Those acquainted with the story of New York’s “master builder” Robert Moses (Robert Caro references Moses’ racist/discriminatory attitudes in his milestone biography of Moses), understand the extent to which Moses destroyed integrated neighborhoods of the Bronx, when he mandated construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway. It cut a huge swath of road demolishing houses, viable social communities, and neighborhoods of the Bronx. Sold as an urban renewal project of the early 1960s, the social and economic side effects were anything but a boon for the region. Moses’ renewal promoted the monstrous shape of economic and ethnic discrimination; it exacerbated violence, gangs, drugs, white flight, and landlords abandoning and torching buildings for insurance money. Poor and unemployed ethnic families and the elderly who could not afford to migrate to other New York counties lived in sub-human, squalid housing with no heat or hot water. Relegated to third world nation status, these New Yorkers were the playthings of misery, desolation, and hopelessness. The portrait of a ruined New York City in the decade of change between the 60s and 70s is the backdrop of the amazing and inspiring film ‘Rubble Kings.’
The documentary directed by Shan Nicholson, narrated by John Leguizamo with original music by Little Shalimar, is an important piece of socio-economic history. It is an incredible reminder of how lasting organic change happens from within communities and cannot be imposed from the outside with systemically corrupt political or social structures. The documentary is also vital in revealing how positive affirmation can rise up within various charismatic community leaders who, if they collaborate together to uphold peace through the medium of the arts, media, and music, can reverse violence, self-hatred, and destruction to rebuild what was once deemed the rubble of a lost civilization.
First and foremost, Nicholson chronicles the rise and fall of mid 20th century “gangs of New York City” (reputedly in the tens of thousands citywide). The film takes a complex, convoluted historical period and clearly codifies seminal earth-shattering events in thematically organized segments. It focuses on what type of environment spawns gangs, what their inner codes of conduct and lifestyles are, and the ineffectiveness of society to deal with tribal groups by imposing shallow, ineffectual interventions.
Nicholson’s opening shot is with key spokesmen of The Ghetto Brothers, the most positively influential group of the period. In a brief riff, “Yellow Benji” Melendez (founder of the Ghetto Brothers), and Carlos “Karate Charlie” Suarez (Warlord of the Ghetto Brothers), remember the terrible murder of peace counselor Cornell “Black Benji” Benjamin, shot at point blank range while he was on a mission to negotiate peace between warring gangs.
From the brief referencing of Benjamin’s death, Nicholson rocks the history of the time through interviews with comments by numerous gang founders, (Topaz of the Ebony Dukes, Rolando Ruiz President of the Imperial Bachelors, D.S.R. Warlord/Gestapo of the Savage Nomads to name a few). He cobbles together media clips (archival neighborhood footage of areas of the city before and after their ruin, leaders in their youth speaking about their gangs on The David Susskind Show, commentary from Mayor Koch who kept the city from financial ruin during his three terms), and Nicholson bridges them with Shalimar’s music and John Leguizamo’s narration voice-overs. The filmmaker intersperses clips of commentary by Felipe Luciano of the Young Lords Party, current presenter for Fortune 500 companies, and others like social critic, philosopher, and professor Marshall Berman. Throughout, to highlight intimate action for which there is no surviving footage or photos, he uses recreation graphics.
In short, using his craftsmanship Nicholson connects the thematic segments into a cogent, well informed, and alternative insiders’ view of what was really going on in the city and specifically the Bronx during a time of the troubled 60s and the violent 70s in New York. The feeling one receives as a result of the tight editing of the various interviewee perspectives, the music threads, and voice-over narration is a sense of what is horrifically tragic though vitally real, human, and uplifting during this time period.
The contrasting picture of New York then is a far different one from the world tourist city and luxurious, cultural mecca of the present. Unless one lived through the time, it seems unbelievable that much of the city and a good part of the Bronx was globally known as a violent, bombed-out, dangerous, unvisitable place on the “eve of destruction.” It was a city with the highest murder and crime rates in the nation. Gang founders repeat themselves in stating that “crime was the major income of the Bronx.” Certainly, destroyed stores, rubble piles, and zero infrastructure provided no opportunity for employment. Daily arsons were typical, drugs were prevalent, murders and deaths were numerous. The Bronx was a world of its own; there was no where to go but upward, and what emerges from this film is an iconic view of how New York City’s most disenfranchised, alienated but hope-filled groups transformed themselves from outlaws to superior leaders of positive change.
