Film Review: Rubble Kings

Technically brilliant documentary about the rise of gang culture in 1960s and ’70s New York City and its role in the creation of hip-hop becomes uncomfortably enamored with its main subjects' self-aggrandizing view of history.
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Ladies and gentleman, The Bronx was burning. In the course of 10 years from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, an estimated 30,000 buildings were set ablaze by, generally, landlords who had stopped providing basic services to apartment houses whose rent rolls didn't cover expenses and who wanted to collect insurance money. Why insurance-company investigators weren't wise to this at the time, who knows? But as the documentary Rubble Kings argues eloquently and with impeccable production values, the same vicious cycle propelling those landlords—of poverty, crime, middle-class exodus and lower tax base for services and infrastructure, exacerbated by the neighborhood-destroying Cross Bronx Expressway—also fertilized the ground from which sprang inner-city gangs. And that same gang culture—many murders, much brutalization and countless addictions and deaths later—gave rise to today's multi-billion-dollar hip-hop industry. Yay, I guess.

Yet, as fascinating and well-told as it is, Rubble Kings suffers from a garbled chronology that pushes the narrative of its two main interview subjects, Ghetto Brothers gang founder "Yellow" Benji Melendez and president Carlos "Karate Charlie" Suarez, painting them as misguided heroes who eventually brought peace in our times. The signal event the documentary points to—an inter-gang peace treaty signed after Ghetto Brother Cornell "Black Benji" Benjamin was killed while on a peace-negotiating mission at a mass gathering resembling that of the 1965 novel and 1979 movie The Warriors—took place on Dec. 8, 1971. Representatives of what the documentary calls more than 40 gangs from multiple boroughs gathered at the Boys Club at 1665 Hoe Avenue in The Bronx. There's even footage of it, perhaps taken from the previous documentary Flyin' Cut Sleeves (completed in 1993 and released on DVD in 2009), since co-director Henry Chalfant is thanked in the credits. But while undoubtedly important, that meeting, according to multiple published accounts, did not end the city's inter-gang violence; peace was temporary, and a series of subsequent attempts—as a newspaper in this very documentary even shows, if you look quickly—lasted at least as late as a 20-gang treaty in mid-November 1977.

And this is in keeping with a subtext that filmmaker Shan Nicholson never explicitly addresses: that Melendez in particular was precociously media-savvy. We see vintage clips of him in news footage, on “The David Susskind Show,” and in what appears to be a rudimentary music-video or commercial for his well-regarded band, also called Ghetto Brothers. The New York Daily News even wrote him up on the 40th anniversary of the summit. He's adept at getting his message out, and as genuine and sincere as his peace efforts appear to have been, he clearly has an eye on his legacy. That means downplaying his treaty's limited success, and ignoring the existence of other treaties—for example, the earlier, November 1971 Family Treaty brokered by youth-services worker Eduardo "Spanish Eddie" Vincenty, and the Harlem Peace Treaty of 1972.

Rubble Kings makes a better case for how inter-gang peace, allowing freer and safer travel through turfs and intermingling of different people, set the stage for the creation of hip-hop. The documentary interviews legendary DJ Kool Herc, considered the founding father of hip-hop, and Afrika Bambaataa, an early and highly influential pioneer, and they give props to Melendez's efforts. Indeed, Kool Herc's seminal Sedgwick Avenue party of August 11, 1973 came after the Hoe Avenue treaty. Yet, as well-documented, gang violence continued throughout the remainder of the 1970s, so the treaty was not the end-all and be-all that Rubble Kings insists it was.

Ultimately, Rubble Kings is problematic, since it advocates such a debatable thesis while at the same time being a powerful evocation of a time. Nicholson has compiled a wide array of key subjects, makes highly effective use of archival footage and animation, and has a particularly keen eye for just the right piece of stock footage to call up Proustian recognition. The musical soundtrack by Little Shalimar is also exceptional, and narrator John Leguizamo never romanticizes the era or its participants—who are admirably straightforward about the gangs' often sadistic violence, making one wish to have heard the voice of some victims. And yes, the Jim Carrey listed as a producer is the Jim Carrey.

And if, after all this analysis and background research, I may be indulged a moment of shallowness: My God, what do you suppose those original, hand-painted gang jackets we see all over the documentary go for on the collectors’ market today?

Click here for cast and crew information.