Hood 2 Hood: The Blockumentary begins with footage typical of a Bay Area rap video. A kid with gold teeth points to a rival’s graffiti on the wall of a Hunters Point housing project. A Mustang 5.0 screeches through a donut. Somebody lights a blunt. But three minutes in, the ride abruptly turns rougher. A young man covering his head with a T-shirt, bandito-style, puts his face so close to the camera that it rattles when he barks, “I’m gonna show you niggas how we get down.”
Walking briskly around the corner of an apartment building, he comes to a grassy area. Then he reaches into an underground utility box and pulls out what appears to be a TEC-9 submachine gun, clip inserted. He points the barrel at the camera and shakes it to mimic the firing action. The lens and the muzzle opening align perfectly for an instant and the viewer stares into darkness.
“Slide through if you want, nigga,” the young man taunts, warning would-be visitors to his block.
The cameraman pursues on foot, asking, “Hey man, what is that? What kind of gun is that?”
“Don’t even worry about it, nigga,” the young man says as he waves the weapon menacingly and steps behind a bush. “Don’t even worry about it.”
The next scene shows a man grin as he stashes a pistol in one of the trees alongside a street. In another, a kid in matching red-and-white Timberland shirt and Jordans pulls two brick-sized stacks of cash out of his pockets, telling the camera, “We out here eatin’, my nigga” — putting food on the table, and then some. Cut to the front of the SFPD’s Hunters Point substation. A different kid with gold teeth explains the bullet holes lining the doorjamb. “They tried to move in, hold the young thugs down, but niggas came through, whoppin’ at they ass. They weren’t feeling them .223s.” .223 is the caliber of military-issue assault rifles such as the AK-47.
In yet another startling segment, two belligerent women use wooden boards to batter a man trapped in the passenger seat of a car. As the man parries with a board of his own, the filmmaker thrusts the camera into his face and asks, “Got any word for us, man?”
“I didn’t do that shit,” the man cries, blood flowing under his nose. “That’s my daughter. I didn’t rape my damn daughter. I didn’t even touch my daughter.”
“Open the door, blood, so I can get some good footage,” the cameraman yells. The implication, accepted tacitly by the crowd gathering to watch both the melee and the filming, is that if there’s going to be ‘hood justice, there might as well be ‘hood Court TV.
Hood 2 Hood is a five-hour recon mission into the worst ghettos in America, a bulletproof window into the poverty, violence, bravado, economics, and pride that define life there. It’s a bit like COPS without the cops, or Menace II Society without the script or actors. Call it Lifestyles of the ‘Hood Rich and Infamous.
Skinny teenagers pull up T-shirts to show off gunshot wounds, some with bullets still embedded. Crack and heroin users make buys on street corners, oblivious to the camera. Residents of high-rise East Coast projects tell of people being thrown off top floors. And thug after thug relates sad stories of missing parents, enemy gangs, crooked cops, prison bids, lost fortunes, shoot-outs, and RIP T-shirts.
The DVD’s minimal narrative thread is provided by a road movie structure. At the start of each chapter, a computer-generated van drives across a map of the United States and stops at one of 27 different locales, including eleven on last year’s list of the 25 most dangerous US cities. The ride starts in San Francisco and heads east through Oakland, Richmond, Vallejo, and Sacramento, before looping through the Midwest, north to New York City, south through New Orleans, and back out to Los Angeles. By the time the van returns to the Bay, the audience has witnessed at least a dozen garden-variety inner city felonies, often with the perpetrators’ faces in full view.
In Oakland, a guy in an ice cream truck appears to be hawking nonfrozen treats. A Sacramento dealer sells a rock in his driveway. A seventeen-year-old in Las Vegas fires a gun after his friends admit involvement in other violence. But the scene perhaps hardest to forget is one shot in Vallejo, inside the closet of another young man with a T-shirt over his face. The figure, identified in a voiceover as a teenager, is on his knees digging under shirts on hangers.
