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‘Hood Films’ Spotlight Gritty Underworld

November 9, 2006

LOS ANGELES(AP) _ The camera lists and bobs in the dizzy, dancing camera style of MTV reality television before zooming in on a posse in purple clustered in a corner of an infamously violent housing project.

The footage is from a documentary called ``Concrete Hell,″ which aims _ like a wave of other straight-to-DVD gang documentaries _ to grant viewers intimate access to the gritty and violent underworld of America’s street gangs.

``We’re gangsters here,″ Redmann, a bushy-haired member of the Grape Street set of the Crips street gang, tells viewers. ``We live, die and eat this.″

The message will be heard by a select audience: Those who watch the growing genre of underground ``hood films,″ filmmakers and sellers say, are typically fellow gangbangers, wannabes and those seeking a voyeuristic peek into a dangerous subculture while safely sunken into a ratty college dorm or rec-room couch.

You won’t find ``Concrete Hell″ or other gang documentaries at the local Blockbuster. The $20 films are only for sale in swap meets, mom and pop record stores and Web sites such as streetgangs.com and gangstadvd.com.

Shot and edited using cheap equipment and pressed onto DVDs at home, ``hood films″ are the visual manifestation of gangsta rap: raw and sometimes violent snapshots of America’s gang-plagued ghettos shot by those boasting a closeness to the life, or in some cases by gang members themselves. And like the hip-hop genre that made mainstream stars of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre in the 1980s, the documentaries have drawn criticism from those who say the films glorify a criminal lifestyle.

Formal sales figured are not available since most DVDs are self-produced and distributed. But some filmmakers say they have sold thousands of copies, and sellers say the number of titles has spiked in recent years. Robert W. Lewis III said he has sold 18,000 copies of his film ``Rep Yo’ Set,″ a broad look at many Los Angeles gangs, since he released it in early October.

``I think it’s the same reason why movies like `Scarface’ and `Goodfellas’ are celebrated,″ said Alex Alonso, a gang researcher who sells the DVDs on streetgangs.com. ``Only some of these documentaries are real-life stories.″

Many of the filmmakers, however, bypass traditional documentary storytelling for raw footage of gangsters rapping about their lives, brandishing guns and, in some instances, fighting. A sub-genre known as ``fight films,″ such as ``Ghetto Fights,″ cuts straight to bloody battles between rival gangs.

Kyle ``Shazz Loc″ Jackson, 36, said he consciously avoided showing actual violence in his documentary ``Concrete Hell.″ Instead, his friends and family gang connections helped him give a voice to normally camera-shy members of the Crips and Bloods. The film’s dominant message is a warning for poseurs and enemy gangs to stay away from certain neighborhoods.

Lewis also chose not to include fighting or extensive drug use in ``Rep Yo’ Set,″ which features members of 27 different Los Angeles gangs. He also didn’t include any footage of gangsters insulting rivals.

``I didn’t want to use that life to show black people at their worst,″ he said. ``I wanted to show people in the communities that wanted a way out. That want an opportunity ... Clearly the message we’re giving is you don’t want to mess with this.″

His film does show members of the 27 featured gangs brandishing heavy artillery, flashing gang signs and rapping gang anthems that promise violence to rivals.

Though a longtime rap producer who has recorded gangsta rap albums, Lewis has no direct ties to the gangs he filmed. He used money and food to help gain access, he said.

``Nobody asked that we pay for anything,″ Lewis said. ``But we most definitely showed our appreciation for letting us in.″

Kevin Epps, 36, behind the lens in the 2003 documentary ``Straight Outta Hunters Point″ and considered a pioneer of the genre, said the films offer a view ignored by mainstream media.

``This is something the news can’t get and Hollywood can’t get,″ said the San Francisco-based filmmaker. ``I would like to believe that (the films) are benefiting mankind, I would like to believe by telling the truth about the conditions, all the poverty and the fights, it makes us take a look at ourselves and see all is not good.″

Others compare the films to snuff films that exploit real violence for entertainment. UCLA professor Jorja Leap, who serves as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s gang policy adviser, said her students buy the gang documentaries for the same reason they purchase the ``Bum Fight″ DVDs featuring homeless men fighting: Pure titillation.

``I don’t think people need to see it graphically for them to see how much of a problem it is,″ she said. ``What’s next? Rape? Pedophilia?″

Alonso, the gang researcher, said some of the DVDs he sells do have educational value _ but those aren’t the titles that are moving the fastest. The most popular are DVDs that feature dog fights, fights between women and gang rumbles.

``I can’t extract any values from any of those,″ said Alonso, who said he wouldn’t restock the titles once he sold out.

Federal prosecutors plan to use footage from one of the rawest films _ the 2005 documentary ``Hood 2 Hood″ _ in their case against Jonathan Leon Toliver, an alleged member of a Las Vegas gang charged in a 2004 shooting.

In the video, a man authorities believe to be Toliver brandishes a semiautomatic handgun and warns: ``They come around here, this is what they gonna get.″

To some degree, gang filmmakers have embraced the controversy surrounding their products _ the same selling point that helped gangsta rap find mainstream success. The cover of ``Rep Yo’ Set″ shows a man holding an assault-style rifle in the air. Like the record industry, these documentary filmmakers intend to plant seeds of gangster authenticity in the urban street market to entice a larger white, suburban customer base.

``I went to the hoods and shook hands and met people, went into the barbershops and beauty shops, went to the schools, went to the malls, went to the record stores in the communities,″ Lewis said about his campaign to widen his audience. ``I even caught people leaving church on Sundays.″

Michael ``Murdock″ Halcromb, 34, a member of the Piru Street Bloods who helped direct a music video featured in ``Concrete Hell,″ said he is bemused by the interest in the violence around him.

Standing in a cul-de-sac where his cousin and friends were shot a few days before, Halcromb said he expects his neighborhood’s stories to eventually reach a mainstream audience.

``They need to hear our stories,″ he said. ``I guess they’re fascinated by it. Like it’s some fascinating fairy tale. But this s--- is real. If you look around, you can see some bullet holes and bloodstains.″

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