Gang films uncover subculture of rage

June 27, 1993|By Soren Andersen | Soren Andersen,McClatchy News Service

During the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this month, four films -- "Romper Stomper," "Eight-Tray Gangster: The Making of a Crip," "Bound by Honor" and "Menace II Society" -- comprised a sort of underbelly-of-society minifestival within the festival.

Two of the films, "Bound by Honor" and "Menace II Society," have since gone into commercial release. A third, "Romper Stomper," was a big hit in its native Australia, running for 4 1/2 months after its release in November.

The subject matter of the four pictures differs, but their aim is the same: to drag the viewer into deep subcultures where rage and a large measure of hopelessness are rampant. The men who directed three of those four films, Thomas Lee Wright, Taylor Hackford and brothers Allen and Albert Hughes, along with actor Russell Crowe, the star of the fourth, were all outsiders looking in, men trying to get as close as possible to those subcultures to lift the curtain that shrouds their inner workings.

Their films are risky pictures, uncompromising in their approach to their subjects. Their films make audiences uneasy. That's the whole point.

Each of the filmmakers sees his movie as an alarm bell, "a wake-up call," in Mr. Hackford's words, calling attention to areas where the fabric of society is most grievously torn.

Late last month, we talked with some of the people who worked on these films. Here's what they said:

What audience is the target for this movie?

Allen Hughes: "It's made for the people who aren't involved in this [gangs]. They're the ones who need to understand how a person can get to that point [of becoming a gang member]."

Mr. Hackford: "I hope it appeals to everyone, but I would like the film to be seen by young people." He said he deliberately cast unknown Latino actors in the lead roles to make it easier for young Latino viewers to identify [with] them. "When those young kids look at [the movie] they'll say, 'Wow, that guy looks like me.' And then you watch what they go through, and I believe they can benefit from that."

What message were you hoping to send?

Allen Hughes: "I think that white people, especially, need to understand the conditions that are going on down there [in the inner city] and then get involved and open up communications."

Albert Hughes: "The first thing and the last thing you should do is to treat everybody equally, give them the same job opportunities, give them the same education."

Mr. Hackford: "What you watch is a step-by-step dehumanization process, the step-by-step loss of a soul. What am I saying at the end? Look at what these institutions [prisons] and this system are creating."

Despite the alienation and anger of the people shown on screen in these movies, none of the filmmakers believes their main characters are wholly irredeemable.

Mr. Crowe, speaking of Hando, his vicious skinhead character in "Romper Stomper": "I don't believe in his politics. I despise the ideology." But asked whether he hated the character himself, he answered, "I don't want to say the word 'hate,' because then you're falling into the same trap that he's in. But without using the words 'empathy' or 'sympathy' either, I feel sorry for him. If a guy [with] Hando's energy and focus was applied to good works rather than to destruction, he could do anything.

"I believe that Hando can be saved," Mr. Crowe said, though "not on the road he's on in 'Romper Stomper.' "

Mr. Hackford: "I didn't make ['Bound by Honor'] in despair. I made it with a sense of looking at a difficult reality. But within this film, in terms of . . . these three [main] characters, there is, inevitably, hope. . . . Whatever the pain and the rage against

disenfranchisement, there still is the struggle to survive."

Mr. Wright: "You can't just write off all these people [who] you can put under the so-called moniker of 'gang member.' You have to say, look, these people come back into the community," as did "Eight-Tray Gangster's" subject, gang member Kershaun Scott, who is back out on the streets after serving time in juvenile hall for killing a man in a drive-by shooting.

"There is life after tragedy. There is life after a horrific experience. There is life after death in the neighborhood. There is a chance of redemption. No matter what horrible thing any of us does in our lives, there is a chance to live again. There is a chance to be redeemed by the conduct that follows after."

Interviewed by Mr. Wright years after his release, Scott is still clearly a gang member, but when he talks to kids thinking about joining gangs, Mr. Wright says he cautions them against it. Scott, Mr. Wright says, tells kids, "If you do what I did, you will suffer the pain and the loss and the craziness that I went through, and you will lose so much more than you will ever gain."

On the films' often graphic depictions of violence:

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