“This yo’ boy,” he says. “We out here in Vallejo, California, on Fifth and Magazine Street, you know what I’m saying? Nobody else wanted to go on camera because they didn’t know if you was the cops or whatever, but my boy vouched for you, and I’m gonna show you how we doin’ it out here.”
He opens a small floor safe and pulls out three bundles of cash. “As you can see here, man, this is fifteen motherfuckin’ thousand right here.” He fans out a wad of bills. “All hundreds, there’s no hoax, niggas are really getting it. Now, what I do is only keep fifteen thousand in the safe for when these suckers finally come to get me to rob me, all they get is that fifteen.” Sitting back on his knees, he forms a gun with his fingers and looks into the camera. “The streets talk, I’m gonna find out who you is, I’m gonna take care of you. But a nigga still got like ninety, a hundred up here.”
He stands up, steps onto something, and reaches into an opening into the attic. He brings down a Reebok box stuffed with much more money — ridiculously more. He carefully counts out each $5,000 bundle and stacks it on the carpet.
“80 … 85, okay … 90 … 95 … 100 or 105. I’ve lost count, but that’s at least 100,000 right there.” It isn’t so much the sum that leaves the impression, but the way he handles it, which is like a kid showing off his baseball card collection. As the image fades out, the money spills into a puddle on the floor.
Hood 2 Hood is the latest example of an emerging genre on the bleeding edge of reality entertainment. Marketed as “street documentaries” or “hip-hop lifestyle videos,” these DVD releases follow the formula established by gangsta rap in its early years — crudely recorded and assembled, independently produced and distributed, and uncompromising in the vividness of their depictions of ghetto life. Just as Too $hort first brought homemade rap out-the-trunk in Oakland, the Bay Area has produced a disproportionate number of the first street documentaries.
The mostly self-taught filmmaker Kevin Epps fired the opening shot in 2001 with his “hardcore hip-hop documentary” Straight Outta Hunters Point, which provided outside audiences the first raw footage of daily life in his desperate section of the city. While middle-class audiences gaped in disbelief as if the movie were a taped-off crime scene, ghetto dwellers from across the country saw their own version of reality confirmed. “When it opened in New York,” Epps says, “a lot of brothers from Brooklyn and the Bronx told me, ‘Yo, I identify with that, son.'”
Straight Outta Hunters Point received mainstream media coverage and sold what Epps estimates to be twenty thousand DVDs, mostly through mom-and-pop record stores and his own Web site MastaMind.com. Unlike other movies in the genre, it also played theatrically, and was screened even as far away as an American military base in Kuwait.
Inspired by Epps’ hood-spun success and influences as disparate as the Bumfights series, Girls Gone Wild, and the Rodney King beating video, a new, thoroughly unapologetic genre was born. It has since grown to include DVDs such as Sydewayz, a curbside view of Oakland’s tire-incinerating sideshows; the regional exposés Oakland Gone Wild, Richmond Gone Wild, The Bay Got Game, Fresno Uncensored, and Stop Snitching; and Hood 2 Hood, probably the one that stands the greatest chance of being talked about in five years.
But where Straight Outta Hunters Point attempted a story arc, with a beginning, middle, and end, Hood 2 Hood and the rest strip the narrative structure down to the foundation, only offering explanation by way of the rare voiceover. Instead, like gangsta rappers before them, the next crop of ‘hood filmmakers lets the thugs provide color commentary in their own words. What seemed liked boastful hyperbole when fictionalized behind recording studio walls takes on a disarming vérité without the soundtrack. The storytellers are driven by the same motivation — proving that their block is the hardest, and that they are the hardest on that block.
The primary appeal of documentary film, what has kept it vital even while competing with the star power, titanic budgets, and entrancing sets and scripts of Hollywood, is its ability to capture on film what is not supposed to be captured on film. But as proven by reality television’s ten-year race to the bottom, what once was shocking onscreen becomes mundane with exposure. Documentarians need fresh meat constantly.
The same principle operates with street documentaries, but at an even more frantic pace. In Straight Outta Hunters Point, Epps showed no guns, hard drugs, or explicit gang activity, although he did film the immediate aftermath of a drive-by shooting. Hood 2 Hood, less cinematically ambitious, did manage to penetrate that final barrier — the boarded-over projects window — much more deeply.
