You might call Stacy Peralta an unlikely person to direct Made in America, a fascinating and highly stylized film about what has become an American institution: the decades-long bloodbath in South Central, Los Angeles. If you YouTube Stacy’s name, you’ll find skating videos from his heyday as a pro-skate icon. Years later, he would document his perennial love for skating in Dogtown and Z Boys (2001). His following film, Riding Giants (2004), cites the history of modern surfing. Made in America is, then, a complete departure for Stacy. But this was a film he has “wanted to make since 1992,” he said in a recent phone interview with Next American City. For years, he has been interested in the “higher value placed on white kids’ lives than on black kids’ lives.”
Next American City’s Hamida Kinge called Peralta at his Los Angeles home to discuss the film, Los Angeles, gangs and racial inequity.
How did you convince current gang members to sit down for filmed interviews? And how did you introduce yourself to them?
I tried to get to meet them in their neighborhood before any cameras ever showed up so I could introduce myself, explain my intentions. And so I tried to build a relationship first. Typically I would go into a specific neighborhood, I would talk to the kingpin of that neighborhood, establish a relationship with him, and once I had him, then he would introduce me around, and via the respect that he commanded, I was given open access. Also, I would interview each guy separately. If you interview them in a group, you’re going to get a totally, completely different interview.
How long did it take you to develop this relationship with the kingpins and also, weren’t you scared?
I was terrified all of the time. I was terrified when I wasn’t even there. And I was constantly questioning myself: Who are you to make this film? Who do you think you are making this film?
You mean as a white man?
As a white man living outside South Central. Everything. Every conceivable thing. And I would really get very unsettled. And what would happen is that I would go into the hood, and I would meet a kid and he would move me so deeply that I would think, Nope, I know I’m doing the right thing. And then I would leave the hood, and I’d start spiraling out of control again and getting very insecure and then the same thing would happen. Something — some revelatory meeting or interview would take place. So it was this roller coaster ride. Some people would say, Oh you were so brave to do it. No I’m not brave, I was naïve enough to think I could do it. It was simple naivete.
Well it worked!
It was really a wonderful life-changing experience as well, I must say.
How did it change your life?
It enabled me to see this problem in a far different light than I had ever seen it before. It enabled me to understand it. And it really enabled me to understand the terrible challenge of growing up poor in America, especially if you’re part of an ethnic group. Those of us who are white and middle class rarely experience this. Or if we do, we might experience one or two of challenges with a lot of time in between. These young kids experience so many major problems so early in life. The odds are so stacked against them that prison is accepted. I can’t tell you how many guys told me that, they said Hey I knew that come 20, 21, 22 I was going to have to put in my time.
So prison is just completely expected?
Because their uncles are in prison or their cousins or their brothers, everybody knows someone who is going in or coming out. It’s accepted. It’s conditioned.
You were turned down by every major Hollywood studio and production company that you pitched the film to. Why do you suppose that is? Also, at a question-and-answer session at BAM [the Brooklyn Academy of Music], you made a comment that Hollywood has blood on its hands. Can you explain that comment? It can be off the record if you want.
I believe that Hollywood has profited off of this problem through music and through motion pictures, exploiting this problem. But they’ve made a tremendous amount of money and I have seen no interest in those who call themselves liberal in getting behind a solution to this problem. This isn’t in Darfur and it’s not only in America, it’s 20 minutes from Hollywood. And we had half the film financed from Baron Davis, a proven director, and they still wouldn’t put the small amount of money into it.
Well, did they think they wouldn’t make enough of a profit off of it because it’s a documentary?
Yes, I would assume so. And also something that you hear in Hollywood is: African-American audiences don’t support serious films about African-American causes.
In a few sentences, can you describe to me what keeps men [in these gangs] confined to such a small area, never seeking to go out of the hood, just a few miles away?
Danger. In some of the more violent areas, the neighborhoods become like little states, with their own histories and boundaries and historical figures. And when a guy becomes an active gang member, he is now a target in another neighborhood and so these guys don’t do a lot of traveling.
What really struck me hard [in the film] is that just a few miles away is Hollywood, just a few miles away is Beverly Hills, just a few miles away is the Pacific Ocean.
