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HBO presents

Gang Wars (2006)

"What we've got to recognize is that they're children..."- Steve Nawojczyk

Stars: Steve Nawojczyk, Leifel Jackson
Director: Marc Levin

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for language, violence, drug content, adult themes
Run Time: 02h:01m:00s
Release Date: 2006-09-05
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ AB+B B+


DVD Review

Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock began life as an America Undercover special aired on HBO in 1993. At that time, Little Rock, Arkansas had a murder rate that was higher per capita than New York and L.A., with dozens of gangs on the streets and no reason for hope. Ten years later, HBO returned to find out what had changed, and what hadn't in Back in the Hood: Gang War 2. Both docs rely on an extraordinary level of access to gang members themselves, providing a pretty fascinating look at the day-to-day lives of the kids whose lives revolve around the gangs.

At the heart of each of the docs is a peace-maker. The first is Steve Nawojczyk, a good-hearted county coroner who has to deal literally with the consequences of the gang conflicts throughout the city, and decides to do something about it. With a poster board covered in polaroids of dead kids, he goes into the heart of the gang 'hoods to make friends and deliver a message. It's unclear if he ever becomes much more than a curiosity to the kids, but by the time he's caught in a drive-by crossfire, it's pretty hard not to see his as a heroic effort. In the sequel doc, we follow Leifel Jackson, an Original Gangster Crips leader from '93, out of jail, on parole, and working hard to save as many lives as he can by pulling them out of the gang life. Without people like these, it doesn't seem as though there'd be much room for hope in inner-city Little Rock (or in any of the small to medium sized cities that LR could stand in for).

The setting is what's most interesting here. Even though the events of the original Gang Wars is thirteen years old, and investigates a culture that had already been on the rise there for several years, I was still a little surprised that there was and is such a robust gang population in Arkansas, of all places. Nothing against Arkansas, but it's the type of place that an ignorant northeasterner like myself might expect to be able to go to get away from gangs. It's easy to see the ascendance of gang culture in cities like Chicago and LA as part of a natural evolution, while in a city like Little Rock it strikes you as more of a wannabe phenomenon. These kids in the south, white and black, emulating or franchising gangs from the coasts seems almost silly, until you consider that the consequences are every bit as serious, for the kids drawn in to the life and for the people that get in the way. At one point, disturbingly, Coroner Nawojczyk drives past the Governor's mansion, former home to Bill Clinton, and points out that the surrounding neighborhood sits on the convergence of the territories of two rival gangs. Even here, the police and community can't keep the gangs out.

There's a lot of focus on the kids, and they get to tell their stories in their own words. The tragedy is that they all sound so...juvenile, for lack of a better word. They talk about being G's for life (the 1993 doc provides a primer on the various relevant slang terms, many of which have long since faded into parody and pop culture oblivion). They talk about the love and sense of family that they've found (repeating pop psychology that you're pretty sure they came by elsewhere). It's hard not to get the impression that kids who had managed to get into band practice or the girl scouts, and had families that had pushed harder in the right direction, anything that would have provided a less violent sense of community, would have never felt compelled to join. Despite the fact that they've all pretty much crossed the line, into drug pushing, gun-running, and murder, they don't seem to be bad kids, as naive as that perhaps sounds. Just kids looking for a sense of community, and a feeling of belonging that they didn't get at home. I think of the heightened sense of drama that I had as a teenager, and I can understand the appeal of a group that tells you that you're OK, that the world is out to get you, but we'll take care of you until the end. And who hasn't watched The Godfather or the Sopranos and thought, just for a moment: how cool would that be? It's tempting to look at these rival gangs going at it and go: what's the point? What are you guys (and girls) fighting over? But I think that the life-or-death bond is the point. It's especially poignant when, in Gang Wars 2, we see some of these bangers "all grown up." Many have come to bad ends, and some are unrepentant, but at least a few have come to realize the hell that they lived in and put others through. These guys weren't born evil, they were just kids who screwed up royally and had no one to tell them how stupid they were. That doesn't excuse their crimes, but it underscores the tragedy of kids who allow themselves to be sucked into thug life. Most of them aren't as lucky as Leifel Jackson.

