While there are those who yearn for New York City’s more rough and tumble past, that lens of nostalgia often forgets that for all of the city’s colorful quirks of the time, it was also violent, decaying, and on the brink of total collapse. In the 1970s, the city veered towards bankruptcy, some boroughs resembled war zones, and this climate allowed gangs to take root. Shan Nicholson‘s “Rubble Kings” ambitiously tries to act as a document of that particular milieu, one that will span not just the history of the gangs as told by people who were there, but also tie in the birth of hip hop, and the changing face of a city. It’s certainly an admirable goal, but the film leaves much wanting.
From almost every angle, “Rubble Kings” has the ingredients to be something definitive. The list of participants is lengthy, there’s a healthy amount of archival footage, and the scope has much to explore. However, the crowd-sourced documentary shows its budget limitations, and perhaps those of the filmmaker as well, making his second feature, and one that at 70-minutes, is actually shorter than his previous effort, “Downtown Calling.” But to the film’s credit, Nicholson is clearly passionate about the era and its people, and the topic and subjects are treated with the utmost respect.
Often playing like an oral history overlaid on a video essay rather than an actual movie, “Rubble Kings” dives into New York City from 1968 to 1975, tracking the evolution and unique structural formation of the gangs that roamed the streets in various boroughs by the dozens. It’s remarkable to learn just how organized they were, with some gangs boasting their own brand of police units and systems of punishment, but for a long time the name of the game was protecting your turf. And as such, the rituals for even joining a gang were rough. If you could survive the Apache Trail — a hazing ritual where you were thrust down a gauntlet and beaten with fists, chains and more — there’s was no question you could throw down in the street. And you had to be ready at a moment’s notice to rumble. It was no doubt the kind of life that brought excitement and some kind of order in a city that was teeming with poverty and where opportunities seemed few, particularly for young people. But the film largely isn’t interested in exploring that kind of dynamic or texture, or digging into the the more unpleasant elements of gang culture (drugs, prostitution) or even the steps leading to peace between warring factions. Nor is it interested in the social upheaval and racial tension that also fostered the divides that traveled street by street, borough by borough.
“Rubble Kings” wants to make it clear that it was the gangs themselves who decide on a stalemate to the violence and start to do good in their community, but the shift in values, as explained in the documentary, is abrupt. While the murder of the Ghetto Brothers’ peacemaker is said to be the catalyst for change, the doc rushes from that moment to the parties that give rise to hip hop. There is probably a whole other documentary that could be made about the music scene that thrived during this tumultuous time (indeed, even the Ghetto Brothers had their own funk band), but “Rubble Kings” barely scratches the surface. The film also gives only passing mention to women, who at least from what we learn ever so briefly, did more than just hang off the arms of the jean-jacketed gang members.
Both a disappointment and a missed opportunity, one is left wondering why the high profile involvement of producers like Dito Montiel (“A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints,” “The Son Of No One“), Jim Carrey (yep, that Jim Carrey) and narrator John Leguizamo couldn’t have led to a more indepth product. “Rubble Kings” is a documentary that could easily used another hour, and it wouldn’t be felt, if the assured editing in this picture is any indication. But perhaps we’ll have to wait for another documentary entirely to give the full treatment to this time period like it deserves. Let’s just hope the surviving players are still around to tell their stories. [C]