Well it’s a metaphor for what happens to their minds. They get very confined and they don’t see the bigger world. And on top of that they live in a very resource-poor world. For example, there are so many fast-food chains in South LA last year they put a moratorium on any more being built because it’s affecting the health of the community.
This violence has been going on for decades and there have been so many programs that have tried but failed. In your estimation, what will it take to end the violence in South Central?
If the conditions didn’t exist, these kids wouldn’t be doing this. I’ll tell you what’s not going to work: what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years, which is trying to arrest our way out of this problem.
One of the reasons that I was interested in making this film is because it seemed to me that there was a different value placed upon these kids than there is placed upon white kids. And when I first started this film a lot of people didn’t understand why I wanted to make it. And one of the lines that I gave them is, How would our society react if white kids in affluent white neighborhoods were forming gangs, arming themselves with automatic assault rifles and killing one another. Would we just try to arrest our way out of it? And everybody I talked to said, Oh my God, the government would come and put a stop to it immediately.
And also look at [the gang members] as fellow Americans. Maybe they’re not born this way, as some would like to think. Maybe, in fact, their conditions have created this situation. And we’re very busy looking at other countries and putting expectations on them in order for them to achieve a certain trading status with us.
To be quite honest, excuse my ignorance, I figured there was still some form of gang violence in South Central but I had no idea that it was still alive and kicking the way it is until I saw your film.
Most people that live here say the same thing. Everybody that‘s seen the film in LA had no idea of the history that led up to this. Even though we live here, it’s comfortably segregated. There is no reason for the people living out of those neighborhoods to have a reason to go into them, so it goes on and goes on. They’re kind of comfortably boxed in by four freeways. There’s the Santa Monica freeway, which is the North side, there is the San Diego freeway, which is the West side, and there’s another freeway that’s relatively new called the 105 that shoots right through it, and so you never have to go in there. You can comfortably pass by without ever knowing it even exists.
I was curious to know if you came across anybody in South Central who had transcended that mentality of being told your whole life that you can’t escape the fate, that you don’t have a future.
Well, there are success cases out of there. But here’s one of the things that perpetuates this problem: Most people who do succeed leave the area, so the area is drained of success. For instance, a gentleman there told me that the highest a kid in South Central can aspire to is to be a mailman because no doctors or lawyers live here. And if kids do go to college and become a doctor or lawyer, they don’t live here any longer. So the kids who live here don’t get to see success.
It’s not tangible.
It’s not tangible. And what’s interesting is that all of the gang members I talked to, and they always had two answers: sports or music. You never heard them talk about academics.
What kinds of things did current gang members say when they saw themselves on film revealed? Is there a sense that they are forever changed people? What did they say when they saw themselves?
I took about five former gang members to the Sundance Festival with me. And these were all Crips and Bloods — all different ages. And before we went to Sundance, I took them to restaurant to introduce them to each other, and kind of tell them what to expect. And one of the men at the table, says, Do you realize how close we live to each other, and it’s only because of this film that we’re able to shake hands and meet each other. Because if it wasn’t for this film, we’d never meet and get to realize how similar we are. And it was so incredible to be a part of that, to see these guys becoming friends.
What are your ultimate goals for the film?To show a different side to this problem and to show that these kids are human beings. They’re humans before being gang members, and I say that because as long as we can label them “gang members,” we can dehumanize them and distance ourselves and not have to worry whether these young kids just continue going off to the penitentiary. But the second you look at them as human beings you realize that maybe if you were in the same situation, you might do the same thing. And at that point you realize maybe there’s another way to do this other than arrest our way out of it.
Hamida Kinge has written about everything from food security to ocean acidification to luxury cell phones. She was a 2009 fellow of the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment and a 2008/09 reporting fellow of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. She has contributed to Next American City, Grist, Philadelphia City Paper and U.R.B. domestically as well as Europe-based magazines Essential Macau and Straight No Chaser. For the past year, she has been teaching English as a foreign language to international students and business professionals. Hamida has also been a volunteer English tutor for the International Center in New York.