“Straight Outta was heavy, but Hood 2 Hood took it to another level,” Epps acknowledges. “That’s some raw shit. Coming from Hunters Point equipped me to deal with the world, because in my mind, the world is a ghetto. Hood 2 Hood just confirmed that outlook. I saw it and said, ‘Okay, shit is heavy everywhere.'”
And the high-stakes drama captured in both movies was only the prequel to much greater tragedies for their subjects once the cameras stopped rolling. But with Straight Outta Hunters Point, these tribulations occurred largely in spite of the movie. Since Epps released his movie almost five years ago, he estimates that between ten and twenty of the men he caught on tape are now dead. “One of the little homies smoking weed got shot in the eyes twice,” he says. “Some people in the movie got 50, 75 years in the pen.”
But in the case of Hood 2 Hood and others in the latest strain of street documentaries, some of the violence and incarcerations are happening because of what’s shown in the videos. Law-enforcement agencies from Richmond to Baltimore are exploiting these DVDs as potential sources of criminal evidence. And many of the movies’ subjects also run the deadlier risk of retaliation or being robbed by other thugs. The most glaring example of this is the Vallejo teenager with the hundred grand, whose segment has the ghetto grapevine humming with wild speculation over his fate.
One version of the story says he was robbed of everything because of his appearance in the DVD. In another, he still has the money and, by now, more. Yet another take has him getting shot trying to defend the money and surviving. But in a fourth one offered by a Hunters Point rapper who appears in the movie, the outcome was even grimmer. “It was dumb on his behalf,” the rapper said, “because he got killed over it.”
That rising rap star is a large man known as Guce whose name, like all of the subjects of Hood 2 Hood, does not appear onscreen. He was outside his own turf when the film crew’s van, emblazoned “Rep Ya Hood” on the sides, came to the Oakdale housing complex in Hunters Point. Guce is from another block in the neighborhood, Bishop Corner, but was staying with his cousin due to fallout from a string of intraneighborhood murders that were covered partially in Straight Outta Hunters Point, and sparked a massive federal investigation.
“I couldn’t be on my turf because the feds shut it down, and all the homies was getting locked down, and niggas was getting killed,” he says. Hood 2 Hood creator Aquis Bryant knew Guce through Bryant’s cousin, so he asked him to speak on the day-to-day reality in his neighborhood.
In his minute-long segment, Guce explains the genesis of the shootings. Standing in the breezeway between two apartment buildings, he traces the feud to “pillow talk” exchanged in a love triangle involving two rivals sleeping with the same woman, who turned out to be snitching to the feds. “And after she tear up Hunters Point, the bitch move to Sunnydale, she move to Fillmore, Lakeview, you know what I’m saying?” Guce tells the camera. “That’s just how these bitches do.”
After the DVD’s release, Guce says he was recognized “constantly” by people in the ‘hood who had seen it. Hip-hop royalty Fabolous and Cassidy called to say they watched his part while shooting dice in New York, while New Orleans rapper Lil’ Wayne also said he caught him. Other than Guce, though, and his rapping partner Messy Marv, Vallejo’s J-Diggs, and one or two others, the overwhelming majority of the movie’s interviewees are not recording artists but anonymous thugs. The reversal is an interesting one — instead of kids from the ‘hood watching rappers on BET, now celebrity rappers are watching ‘hood residents on DVD.
As such, a memorable performance in Hood 2 Hood is turning into national bragging rights. “Everybody remembers my part because I have one of the realest parts on the whole movie,” Guce boasts. “I’m not pulling out no guns, doing no extra shit. The thing is, nine times out of ten, real killers don’t move like that. They aren’t always sagging and shit. I kept my shit as real as possible and I didn’t do no talking.”
