You’re more than likely familiar with the 1979 film, “The Warriors,” the cult classic about an all
out battle royale amongst colorfully costumed (but brutal) street gangs in New York City. Vividly
over-the-top, the film’s depiction of gang culture pales in comparison to the real-life gangs who
inspired it, the titular “Rubble Kings” of director Shan Nicholson’s latest documentary.
The doc takes a look back at a time when black and Puerto Rican gangs populated literally
every corner of the South Bronx – gangs with names like The Savage Nomads and The Skulls,
The Homicides and The Dirty Ones – who wore distinct colors, had complex hierarchies, and
clung to each other in an urban landscape that offered nothing much else to live for.
There frustrations, the film argues, were born not only out of the deterioration of the Bronx in the
early 60s due to big business and white flight, but also the frustration and anxiety over the
unfulfilled promises of the troubled 60s. The gangs, in a sense, were a kind of counter-cultural
movement all their own – teenaged kids who styled themselves off the Hell’s Angels and viewed
themselves more as outlaws than hooligans.
To tell the tale of how this movement of sorts affected gang culture in the Bronx and
surrounding boroughs for years to come, Nicholson employs interviews with the men and
women who experienced it first hand, the most engaging and informative of the bunch being
Ghetto Brothers gang founders “Yellow” Benjamin Melendez and “Karate” Charlie Suarez.
Bolstered by extensive and vivid archival footage of the Ghetto Brothers at the height of their
reign, the doc focuses in on how Melendez and Suarez channeled their anger away from the
neighborhood and towards the Man, gradually morphing the gang from a violent brotherhood
into a politically aware social club that would clean up the neighborhood and eventually serve as
the catalyst for one of the largest gang truces in New York City history.
But this is also, quite cunningly, a documentary about the birth of hip hop. Afrika Bambaata and
Kool Herc appear to give the final chapter of the story – how the street gangs were really the
progenitors of the b-boys, the DJs, the MCs, who would shape a cultural movement that
channeled the anger and despondence of hood life into a collaborative, transformative new form
of expression. It’s all fascinating stuff, and while this is a documentary that formally isn’t doing
anything groundbreaking, its strength lies in allowing the people who lived the story to tell it.
“Rubble Kings” opens Friday, June 19, 2015 in New York (AMC EMPIRE 25), Los Angeles (AMC BURBANK 8) and Chicago (AMC COUNTRY CLUB HILLS 16) with a wider national release to follow. The film will also be available on June 19 on: iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, GooglePlay, Sony Entertainment Network and VHX.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.