal upheaval and gang organization that helped spawn them. It’s an approach that he hoped would quiet the pre-conditioned response viewers might have to seeing members of America’s two highest-profile gangs discuss their daily lives…and deaths.

Peralta: “The problem is, when people look at current gang members, they think one thing: ‘These kids are monsters. They’re just born monsters.’ And they’re not. And so, you have to understand what preceded this, what led up to this. And that’s why we focus on the birth of [’60s Watts gang] ‘The Slausons’, and it’s also why we focused on the migration of African-American people from the South to places like Los Angeles in the ’30s and during World War II. Because when you see how they were penned in, and they weren’t allowed (through real estate covenants) to move out, so they ended up living on top of each other — knowing that it was good somewhere else, but not where they were. You know, we wonder why it’s bad there. Well, it’s bad because we set it up that way, and it was also a police state. It’s not like that in white neighborhoods, but it is like that in those neighborhoods. It affects people’s self-esteem, and how they feel about themselves and their community, and how they feel about each other.”

Though Peralta was an outsider to that experience going in to filming, television media coverage had given him a distant familiarity with two infamous events in South L.A. history  – its riots.

Peralta: “I was a very young kid during the ’65 riots, and I remember watching it on TV. I didn’t understand it, because I was too young, but I remember people were concerned about it. The neighborhood was concerned about it. Now, I was an adult during ’92, and I couldn’t understand how two of the strongest civil rebellions in America could literally happen within miles of each other, 27 years apart — just didn’t make any sense to me. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to make the film, because I wanted to understand it better. Why did this happen again? And how did it happen again? And if it did happen again, there must be something very serious going on here.

The incident that Rodney King went through, getting beaten the way he got beaten by the police, which was illegal, had it not been covered on video, then that would never have been uncovered, and nothing subsequently resulting from that would have been brought to light. So much anger exploded because of that, because so much of that had been happening. When you go to South Los Angeles, people will tell you that kind of stuff happens all the time, but it was that one time that it got caught on video, so the world could see how they had been treated. And they justifiably got very angry when all those police got off, because to them this happens all the time, and they feel it’s wrong in this country to happen like that. People now have video cameras on their phones, and look what’s happening in the Middle East right now. The governments are shutting down the internet, yet people are shooting videos on their phones, and they’re texting these videos to other people, who are sending them out. The information in people’s hands now is being shared to people very far away, so the world can see exactly the injustices that are happening elsewhere. Is it gonna make this a better world? Well, let’s hope so.”

Peralta also noted how screen portrayals of people and events can have a negative impact – particularly with regard to the subjects of Made in America.

Peralta: “I think [Hollywood depictions] help promote the idea that these are just bad kids — that they’re just born bad. I think it allows people to hold a bit of racism within themselves, because they can look at those kids from a distance without really knowing the truth and go, ‘Yeah, they are bad. They don’t deserve anything. They deserve to be in jail.’ And it just takes the compassion card out, which I think is so important in this case. Because what I found when I was making the film, was that these kids aren’t even looked at as being Americans. They’re looked at as some other form, that they almost don’t belong in this country — and that’s the way I felt people looked at them. You know, when I was making the film, so many people said, ‘Why do you want to make a film about those guys?’ You know, as a country, we don’t understand the struggles of these poor people, and it’s awful what they’re struggling through. No kid is born into this world wanting to pick up a gun. It’s something that’s conditioned into them. They’re conditioned like that, and if they aren’t tough, they get taken down. They don’t have a lot of choices, and so what happens is it hardens them, and they have to be tough, and they have to be bullies back. And so, that terribly affects their life. I think most of the kids in there that are involved in gang violence, I think they’re suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

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