Documenting teen gang life

Critic's choice: TV

August 29, 1999|By DAVID ZURAWIK

If you want to see what it is that sets public television apart from the pack when it comes to social responsibility, make an appointment to see "Wannabe: Life and Death in a Small Town Gang" Thursday at 10 p.m. on Maryland Public Television.

"Wannabe" is the first film in a 10-week series, "Independent Lens," featuring new works from independent filmmakers on topics often ignored by commercial television. In "Wannabe" -- an hourlong, nonfiction work -- director John Whitehead goes behind the headlines to investigate a murder-suicide involving four members of a teen gang in Appleton, Wisc.

White male teen-agers are the menace to society in this piece. In fact, the one teen-ager who fits the more popular notion of gang member -- a black youth from inner-city Milwaukee -- is their victim.

"Wannabe" gives more help in understanding the violence at Columbine High School than all the blowhard talking heads (like George Will, who thinks public television is unnecessary) from all the so-called news and analysis shows on cable and network TV taken together.

Yes, the teen gang boys in "Wannabe" do seem to be influenced by MTV-inspired gangster fantasies. But Whitehead also shows us baby boomer parents who are missing in action or so out of it they have no idea how much they are to blame for the horror their kids have created.

Pub Date: 08/29/99

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