The “talking” he’s referring to is the surprising self-incrimination the video’s subjects engage in. Guce chalks off such risky showboating to the new generation’s refusal to heed the advice of original gangsters like him. At 26, he calls himself a dinosaur, and can rattle off almost a dozen names of associates who have fallen to the streets for being less lucky or wise. “When you’re under investigation, you got a hot name, why put your face on camera like that?” he wonders. “The camera makes people want fame, I guess, and they got their little fifteen minutes, but that shit’s ignorant. At the end of the day, though, that’s ‘hood to ‘hood — that’s what motherfuckers do, dumb shit.”
Indeed, some of the behavior in Hood 2 Hood seems desperate and self-destructive to a degree rarely depicted even in gangster rap. Even assuming that some of the talk is inflated for the camera, the conditions residents describe could only be compared to those of a third-world country or war zone. Hunters Point looks like Fallujah.
According to Guce, violence in the ghetto has intensified over the years as territories have shrunk. Battle lines are now drawn block by block rather than ‘hood by ‘hood. “Back when I was coming up, motherfuckers would meet somewhere and knuckle up, and it was to protect our turf against other turfs,” he says. “But now, you got motherfuckers fighting each other in their own turf. And now you got all these young cats — like, fourteen, fifteen — killing each other. You got cats in Frisco gangbanging that ain’t even seen Oakland, because they can’t leave their block. The only time they leave their block is to go and kill something.”
Guce says the feeling he’s left with after watching five hours of identically dire ‘hoods is despair. “It’s the same shit everywhere, and it’s sad because as black people we have to live in this shit.”
Aquis Bryant, Hood 2 Hood‘s director, producer, financer, narrator, and main cameraman, sits at a table in front of an Emeryville strip mall, the calm of which seems deceptive after watching his movie. He is recounting his career as a salesman, which he says began at the age of four, when he went door-to-door in Oakland helping his mom rep for Avon. “I’ve always been selling something,” he says. Years later, when he went to Cal State Sacramento at the urging of his friends, none of whom would go on to college themselves, he naturally chose a business major. Now two years out of school, he says it was his initial university experience that convinced him that something like Hood 2 Hood could be a lucrative first product of his own.
Coming from a tough section of Vallejo, where his family moved when he was thirteen, and having spent time in various Fillmore and Hunters Point projects with his cousin, Bryant always thought selling drugs and going to jail were everyday facts of life. But at the largely white, suburban college, “I saw that none of these motherfuckers had gone to jail or were thinking about going to jail or even knew what jail really was,” he says. “They would see pictures of my partners on my walls, or I would tell them about a call I got about somebody I knew that got killed, and they’d say, ‘Wow!’ They’d trip out when I told them the normal shit for me. So I kinda knew that it would be interesting for people who couldn’t relate to that life to see it without being in danger themselves.”
After graduating, Bryant watched his friend Mac Dre, the legendary Vallejo artist who was murdered in late 2004, produce and market his successful DVD, Treal TV. Shot mostly on three-chip digital cameras, which are as unobtrusive as camcorders but still render professional-quality images, Dre’s effort proved the commercial viability of DIY videos about Bay Area ghetto life. Essentially concert and party clips interspersed with footage of drugs, groupies, street fights, and car culture, Treal TV kept a breezy, lighthearted tone because of Dre’s charisma.
Bryant wanted to do something similar but grimier, and he knew that since the consumer demands to see the never-seen-before, he would have to “drive into a hurricane,” as he puts it. He likens his role to that of an Iraq war journalist — the only useful footage requiring a real risk of death.
Before setting out in the van with his crew, he had to tap a nationwide network of ghetto contacts, people on the ground in each ‘hood who would vouch for him. “The connections are 100 percent of the movie,” he says. “With no connections, you might be able to hang a camera out the window and smash through the ‘hood at a hundred miles an hour, but you won’t get anybody to talk. You can’t just go to the ‘hood and find somebody randomly to show you a brick [kilo of cocaine] or a chopper [automatic rifle]. You try that — good luck.”
Even with the right connections, his project was fraught with danger. While filming in Harlem’s St. Nick’s projects, Bryant’s contact drifted off to the store during an interview with his associates. In no time, an enraged resident who had been watching the shoot from his window, figuring that Bryant was police, rushed down and blindsided him. “Yo, what the fuck is this?” he demanded while Bryant steadied the camera after the blow.
