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Monday, June 30, 2008
Baron Davis, Movie Producer


Warriors' star guard Baron Davis recently got his feet as a movie producer, with what I have heard is a pretty hard-hitting documentary about gangs in South Central Los Angeles.

Almost nobody has seen this movie yet, and the creators have been relucutant to give journalists DVDs of a show that, last I checked, did not yet have a distribution deal.

But it has been done for some time, and there have been a few screenings. One was in Los Angeles last Friday, and Kevin Arnovitz of ClipperBlog was able to attend and provide this account for TrueHoop:

If you ask Baron Davis if he enjoys the off-the-court gratification and Renaissance Man status that come with financing and producing a film, he offers a steely response. "This is about making an impact."

The film, a documentary titled "Made in America," chronicles the history of gang conflict in South Los Angeles. "Made in America" was screened in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received positive reviews from the Hollywood trade press. On Friday night, it had its premiere in Los Angeles -- Davis' hometown -- as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Los Angeles premiers tend to be gratuitous -- even for movies that warrant nothing more than a starting pistol and some Percocet.

So there was something earnestly appealing about arriving at the outdoor space in a downtown office plaza where hundreds of folding chairs were set up for the al fresco screening. The vibe was much closer to a cast-and-crew screening than anything you'd find outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre. There was no red carpet -- aisles were marked byBaron Davis yellow electrical tape. The audience included a combination of friends-and-family of Davis and others who contributed to the production -- many of them community leaders and/or former gang members -- and erstwhile indie film geeks.

Through a mutual acquaintance, Davis was put in touch with Stacy Peralta. Peralta directed the 2001 skate documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys," and was eager to look at another slice of Los Angeles -- the city's gang history. Davis was excited at the prospect of not only producing a movie, but of bringing attention to an issue that needs some honest examination. Davis provided half the financing for the movie, and earned a producer credit.

Made in America's narrative will be familiar to those who saw the HBO documentary, "Bastards of the Party," directed by former Blood member Cle Sloan. Los Angeles' totemic African-American gangs -- the Crips and the Bloods -- have a social origin that extends well beyond turf wars. That history can be traced back to the de facto segregation and structural racism that governed Los Angeles for much of the 20th Century, a place where African-Americans understood they weren't to venture east of Alameda Avenue. What started out as a collection of street fraternities in the immediate post-war era metastasized into a landscape of warring groups in the 1970s, when the unity that coalesced around the black power movements dissolved.

Peralta stylishly employs a frenetic naturalism with tricks like motion-control technology to convey the film's message: If we considered the human cost of Los Angeles' gang wars in the context of a geopolitical conflict, the likes of Richard Holbrooke and Condoleezza Rice would be dispatched to the front lines to broker peace. But since the suffering is largely confined to the impoverished tracts of South Los Angeles, the violence is allowed to fester.

The result is an urban grid -- depicted on screen by animated graphic maps -- partitioned like a war zone: Red districts controlled by the Bloods, and blue districts by the Crips. It's a world in which some residents don't travel beyond a ten-block radius for years because they're afraid of venturing into enemy territory.

The film is narrated by Forest Whitaker, but its most authoritative voices belong to Kumasi, Ron Wilkins, and Bird -- former gang members who recount history, provide context, and offer confessionals of their anger.

I notice a large gold medallion with an etching of Barack Obama hanging from Davis' neck.

When Barack Obama referred in his Philadelphia speech to African-American men of a certain generation who still harbor "the anger and the bitterness of those years," he's talking about the guys in "Made in America."

Asked about it, Davis says: "I'm excited that we've got a leader who is bringing people together. This was my intention with this documentary."

The concern in any movie about things gone wrong is that characters tend to be presented as either victims, villains, or heroes -- instead of the murkiness that is more often the truth. On a few occasions, "Made in America" falls into that trap. But it's mitigated by an expansive voice that aims to speak to a broad audience.

When I ask Davis whom the movie is for, he fluently sounds off a list: "The Bloods. The Crips. Lawmakers. The School Board. Corporate America. Humanitarians. Our Generation."

(Photo: Valerie Macon/WireImage/Getty Images)