Draped in graffiti, a rickety old subway train makes its way across a rugged slice of New York that looks more like Mad Max than Mad Men. Only seconds into director Shan Nicholson’s documentary Rubble Kings, the audience understands that the residents on display in the film’s South Bronx ghettos live in a place that barely qualifies as America. The Bronx in the early seventies was a ruthless kingdom, where the only laws that mattered were those imposed by the hoodlums that claimed your block. Narrated by John Leguizamo, Rubble Kings takes a look at the rise of New York City’s gang life in the late 60s and early 70s, while also making the case that the emergence of hip-hop played a large role in New York gang culture’s decline.
If the 60s in America was the era of hope, change, and revolution, the 70s was the time when those ideals came crashing back down to earth and were left to rot behind a dumpster in a South Bronx alley. The film outlines several factors that contributed to the decay of the Bronx: optimism gave birth to cynicism in poor black communities after the murders of prominent civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., the callous urban planning of the Cross Bronx Expressway through an already deteriorating community expedited the flight of the middle-class, and struggling landlords began finding it profitable to burn down properties in depreciating neighbourhoods for insurance settlements. While the Bronx’s neighbouring borough Manhattan continued setting the precedent for the American cosmopolitan ideal, surges in home vacancy, unemployment, and violent crime transformed the Bronx into a dystopian wasteland. With nowhere to go and nothing to strive for, kids began to posse up, claim turf, and look to gang life to provide the purpose and sense of belonging their lives lacked.
Even though America sells its people on the concept that it is a country where anyone can overcome any obstacle with ambition and desire, there are countless individuals that lose faith in the system, ignore the rules of society, and embrace an outlaw lifestyle. Rubble Kings explores the motivations behind the outlaw mentality by utilizing animated flashbacks, news segments, and interviews with former gang members (many who are now public speakers and community activists) to provide viewers first-hand accounts of inner-city gang life. Two former leaders of the South Bronx gang, The Ghetto Brothers (Benjamin Melendez and Carlos Suarez) receive the majority of the screen time. Melendez and Suarez each deliver their stories of life amidst the centre of urban decay so earnestly that viewers can relate to the fight or be a victim mentality that essentially conscripted kids into gangs.
Gang life isn’t about being an outlaw 100 percent of the time; Rubble King‘s charismatic speakers open up about the brotherhood and camaraderie of day-to-day gang life that most people are not privy to. The film goes a step further in shattering viewers’ perception of gangs when it touches on The Ghetto Brothers foray into music. The Ghetto Brother’s band was an eclectic mix of The Beatles meets Santana by way of Sly and the Family Stone. The members would put on weekly block parties where rival gangs would show up and coexist peacefully for a few hours before going their separate ways. The Ghetto Brothers would go on to release a 1971 album which was re-issued in 2012 to rave reviews.
Rubble Kings makes the case that the emergence of hip-hop culture acted as a release valve for the pent-up tension and hostility inner-city youth expressed through gang culture. Gang culture’s evolution into hip-hop culture is a fascinating notion, worthy of its own film, and warrants deeper exploration. The most disappointing aspect of Rubble Kings is that the film completely skims over the concept. The last ten minutes of the movie details how Afrika Bambaataa leveraged his gangland influence in order to plant the seeds of hip-hop culture, but it’s unfortunate that this compelling argument comes across as a throw-in at the end of the film.
The movie’s biggest issue is that it never dives deep into any one topic. Rubble Kings, with its scant 70-minute running time, feels akin to having a tour guide take you by the hand and rush you through an art gallery during the final ten minutes before closing. It spends too much time saying “and then this happened and then this happened” without slowing down to really look at the impact of significant events, often avoiding other subjects entirely (the proliferation of drugs into the community). The film could use another twenty minutes to provide additional insight from the police, business owners, politicians, and family members that South Bronx gang life affected.
Rubble Kings does have a few things holding it back, such as not delving deep into its subject matter, and at times romanticizing the jovial, one-sided banter by former gang members as a past way of life rather than a cautionary tale, but while Rubble Kings does not succeed at being a particularly informative documentary, it does succeed at being an entertaining film. Rubble King’s quick pace, as well as its engaging stories (terrifyingly close to what took place in the cult film The Warriors) from charismatic personalities, are more than enough to not only hold the audience’s interest, but also inspire them to go out and learn more about the material after the credits roll.
- Victor Stiff