It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The talking heads featured in "Rubble Kings," a fascinating documentary about the proliferation of New York City street gangs during the 1970s, are gifted talkers. That makes up for a lot of the gaps in their knowledgeable, but essentially sanitized narrative, a sensational, but unbelievably hopeful story about the triumph of grass-roots activism.
Director Shan Nicholson takes special interest in the ubiquitous South Bronx gangs that materialized after the Cross-Bronx Expressway caused the borough's middle class (and predominantly white) residents to flee upstate. So while "Rubble Kings" features cultural figureheads like former Mayor Ed Koch and hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, the film focuses on Ghetto Brothers founder Benji "Yellow" Melendez and Ghetto Brothers president Carlos "Karate Charlie" Suarez. That myopic focus is sometimes frustrating since Nicholson never presses his subjects hard enough to get them to answer follow-up questions. But "Rubble Kings" is an exciting glimpse at a subculture that most urbanites only know exists thanks to NYC-sploitation gems like "The Warriors."
In "Rubble Kings," Melendez and Suarez paint a simple but believable picture of a city on the verge of self-destruction. Suarez, the more volatile of the two speakers, calls attention to the assassination of unifying political leaders like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Without these pacifying figures, wide-spread, aimless anger spread swiftly across the city, leading to a huge rise in gangs and gang-related violence. This reading of events is supported by expert testimony from Professor Marshall Berman and social activist Felipe Luciano, who talk about symptomatic criminal activity, like drug-dealing (particularly heroin), and arson. "Crime was the major industry of the Bronx," suggests an especially glib (but essentially accurate) interviewee.
Enter the Ghetto Brothers, a gang that, according to Melendez, once included about 2500 members in the Bronx alone. The Ghetto Brothers are to the Bronx what the Mafia originally were in Sicily: both were self-appointed, extra-legal community defenders who disrespected authority figures (i.e.: the NYPD, and the carabinieri) because those officially sanctioned groups were not popularly recognized in their respective communities. The main difference between these two groups is that the Mafia didn't originally destroy public property, commit crimes for profit, or prey on civilians. That aspect of NYC gang culture isn't discussed, making it hard to be totally convinced when Melendez and Suarez's talk about how they united their community.