The narration ties in the seminal events in the transformation of NYC gang culture into a culture of ethnic, racial pride, positive self-worth, and life-affirming lifestyle validation. After Benjamin’s death, the Bronx’ 101 gangs were inspired to change by groups like The Ghetto Brothers and others. These groups continued to morph into community peace keepers and charitable organizations from their murderous, crime dealing ways. The hard work of “Yellow Benji” Melendez and Carlos “Karate Charlie” Suarez of the Ghetto Brothers paved the way by initiating a peace treaty of gangs after the death of Ghetto Brother, Cornell “Black Benji.” No fingers were pointed, there was no “eye for an eye.” How, why, where and when Melendez and Suarez effected this treaty is poignantly told and is the key moment in the film.
From the peace treaty onward, Melendez worked to bring the gangs together with block parties and jamming sessions and another bend in the history of the Bronx unfolds with the creation of Hip Hop music which brought its own style of dress, dance and cultural behaviors. It was then that the DJ crews came to be influential and DJs like Kool Herc (founder of Hip Hop culture), Red Alert (DJ radio personality) and Afrika Bambaataa (former head of Black Spades, current head of Zulu Nation), and many others influenced the gangs so that eventually their need for violence dissolved and peace came. With its roots in gangs falling away, the rise of the Hip Hop culture burgeoned into a positive outgrowth and the huge business it is today.
The film is a must see for anyone who adores Hip Hop and enjoys seeing how New York City’s gang roots evolved into Hip Hop styles. The documentary is a veritable “Who’s Who” of New York City gangs in the late 60s through the 70s. It is vital to note the importance of the founders’ impressions and their eye-witness accounts of the time. As they share “what was going down” we see the strong themes present. Their account is a profound encomium to dream and hope. It elucidates that transformation is possible from the least likely of imagined places. It is possible when all of the stakeholders see its need. It is possible when at a point of life and death, a brother dies for peace. It is possible when no more killing is viable, for to add to a death with more death is viscerally felt to be senseless and genocidal.
As the most influential gang leaders realized killing was the worst form of self-abuse and racial and ethnic self-hatred, they understood that inner peace had to obtained. They knew that they must engender it. It was enough that they were hated by the external mainstream culture. They had to stop internalizing that hatred and begin a process of self-love. That self-love and self-worth came when they manifested their talents in dance, DJing, art and other venues sharing the best of their cultural inner graces.
This is a wonderful film, It is inspiring in its theme of leadership. The leaders of the gangs (initially The Ghetto Brothers and the 40 gangs who supported them outright), knew that they had the power of their convictions to influence others. Not only did they want a better life, they envisioned it to be possible. It was first a matter of seeing that possibility, then gradually envisioning ways to bring that possibility into reality. But first, they had to realize that they could only bring this about for themselves and their own ethnic groups by saying “enough!” Change would never happen with intervention by broken government, corrupt police, inadequate social services, or other structures which were supposed to “do the job” but failed. Once the leaders knew that they held the power of transformation in their hands, that there must be a peaceful outcome with the end of gang wars, crime and violence, they determined it. Peace began. Peace stayed.
The strength, courage, and tremendous effort that it took to evolve such a reformation may not seem sexy, but it is a moral imperative for our current leaders to recognize and take inspiration from. The irony is that New York City has always been a microcosm for other cities globally. In this aspect of achieving a resolution where there was none, Nicholson sends a quiet message about how to confront global peace keeping issues in some of the failed nation states in the middle east. In the film the leaders knew who the enemy was. They knew what the enemy wanted. Finally, they said, “No!” We will not give them our lives, our blood. We will take authority over ourselves and change our lives. We will reaffirm our identity. We will establish our blood lines. We will not spill our blood for anyone.
This unlikely group of outlaws and evolved individuals (each who survived made his way to success), are messengers for our times. They are messengers for all times and for human beings everywhere.[amazon template=iframe image&asin= B0081NAUKS]