“He down with B, chill, chill, he knows B!” the crew Bryant was filming shouted as they struggled to hold back their protective friend. The assailant, pulling off his bandanna, ducked his head down into the camera and yelled, “Any given Sunday, y’all could get murked out [killed]. Y’all welcome to come here, but y’all not welcome to leave. We take money, crack, jewelry, dope, guns, anything you got — we got a purpose over here for that shit, son.”
Other incidents either weren’t caught on camera or didn’t make the final cut. Deep in Houston’s Fifth Ward, Bryant got lost while driving, so he stopped and went in the back of the van to dig out the contact information. By the time he got back to the driver’s seat, local soldiers from the corner, firearms drawn, were demanding an explanation. Bryant invoked his ghetto pass — he dropped the name of the guy who vouched for him — and the thugs kindly obliged with directions to his destination.
But the worst thing he saw happened back at home. After a long shoot on West Oakland’s Mead Street, a kid he had been hanging with all day got killed in a drive-by right in front of him. In other places, he came across dead bodies, but the families asked him not to use the footage.
“I don’t know what’s going through my head, to tell you the truth,” he says of his mindset during such moments. “Shit, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. It’s already too late by the time you’re that deep in the cuts. You just gotta hope it doesn’t.”
To document the 27 ‘hoods, it took the better part of a year and lots of nights sleeping in the van or inside projects. Bryant prefers to stay with the residents to gain the greatest access. “It was basically a road trip I decided to film,” he says, adding that he doesn’t consider himself a filmmaker. “To this day, all I know how to do is push the red button,” he says. “I’m really just a dude chasing money.”
He is, however, a film seller. Hood 2 Hood lacks national distribution, so exact sales figures are impossible to establish. But Walter Zelnick of City Hall Records, one of the movie’s six distributors, says his company has sold more than seven thousand copies. There are also numerous Web sites that carry it – Amazon has it, as does RapBay.com, the largest locally based online seller of street documentaries – and like every movie in the genre that is available retail, the DVD is being heavily bootlegged in the ‘hood.
Balance, the hip-hop buyer at Berkeley’s Rasputin, says in the last few months, Hood 2 Hood has been outselling every movie in the store. “And not just rap,” he says. “I’m talking the Hollywood hits.” Sales were so brisk that a month after its arrival, the store created a new section for DVDs called “hip-hop lifestyle” located prominently in the rap music area. Other titles stocked include Sydewayz, Richmond Gone Wild, Oakland Gone Wild (two volumes), Sideshows & Ho’s (five volumes), and Hot in Here Vol. 2: Sex, Drugs, Hip-Hop. Asked who seems to buying Hood 2 Hood, Balance says, “Suburban kids who want to see what’s going on in the ghetto, urban kids who know some of the dudes in it, so it’s kind of like some superstar-type shit, and then you get the people who are just interested for art’s sake.”
Bryant says that due to bootlegging and production costs – which were relatively high because of his travel expenses – Hood 2 Hood paid for itself but certainly didn’t make him rich. “As far as me and the bank, it wasn’t no hit,” he says. “The bootleggers – it was a hit to them.”
Trying to sell ‘hood life back to ‘hood residents through non-‘hood channels obviously has its perils. But it was not just the bootleg market he had to worry about.
Before Bryant first brought his movie to Rasputin to sell on consignment, he consulted with a lawyer. On his advice, Bryant included the following disclaimer at the beginning: “The majority of people in this film are actors and every weapon, drug, drug paraphernalia, and all other illegal items are props. All illegal actions in this film are reenactments.” But under that, dangling alone in its own terse paragraph, is the peculiar line: “Real Thugs know the deal.”
