One thing no one in America likes to talk about: The country’s collective knowledge of 1970s-era New York street gangs consists pretty much exclusively of The Warriors. The new crowdsourced documentary Rubble Kings seeks to right this wrong, referencing the 1979 Walter Hill pulp film in its opening crawl, then assuring viewers that “nine years earlier, the real story was FAR WORSE.” (The film doesn’t mention that The Warriors’ source novel was published in 1965.) Later, gang members recounting their own real-life peacekeeper’s death at the hands of rivals compare it to Cyrus’ death in The Warriors.
It seems silly, when recounting a painful, personal moment in history, to have to use a highly stylized cult movie as the necessary jumping-off point for modern audiences. But considering the interest real-life street gangs took in The Warriors, and considering how few other works about the time period have penetrated the popular consciousness, the comparison makes a certain kind of sense. Director Shan Nicholson is playing the role of Luther, coaxing fans of the ultraviolent but context-free cult movie to, well, come out to play.
Yet Rubble Kings, which counts Jim Carrey among its producers, isn’t the detailed history and ethnography of ’70s gang culture the world needs. At only 70 minutes, how could it be? Nicholson skirts by gargantuan topics: the post-civil-rights social climate that brought about the rise in gangs, the “reckless urban planning” that decimated the Bronx, the racial underpinnings of the territorial disputes that bubbled up between the black, Latino, and white gangs. Some topics, like drug dealing, he barely gets into at all. Generally, “it’s too short” is less a criticism than a compliment. Here, though, the film’s brevity really does work against it, giving Nicholson cover to fly by the history of gang warfare without having to dwell on anything for too long. Stanley Nelson’s upcoming documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution covers similar territory with a very similar arc, but Nelson knows how to give his subject some breathing room.
Rubble Kings name-checks many gangs (memberships numbered in the tens of thousands at peak activity), but focuses on the Ghetto Brothers, a South Bronx crew of mostly Puerto Rican affiliation. Benjamin Melendez, the gang’s founder and head orator, and Carlos “Karate Charlie” Suarez, the disciplined muscle who trained his members in martial-arts stylings that became their trademark, lend the film its narrative shape through their expressive recollections of the streets. Their accounts of raising the Ghetto Brothers to become the powerhouse of the Bronx are interspersed with archival stills and news footage of crews in action, along with gang geography mapped over an image of the New York subway line.
As for that Cyrus-like death, it forms the film’s pivot point. Bronx drug counselor Cornell “Black Benji” Benjamin joined the Ghetto Brothers with the intention of brokering peace between the gangs, but was murdered instead. In Melendez and Suarez’s retellings, Benjamin’s death was the catalyst to the Ghetto Brothers changing their mission from violence to music and community service. Here, more than at any other time in the film, the lack of added detail is a big blow: At such a crucial moment in the gang’s history, there should have been more to explore. Nicholson also speaks to DJ Afrika Bambaataa about his role in transforming another Bronx gang into influential hip-hop group Zulu Nation. Bambaataa’s brief but engaging presence makes it clear there’s a much deeper movie somewhere in all this material, one that would do a better job of exploring how to make that transition from organized crime to organized art.
Nearly all the interview subjects are reformed gang members, and one of the film’s strengths is how it subtly works to change the meaning of that phrase: It wasn’t the individuals who reformed, but the gangs themselves. Yet the lack of added perspective, apart from brief interviews with former New York mayor Ed Koch (filmed before his 2013 death), gives the movie a claustrophobic feel. The warriors have their moment to dig it, but why and how they came out to play—and why and how they stopped—is a story for another time.