Black Assassins, Savage Skulls, Harlem Turks, the Assassinator … they sound like ultra-violent video games, but rather they’re the real-life monikers of just a few of the countless street gangs that ruled the South Bronx in the late 1960s and 1970s. Using Walter Hill‘s cult classic film The Warriors as a cultural touchstone, Shan Nicholson‘s documentary Rubble Kings recounts their stories in breathlessly paced, vivid fashion.
Hill’s movie was apparently far closer to reality than moviegoers realized. Several clips from the film are accompanied by testimony from the now middle-aged gangers, with one commenting, “Remember that scene from The Warriors? That really went down.”
Although many former gang members are interviewed, the film concentrates heavily on the Puerto Rican Ghetto Brothers who were led by founder Benjamin Melendez and Carlos Suarez, who trained its members in martial arts. According to Melendez, the gang, whose ranks eventually swelled to over 2,500, was less interested in violence than community activism, at one point even attempting to organize a peace summit that was unfortunately derailed by the murder of its would-be broker. They eventually shifted their focus to music, forming an acclaimed rock/Latin funk band which performed at block parties and recorded a 1971 album that has since been reissued on CD.
The musical path was also chosen by another of the film’s subjects, Afrika Bambaataa, once a member of the the Young Spades, who, inspired by pioneering hip-hop artist DJ Kool Herc, went on to form the highly influential Universal Zulu Nation.
Narrated by John Leguizamo, the film breezes through the historical events that led to the disintegration of the South Bronx, from the assassinations of such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy to Robert Moses‘ controversial building of the Cross Bronx Expressway that destroyed urban neighborhoods to the NYC financial crisis that led to “white flight” and landlords torching their own buildings. In one amusing archival clip, a cop describes finding a skinned gorilla carcass on the street.
“Only in the Bronx,” he says, shaking his head.
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It also details the gangs’ surprisingly organized hierarchical structures, headed by presidents, vice-presidents and “warlords” responsible for, well, you can imagine. Discipline was handled by members known as “The Gestapo,” and new inductees were frequently required to go through a hazing rite known as the “Apache Line” in which they were brutally pummeled.
Running a scant 70 minutes, the film, whose producers include actor Jim Carrey, frustratingly fails to delve deeply enough into its subject matter, with such topics as the pervasive presence of drugs, for instance, barely addressed. The interview subjects are primarily former gang members who discuss their past with thoughtful articulateness, but also includes comments from former mayor Ed Koch and writer/professor Marshall Berman, both of whom died in 2013.
Director/editor: Shan Nicholson
Narrator: John Leguizamo
Producers: Shan Nicholson, Dito Montiel, Michael Aguilar, Jim Carrey, Cristina Esteras-Ortiz, Ben Velez
Executive producers: Nick Quested, David Kennedy
Directors of photography: Shlomo Godder, Dan Ribauro
Composer: Little Shalimar
Not rated, 70 min.