Around May of last year, Mark Gagan, division commander of the Richmond Police Department, sat in a room with ten detectives and watched a copy of Richmond Gone Wild. The video is a sloppy montage of block parties, cars spinning donuts, locals talking up their ‘hood, and brutal girl fights. (The “shootings” and “XXX footage” promised on the cover are not actually included in the movie.) As new faces appeared onscreen, the detectives who knew them called out their names and jotted down notes on “who was associating with whom, where, with what vehicles,” he recounts. “There were guys loitering by cars, license plates in view, so we could trace the plates to the people we didn’t know. These guys were foolish enough to film nuisance behavior all the way up to very serious street-level violence and produce it.”
Gagan explains that while law enforcement is typically wary of bringing charges based on movies or photographs as the sole evidence – the defense can always argue that the drugs or guns were fakes – officers can use the footage to prove associations between suspects. “If we have future violence or other types of crimes, we can use the tapes to get a gang enhancement,” which can lengthen another sentence. “We are easily able to say, ‘Suspect A and suspect B are known associates, and here’s evidence that they were in each other’s presence.'”
Richmond police pursued suspects identified in Richmond Gone Wild so vigorously, Gagan claims, that the DVD’s producer, DJ Gary, received death threats. Gary denies this, but he does acknowledge that some of his subjects were aggressively questioned after appearing in his movie. Gary, however, thinks the department’s interest was motivated by more than routine investigative procedures.
“They were embarrassed by it, especially after Fox News and NBC covered it,” he says. “The cops said on those shows that I didn’t show the good houses in Richmond, only the violence.” Indeed, after watching a beating go on for fifteen minutes in broad daylight, the viewer does begin to wonder where the police are. “In these neighborhoods, there’s no police activity going on nowhere,” Gary states. Released in the same year the city was dubbed the twelfth most dangerous city in America by a state statistics publication, Richmond Gone Wild looks more like Richmond PD Gone to Sleep.
Last year was the year of law enforcement striking back at street documentarians with a vengeance. On June 1, a DVD featuring material similar to Hood 2 Hood titled Fresno Uncensored hit the shelves of retailers in the Central Valley. Less than two weeks later, Fresno police arrested nine people for participating in gang activity in the video. Some were charged under the heavyweight Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, a list of gang-related offenses that can be used as enhancements. Two months later, the DVD’s two producers were arrested for promoting criminal street gang activity. The Fresno Bee‘s latest estimate of the total arrests resulting from the movie tops thirty. On October 29, the paper also reported that police were investigating the DVD’s connection to the deaths of two rival gang members, both of whom appeared in it.
Unlike their Richmond counterparts, Fresno investigators showed little restraint in using the video as the only piece of evidence, chasing down anyone involved in it and perhaps stretching the First Amendment along the way. When did making a documentary, even one depicting flagrant illegal activity, become a crime? And in what ways were the producers of Fresno Uncensored responsible for advocating gang activity that those of, say, HBO’s Gang War: Banging in Little Rock or the video game Grand Theft Auto are not?
Police have pressed hard on ‘hood filmmakers elsewhere as well. The release of Stop Snitching, a video shot in West Baltimore, sparked a media firestorm that spread all the way to The New York Times. The video, produced by barber Rodney Bethea to promote his anti-snitch T-shirt line, featured local drug dealers threatening neighborhood witnesses. Soon after Stop Snitching‘s release, police raided the home of the movie’s cameraman, Akiba Matthews, where they allegedly discovered 198 bags of raw heroin. In a recent interview with JR, the producer of KPFA’s ‘hood-oriented show The Block Report, Matthews suggested that he was set up because of his involvement with the movie. Claiming he was acquitted after only an hour’s deliberation by the jury, he went on to taunt the police: “You gotta do your job yourself.”
The Baltimore Police Department did not return calls for this article. But it fired back at Bethea with its own video called Keep Talking – highlighting two arrests made thanks to Stop Snitching and encouraging residents to inform on criminals – which was handed out for free in the ‘hood.
Closer to home, Kevin Epps was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury as part of a roundup in the wake of the Hunters Point shootings, which landed approximately forty people behind bars. “They wanted me to turn over my master tapes,” he says. “They said they knew I wasn’t criminally involved but they wanted to use what they thought I had as evidence. But I didn’t have to turn over shit, since they didn’t have a case.”
