Rubble Kings (Shan Nicholson, 2016)

The main problem with Rubble Kings is its length. 67 minutes is an odd duration – marginally too long for a TV screening (you’d need 25 minutes of ads to fill a 90-minute slot), but too short for a feature-length documentary, it’s also too short to do its subject justice, and too long to be an angsty shot of poverty porn.

Neither can a solid array of talking heads, including Afrika Bambaataa, Marshall Berman and Ed Koch, dispel the notion that this documentary is distinctly partisan. It sketches (sometimes using actual sketches, tastefully) a vision/version of New York, the Bronx in particular, during the early ‘70s. Our primary lenses are two former gang members – Benji Melendez and Carlos “Karate Charlie” Suarez – who went on to form the Ghetto Brothers, a community-conscious group of black and Hispanic New Yorkers who pushed for music over malice and malaise.

Remembering their dedication to salving the violent ruptures between the multitude of ethnic minority gangs, who were busy inflicting violence on each other rather than on The Man, Melendez and Suarez are engaging speakers. Even into middle age they show signs of exhibitionism, with Suarez in particular speaking and gesticulating with some flamboyance. Their recall of the death of their friend, peacebroker Cornell “Black Benjie” Benjamin, fails to achieve poignancy only because the film doesn’t take enough time to establish personal context.

Rubble Kings
Members of the Savage Nomads display their jackets

It’s a big topic, and two primary lenses aren’t enough. Director Shan Nicholson has been fairly open about his agenda: “I too had lost my best friend to an act of senseless violence. It shattered my world, and here I was, faced with this story of extraordinary courage in the face of adversity. I knew I had to tell this story.”

His love-is-triumphant perspective, which pivots narratively on the murder of Black Benjie and the community’s response to it, isn’t commensurate to the sheer scope of the scene in ’70s NYC. The list of gangs alone is exhausting: the Harlem Turks, the Royal Javelins, the Savage Skulls, the Black Assassins, the Black Spades, the Latin Spades, the Seven Immortals – those are just a handful. Nicholson’s film mentions, and contains footage of, many more.

What would have worked best as epic panorama, ideally well over two hours in length, is reduced to a teaser that blows its load early. After the expository shots revealing the extent of New York’s post-Aquarius deprivation, we’re left with questions that ought to have been answered. How exactly did young men come to join the gangs? What role did women play, other than just being drug mules? Were the relationships between the gangs purely antagonistic, or was there more complexity involved? How did Brooklyn gangs differ from other gangs in New York? Can we have an insight into the material culture of these gangs, beyond their jackets? How did the gang members’ families react to the gangland situation? Much ballyhoo is made of the peace meeting on Hoe Avenue – but what about the rifleman posted on an adjacent rooftop to make sure things didn’t get violent? This detail would have muddied the film’s message, and so it’s neglected.

Not that documentaries shouldn’t raise unanswered questions, but when a film is all concision, no incision (and all myopic narrative, no analysis), questions don’t come close to being answered. DJ Kool Herc and Kool DJ Red Alert appear as talking heads, but people going in expecting “the birth of hip-hop culture” will be disappointed, as will those curious about gangland dynamics and those hankering after a satisfying anthropological/sociological analysis of what was happening in the Bronx in the early ‘70s.

Rubble Kings 2
Members of the Screaming Phantoms walking the streets

This may seem like a harsh appraisal of a low-budget indie documentary, but it has enjoyed some big-name support: Jim Carrey is listed as a producer, and John Leguizamo is the narrator. Let’s hope that for his next film, Nicholson will take a more dispassionate stance, and accord his subject the depth it deserves.

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