Documentary Review: ‘Rubble Kings’

When people speak of New York City in the 1970s it is with an odd mixture of nostalgia and revulsion. It was a dangerous time, we are told, but it was exciting. While most New Yorkers are happy that crime dropped precipitously, there is still a longing for that rougher edge that has been sanded down by gentrification, “broken windows” policing, and tourist-friendly development.

Rubble Kings, a vibrant, funky, and extremely brisk 71-minute documentary about rival gangs in early-1970s The Bronx embraces those contradictions. This is basically a fun movie about people living in desperate poverty, whose community has been torn apart and left to crumble — in archival footage The Bronx looks like a bomb had just been set off — resorting to violent street gangs as a means of resistance. Within a decade, homicides in NYC had quadrupled, and yet the interviewees in Rubble Kings clearly have a fondness for this time in the city’s history. The film features numerous former gang members speaking wistfully about vicious turf wars and sadistic initiation rituals.

The thing is, they’re not wrong. This is a period of colorful gangs with names like the Jolly Stompers, the Harlem Turks, the Assassinators, the Royal Javelins, the Golden Guineas, who wore patch-covered denim vests decorated with skulls and swastikas (worn even by non-white gangs) swaggering through the wreckage of the South Bronx. These gangs were mythologized a few years later in the cult classic film “The Warriors,” but in the archival footage and photographs compiled by director Shan Nicholson, the real-life gangs seem far more terrifying and alluring.

This footage is the Rubble Kings’ greatest asset. I’m not sure where Nicholson found this material, and it is not always clear if what we’re seeing is news footage, staged, or even fiction, but it effectively captures the menacing and brilliant syncretic aesthetic of these gangs, which threw wildly disparate cultures into a blender — from the philosophy of martial arts to the denim-and-leather look of the Hell’s Angels to the seductive militarism of the Blank Panthers. As the gangs faded away, the film argues, the aesthetic stuck and quickly evolved into hip hop culture.

Rubble Kings flies fast at such a whiplash-inducing pace that it’s never able to delve deeply into any one aspect of its subject. (The role of women in the gangs, for example, is dispensed with in about a minute.) The Ghetto Brothers, a more politicized gang who positioned themselves as peacekeepers — hosting block parties and even recording a funk album — are the major throughline for the film, and its leaders, “Yellow” Benji Melendez and “Karate Charlie” Suarez, serve as our guides. The killing of their peace ambassador Cornell “Black Benjy” Benjamin served as a galvanizing moment through which the Ghetto Brothers negotiated a peace treaty among the gangs of the South Bronx.

Though the film includes interviews with outsiders like Marshall Berman, Ed Koch, and Felipe Luciano for context, the story of the gangs is primarily narrated by the gang members themselves, much of which is probably more self-serving than Nicholson might like to admit. As the history of an era, Rubble Kings is certainly superficial, but as a quick trip back to a colorful, if forbidding, time in NYC history, the movie is a fun ride. The South Bronx of the early ‘70s may be a fun place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Playing New York (AMC EMPIRE 25), Los Angeles (AMC BURBANK 8) and CHICAGO (AMC COUNTRY CLUB HILLS 16) with a wider national release to follow. The is available on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, GooglePlay, Sony Entertainment Network and VHX now.

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