Epps had to appear in court, but he never had to surrender his tapes, which greatly increased his chances of getting a good night’s sleep thereafter. No ‘hood would welcome someone who’d collaborated with prosecutors.
Such tactics by the authorities already are having a chilling effect on the genre. Burgeoning street documentarian Damon Hooker, whose forthcoming DVD The Bay Got Game was executive-produced by Epps, says he is proceeding with caution after watching his mentor’s brush with the law. To avoid heat, he mostly excluded footage of guns from his movie, which he shot in and around Oakland starting in 2000.
“Any underground DVD that you do, the feds and the police are going to be into it,” he says. “So, on my DVD, you don’t get too much of anything too illegal. I only got a little bit with guns, but that ain’t nothing – that’s everyday ‘hood shit. But showing drugs, that shit will get you subpoenaed. And you also gotta deal with the people that got in trouble – on the streets, you don’t know where that shit be coming from.”
There are rumors around the Bay that various subjects from Hood 2 Hood have been questioned, although no one could provide specifics. Gus Sentementes, a Baltimore Sun reporter, said he heard about the documentary’s Baltimore footage from a city prosecutor, but after looking into the story, does not think authorities there are using it in any investigations.
Epps likens the street-doc phenomenon to the ‘hood’s own CNN, an analogy the rapper Chuck D first made about hip-hop in the late ’80s. But perhaps the more accurate comparison is with al-Jazeera. Outlaws in their respective regions feel relatively safe using the cameras of each to deliver their messages unaltered by editors and censors. And US authorities fault both for glorifying violence and making the bad guys into the heroes, while not-so-secretly plotting against them. The best rationale behind law enforcement’s invective might be called the Menace II Society effect. Drive-by shootings were very rare in Hunters Point before the release of that film, Guce says, but copycats took the idea off the screen and into the ‘hood. “It was a way of life that was introduced from the movies,” he says. So maybe young bloods in mellower areas like Daly City or Hayward will take marching orders from the more brutal tactics shown in adjoining areas.
And then there’s also the “Star Search” effect. As Rasputin’s Balance postulates, “Somebody for the next edition might be thinking, ‘Man, I gotta get on Hood 2 Hood.’ You can’t just pull a gun out, you gotta do even more. It’s kinda scary because what’s the next generation going to be watching on video? Is killing people on video the next thing?”
But defenders of these documentaries claim the docs neither advocate nor instigate, but simply report. Indeed, the filmmakers avoid editorializing altogether, preferring to show viewers unfiltered reality and letting them draw their own conclusions. Epps, who uses extended voiceovers in Straight Outta Hunters Point to contextualize the squalor and deadliness of his ‘hood, never tells the audience “this is sad” or “racial inequalities are causing this.”
And even Hood 2 Hood is not all gunplay and grime. While Bryant avoids direct commentary himself, many of his subjects provide bits of socioeconomic analysis. A kid in Harlem explains that thug life gets rougher as the value of welfare checks plummet. One middle-aged woman in San Francisco, in response to Bryant’s question, “What type of shit you done seen living out here, though?” retorts, “What I can’t stand, you mean? All these people killing each other, when the white man wants them to kill each other – that’s what I can’t stand.”
As to the charge, often also made against gangsta rap, that these movies are trumping up ghetto conditions for shock value, Guce replies that it only looks like exaggeration to those who don’t live there. “It’s not like [Bryant] is jumping out saying, ‘Pull your gun out,'” the rapper says. “He’s just saying, ‘What’s your ‘hood all about?’ And immediately, this one cat who’s trying to be the toughest nigga on the block, he’s shooting his gun off. [Bryant] didn’t ask him to do that; he just asked for the real history. What he’s trying to show is that the world is one giant motherfuckin’ ‘hood.”
JR, the KPFA producer, also is careful to draw the line between fact and fiction when defending the new genre’s aesthetic turf. “Hollywood glamorizes violence,” he says. “Glamorizing violence is taking fake violence and making it look real. This is real violence. This is what’s really going on. The media, after the Vietnam War, has stopped covering real violence, because of the effect it had on the people, which was the creation of the antiwar movement. Showing real violence makes people want to stop what’s going on.”
