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by Mark Elijah Rosenberg
January 24th, 2008

Made In America.jpgMade in America” is a radical film about the history of African-Americans in the infamous neighborhood of South Central, Los Angeles. The film outlines the early migrations of former slaves to Los Angeles, and discusses the post-WWII boom of skilled industrial careers which brought large numbers of blacks to LA for the first time. But by the mid-1960s, industry was leaving the city, and African-Americans were losing their jobs. Young men, with little hopes of finding beneficial careers, and even barred from the Boy Scouts, began to form street gangs, looking for social and physical support. These were fighting gangs, but of a somewhat more tame nature than we know now: “You used to make an appointment for an ass-whupping,” says one former gang member. “I’d beat your hairline back and knock your sideburns off.”

[All quotations are paraphrased to the best of my abilities in dark-theater note-taking and memorization.]

Unwilling to accept the implicit racism and segregation in the city which their ancestors had put up with in the South, in 1967 thousands of angry blacks finally fought back in the infamous Watts riots. In the years since, many people have disparaged the riots for the looting which occurred within black neighborhoods. But one man who participated in the riots defiantly pointed out, “The looting didn’t undermine anything, because we’re talking about desperate people here.” Hemmed in by thousands of national guardsmen during the riots, and by the racist police during the rest of their lives, given the generations of brutal oppression and total lack of economic salvation, when you hear the people tell their stories in this film, you can understand why they might loot anything from food for their children to a new color TV.

MadeinAmerica_1-SMALL.jpgThe years following the riots showed an upswing of social and political activism and a decrease in gang activity. But by the end of the 1970s, with the government reneging on promises to help and little having been accomplished, white LA hemmed South Central in even more, allowing an influx of drugs and crime. The main element of the government’s “War on Drugs” and “War on Crime” is the constant harassment of African-Americans–essentially waging a war on blacks. South Central has dived deeper into despair than ever before. In the last 30 years, brutal gangs have ruled the streets. In the last 10 years alone, there have been 15,000 gang-related deaths in Los Angeles, more than in the entire history of the civil war in Northern Ireland.

Most of the people in South Central are, of course, desperate to stop the violence. Social groups are springing up–without much support from outside the community–which work to convince young black men not to join gangs, and to try to find alternatives for them, from after-school activities, to lasting careers. But without major changes to the socio-economic system in Los Angeles, the cycle is bound to renew itself.

I said that this is a radical film, and it is. But the filmmaking is not what’s radical here. The fast editing and effects, the constant use of music, may in fact put many people off. And frankly, the history being told is also not radical territory: many movies, books, articles have discussed the treatment of African-Americans which has lead to such widespread alienation, depression, rage, and violence. Other truly excellent films here at Sundance, even, such as “The Order of Myths,” deal in some part with these issues.

MadeinAmerica_filmstill4-SMALL.jpgNo, what is radical here is who is telling this story, and how they are saying it. The power and significance of hearing this story from the mouths of angry black men cannot be discounted. When 1 in 4 African-American males is expected to go to jail at some point in their lives, a film like this cannot be dismissed just because it seems overly flashy, or because we think we’ve heard it before. “What right have you got,” says one former gang member in the film, speaking of the daily police stops he faced, “to ask me where I’m going, what I’m doing? It’s none of your damn business. But every day I’m fed this spoonful of hatred. It’s my daily diet. And I’m gonna erupt. The question is when.”

If we simply say to ourselves that we’ve heard about the problem–and don’t acknowledge the deep-seated, widespread, and justified anger represented in “ Made in America“–that eruption will come again soon.  

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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