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A Look at Mainstream Views of Street Gangs Through Hollywood Films

Many stereotypes exist about gangs, yet most people really don't know that much about gangs. These Hollywood films portray both inner-city youth and gang life including gang members relationship with mainstream society.

Many stereotypes exist about gangs, yet most people really don't know that much about gangs. The films Colors, Boyz n the Hood, The Art of War, and American Me portray both inner-city youths and gang life including gang members relationship with mainstream society. Do these recent films about gangs try to get behind the stereotypes that most of us have about gangs? Do they portray gang members as dramatically different people from the rest of us or do they reveal similarities?

This paper tries to answer these questions. It also uses some of the sociological findings on gangs and life in the inner city to discuss how realistic these newer film portrayals of gangs are.

Literature Review

Mainstream society views gangs as little more than "collectives of individuals who are social parasites" (Jankowski 1991:181). Their members are thought to lack the values other Americans share. According to sociologist Martin Sanchez Jankowski, however, gangs hold many of the same values as other Americans. His research into the inner workings of gangs shows that their members have a strong work ethic and value "entrepreneurial spirit" which is shown by their competitiveness; their desire for money, possessions and status; and their ability to plan and to take risks (Jankowski 1991). Once the stigma of the label "gang" is removed, there are not that many differences between gangs and mainstream organizations like corporations or between gang members and many business men. David Rosenhan's (1973) article on labeling and mental illness shows the power of labels to shape people's perceptions of others. Even after totally sane people, who had been intentionally admitted to a psychiatric hospital as "schizophrenics" as part of an experiment, stopped displaying any symptoms and acted perfectly normal, hospital staff still classified them as mentally ill (i.e., schizophrenic but "in remission").

While mainstream culture sees gang members as amoral and troubled individuals, gang members actually rely on each other for stability and hope for the future. Many researchers who have studied life in the inner-city, where most gangs develop, have documented poverty, alienation, and hopeless. Philippe Bourgois (1995) studied social marginalization, crime, and illegal drug use in Harlem. He found that people turned to crack because of the lack of worthwhile jobs in the inner-city. Most of the jobs available in Harlem are low-paying and low status, while entry-level jobs in better areas of the city often put men in situations where they feel disrespected or embarrassed (e.g., they lack the right clothes, they feel put down by being called illiterate). "Isolating oneself in inner-city street culture removes any danger of having to face the humiliations...[the men] face when they venture out of their social circle to find legal employment" (Bourgois 1995:253). This lack of opportunity in the ghetto and men's fear of facing humiliation on the outside helps explain the important role gang membership can play for some inner-city men. Edin and Lein's (1997) article on single welfare mothers also discusses the lack of opportunity in the ghetto, pointing out that the welfare payments women receive barely cover the cost of food and shelter.

One mainstream stereotype of gangs is that their members engage in violence simply because they enjoy it. Yet, as sociologist Elijah Anderson points out, "The inclination of violence springs from the circumstances of life...[in poor inner-city black communities] - the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, the stigma of race, the fall-out from rampant drug-use and drug trafficking, and the resulting alienation and lack of hope for the future" (1994:81). He also points out that even if your home life teaches mainstream values, you still have to deal with street life outside the home. For young men in the inner-city, peers are especially important. Anderson discusses the "code of the street" that youths live by which is based "on a profound lack of faith in the police and the judicial system" (1994:82-83). The police are seen as "outsiders" who often do not respond to calls. Consequently, inner-city youths believe that they can only rely on themselves and each other. This belief makes it easy to understand the importance of gangs for some young men - they serve as a surrogate family. Jankowski (1991) shows that for their members, gangs are "primary groups" like families and fraternities whose members "share personal and enduring relationships" (Masionis 2002:108).

There are similarities between the "resocialization" gang members must undergo to become fully accepted members of their new "family" with the kind of re-training and resocialization civilians undergo when they go to boot camp (Dyer 1985). Gang members have to accept the "code of the street" and the specific rules of their gang, while new military recruits have to change their values and loyalties and fully accept the demands of the military. Members of both groups have to follow a rigid code of behavior and show respect for their new authority.

Methods

Gangs have been depicted in film for many years in movies such as The Wild One and the musical West Side Story. For this paper I decided to look at more contemporary films and how they depict gangs. I assumed that their portrayals might be more realistic, since films over the years generally have become more graphic and true to life. One of the films I decided on was made by a member (John Singleton) of the minority community it portrays. I chose the movies Boyz n the Hood, American Me, Colors, and The Art of War. Each movie was about two hours long. While all deal with gangs, these movies cover a variety of other topics and approach the subject of gangs from different angles.

American Me centers on the life of a small-time Hispanic gang member in urban southern California. The main character, Santana, gets thrown in jail as a teenager with two of his fellow gang members. However, they still manage to control the streets from inside jail. We see gang life through a series of flashbacks which cover the Zoot Suit riots of the 1940s up to the 1990s. Once out of jail, Santana struggles with life on the outside and lands back in prison.

Colors focuses on two cops in the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) section of the Los Angeles police department. The purpose of CRASH is to eliminate gang activity in L.A. Their task is hopeless since there are a reported 600 gangs and 70,000 gang members in Los Angeles. South Central Los Angeles is a tough place to live as seen in John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood. This black community is rampant with violence and gang activity. The movie's main character, Trey, moves to South Central to live with his Dad. The lives of Trey and two friends are followed throughout the movie and we watch them struggle to survive in the inner city.

The last film, The Art of War, turned out to be more of an action movie. Set in New York city near United Nations headquarters, it shows Triad or Asian gangsters fighting for their business rights. A free trade bill is about to be approved which would prove damaging to their businesses. Naturally, they stop at nothing to see to it that the bill is never passed. Even though the film deals with gangs, it was less useful for the purposes of my paper and consequently, my discussion focuses more on the first three.