While the viability of street documentaries continues to be battled out in the legal system, “what’s really going on” in the ‘hood keeps going on, of course. If the cameras one day are forced to stop rolling, the triumphs and tragedies of the ghetto will be no less real and the “characters” will continue to live and die. Everyone interviewed for this story, for instance, knew something about what happened to “the dude from Vallejo with the hundred grand,” which is how they referred to him. The details were different, but the central theme was the same – someone came looking for the money after the movie’s release, and they came with force. Anyone from the ‘hood knows dozens of such tales about “jackers” – thugs whose game is not selling dope but taking from those who do – and the incident with the dude with the hundred grand seemed to fit the description of a typical home-invasion robbery.
The problem was, the stories’ endings varied widely. And since repeated requests for an interview with the dude with the hundred grand were unsuccessful, the specifics of Hood 2 Hood‘s most gripping subplot threatened to remain mythical. In this light, his own words from the DVD took on a haunting but unsubstantiated prescience: “Now, what I do is only keep fifteen thousand in the safe for when these suckers finally come to get me to rob me, all they get is that fifteen.” Did they finally come for him?
But last week, in the middle of the night, a call came in from a blocked number. Recognizable from his phrasing and slow, molasses-thick speech, the dude with the hundred grand was calling to give his side of the situation. He called, apparently, for the same hard-to-pin-down reason he participated in Hood 2 Hood – to relate his version of the truth, to speak his reality.
“They came for the money,” he confirms, “but it was an even exchange,” estimating the burglars to have numbered between two and four men. “They kicked in my door and took the dummy safe I keep downstairs.”
This was the protective measure he explained in the movie – leaving a decoy cache on the bottom floor of his split-level home. But the jackers had obviously watched Hood 2 Hood and knew there was more to be had.
“I kept quiet upstairs and I heard them put the safe by the front door. Then they came upstairs – I fired a couple, they fired a couple. I know I hit one in the shoulder, but they got away. They got the safe and half a brick, but I kept the rest of the money. “They wanted me, but they can’t have me.”
After the aborted robbery, the dude with the hundred grand heard over the grapevine that a guy who got shot in the shoulder wound up dead over some other drama. Another of the jackers was arrested for bank robbery, he learned. “The streets talk and the game caught up with folks,” he says.
Asked about the possibility of future attempts, he says, “I see them coming back for seconds. You never know, you gotta sleep with one eye open.”
But even after the shootout, he says he doesn’t regret going on Hood 2 Hood. And he says he would do volume two if Bryant asked him: “Yeah, I’m glad I did it. There were some good sides and some bad sides to it, but mostly everything was good for me. My business went up ten times. Everybody wanted to be around me after it came out. Money attracts a lot of friends.”
Everyone needs friends, and everyone wants to be heard. The impulse to refuse anonymity in the margins, to call a newspaper or go on camera at potential risk to oneself, is an unalterably human one. These stories want to be told, and street documentaries are the media from which they will emerge – as long as ghetto filmmakers don’t succumb to the legal, physical, and financial risks required of making them.
What, then, will become of the ‘hood flick? For the current crop of street documentarians, the immediate future bears one similarity to the Hollywood model – churn out sequels. DJ Gary is finishing a follow up to Richmond Gone Wild, Bethea promises an imminent release of Stop Snitching Vol. 2, and Bryant has already begun shooting a second volume of his movie. Hood 2 Hood set the bar so high for the genre – how many people can gain access to so many dangerous areas? – that Bryant himself is having to go to great lengths to outdo it. He has taken his pursuit of the hardest ‘hood across US borders, having already filmed London and Jamaica, with a trip to Liberia coming soon.
In Kingston, he filmed a deadly shootout, and says he didn’t have trouble finding people willing to pull out fully automatic weapons with silencers in Britain, “a country with no legal guns.”
A one-world ghetto, indeed.