Gang War is a bit of a time capsule, documenting the rise and heralding the slight decline in gang culture in Little Rock in the early-mid '90s. By flipping to Back in the Hood, we're instantly transported to the present, which (along with the extras) makes this set less a historical curiosity than a document of a decade of gang life in an unlikely American city. The cops are more organized, but so are the gangs. The only real problem is that what's here is so interesting that the total two hours and change of running time is hardly enough. The postscript is that homicides are on the rise right now, the summer of 2006, for the first time in several years, corresponding with rises in poverty. The stories of the kids from the hood, and the efforts of those trying to reach them are every bit as relevant as they were in 1993.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio4:3 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Most of the footage from 1993 is grainy and sometimes indistinct. There's no reason to believe that the quality has anything to do with the image transer, though. This is a thirteen-year-old documentary shot largely at night, with camera crews following gang members around and catching moments as they happen. The picture isn't great, but that was inevitable.

Not surprisingly, Gang War 2 looks much better. There's still some graininess during street shots, but the interviews look great. It would be absurd to expect that on-the-fly moments would look as good as staged shots, so I would say that this looks every bit as good as it can.

There are no indications of a bad transfer, so I suspect that both of these documentaries look every bit as good as they ever have, and probably better in the case of the sequel.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Spanishno

Audio Transfer Review: As with the image transfer, the audio is significantly better on the more recent documentary, as is to be expected. They both do make decent use of the 2.0 surround. Considering that much of the filming here was done on-the-fly, everything sounds pretty good—clear and well-balanced.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
3 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by producer/director Marc Levin, producer Daphne Pinkerson, and former county coroner Steve Nawojczk
Packaging: unknown double keepcase
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The set includes some pretty solid extras:

The first Gang War includes a commentary with director Marc Levin, producer Daphne Pinkerson, and former county coroner Steve Nawojczyk. It's pretty good. Levin does most of the talking, but they provide some background on what what drew the producers to Little Rock, behind-the-scenes details, and much discussion of the social structure then and now.

The rest of the extras are on Disc 2, starting with One Decade Later: Interviews with Taz, Kool-Aid and Misty. It consists of three interviews totalling about 17 minutes with two bangers from the original documentary and the wife of a third. They can be watched individually or accessed via "Play All." Of these, Taz is probably the most interesting. She has a pretty solid perspective on her experiences and also suggests something obvious not mentioned elsewhere: that being on HBO has made it difficult for her to move past her gang experiences, as she's frequently recognized as "the white girl from Gang War." As in the sequel doc, and for better or worse, you get to see what a few more of the kids from '93 made of their lives. And like in that sequel, there's a bit that's inspiring and a bit more that's heartbreaking.

Then there's Notes from the Coroner, which catches up (for about four minutes) with coroner Steve Nawojczyk. It's the only time we actually get to see Steve as he is now. He responds to accusations regarding the original production, (with regard to allegedly staged incidents), and addresses the current situation in Little Rock.

Oddly not mentioned on the packaging, there's a brief Interview with Russell Simmons, who discusses the hip-hop culture in relation to gang life. At four minutes, it's barely the tip of an iceberg.

Extras Grade: B+

Final Comments

Gang War was a seminal documentary in HBO's America Undercover series when it debuted in 1994. On its own, though, it's a bit stranded in time. Combined with its sequel in this set though, it's a scary and heartbreaking but somehow hopeful, document of a decade of poverty, crime, and gang life in Little Rock. Though both docs could have been much longer, together they form an important work. For that and for the very solid extras, this is an easy-to-recommend package.

Ross Johnson 2006-09-06