Results

Boyz n the Hood gave a real life portrayal of what life in the "hood" or ghetto is really like. Gunshots ring in the background throughout the movie. The three main characters, all young Black men, have to deal with the violent nature of their neighborhood each day. Gang members are shown hanging out throughout the neighborhood, and the boys must be careful not to cross them. As the camera pans through South Central we see what a desolate poverty-stricken place it is. There is little hope there. A crack addict across the street daily pleads with the people who pass for some coke. "I'll suck your dick for some coke," is her line. The main character's father is one of the few motivated people living in the hood and he is constantly working on Trey to make sure he does something with his life and stays away from the dangers in the hood. In one scene a cop pulls over Trey and a friend. The cop pulls Trey out of the car and sticks a gun to his head, accusing him of being in a gang and saying "niggers" like him are what's wrong with the town. Mainstream society's disdain for gangs is displayed in another scene where an old-timer reflects on what's wrong with the community by blaming the gangs for "shooting people, and selling rock." Gang members demand respect, however, and when they are dissed or put down the repercussions are great. Trey and his friends have an encounter with a gang one night when a gang member bumps into Ricky. Ricky tells the kid to watch where he is going. Words quickly escalate after that. The next day the gang members are cruising the neighborhood with a shotgun looking for Ricky. When the corner him in an alley, they don't hesitate to unload two shells into his back. Ricky is gunned down in the prime of his life, the same day he got a college scholarship for football. This is just another example of how gang violence brings the whole community down.

The film Colors focused on gangs from both the police's perspective and the gang members' perspective. In the beginning some information about Los Angeles's gangs is shown. It is reported that there are 600 gangs and 70,000 gang members in L.A. alone. The statistics establish a feeling of helplessness on the part of mainstream society as represented by the police in dealing with gangs. One officer rants about the hopelessness of the CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) program: "They [gangs] got access to any kind of weapon they want." The opening scene shows four young black male gang members smoking a joint and getting ready for a drive by. They pull up right in front of the victim and blow him away. Laughter ensues. The victim's mother is in hysterics as the police attempt to find out what happened. There is one witness, but she refuses to tell the police anything. Whether her reluctance comes from a lack of trust of the police or from fear of gang retaliation is unclear. A number of scenes show gang members during the day, doing what they do. What they do is very little and certainly, nothing useful or positive. All of the scenes show them sitting around not doing besides selling crack. Colors features two gangs, a Black one and a Latino one, who fight back and forth. After the Black gang kills a Latino in the rival gang there is retaliation and so forth. This constant violence alienates the community and a public meeting is held on the subject. At the meeting a former gang member turned activist talks about how the community itself is responsible for the gangs and tells them that they need to work together to get rid of them. A number of people stand up and tell him that there are no jobs in the community, that there is no education or hope for the future, and that gangs offer instant money and women. Their message is that until there is some hope for a better life, the young men who grow up there will inevitably join gangs.

Colors also portrays how gang members think. They talk about the "love" in their gang and say it is like a "family." There is strong unity amongst the members which has both positive and negative aspects. Once you are in a gang there is no turning back. Little value is placed on individual life in gang culture. We see many deaths of "family" members, yet the two main gangs do not change their ways at all. At the end of the movie there is a final shootout between the black gang and the Latinos. The Latinos storm the headquarters of the black gang with a barrage of gun fire. In the front yard a showdown occurs and two opposing gang members pull their Uzis and fire, killing each other at the same time. A young Latino is so moved by the showdown that he says that he wants to go in just the same way - in a kamikaze mission for the good of his gang.

American Me runs through the life of the head of a Latino gang. Thrown in prison at a young age, the main character Santana, still manages to run the gang from the inside. He is successful at keeping people in line by ordering hits on his enemies. Santana holds little respect for other peoples' lives. Because of a thoughtless mistake Santana orders a member to kill his younger brother. After some hesitation the older brother carries out the stabbing of his younger brother. The feeling amongst the gang members is that all they have is their gang. This film shows how ruthless gangs can be, and the importance of the whole group rather than the individual.

The Art of War is your typical shoot-em-up action film. There isn't much to this film besides violence and action sequences. The Triad gangsters in the movie are out to protect their interests in Hong Kong businesses by killing a free trade agreement. With the murder of the Chinese ambassador they accomplish their task. The Triads were not afraid to sacrifice anyone in order to achieve their final financial goal.

Conclusion

According to sociologist Jankowski gangs hold the same entrepreneurial spirit as all Americans. However, in three of the four films gangs didn't do anything but stand around and shoot people. There were no glimpses of inner-city gang members working to make money or run a business. (Only The Art of War shows Asian gangsters or organized criminals with business concerns to run and protect.) In all the films, the gang was the primary group the youths and gangsters belonged to. This is in line with more of Jankowski's work which shows that gangs often serve as a replacement primary group. This is especially the case in inner city neighborhoods where there are a lot of single mother households and a general lack of parental control. The environment the gangsters live in is one of little hope. Not many people can expect to achieve a better life as they get older. One scene in Boyz n the Hood shows a group of black youths talking about why they don't work and try to be productive. Their words mirror what Bourgois said in his article dealing with the problems of inner-city life. The only jobs open to inner-city black youth are low paying service jobs like McDonald's. A minimum wage job is obviously not very attractive, especially when compared to the unity and the possibility for wealth that a gang offers. The modern gang films I watched portray are fairly realistic view of gangs. They contain some stereotypes, but they also seemed to reflect many of the findings of sociologists on what gang behavior and life in the inner-city are really like.

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