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In 2000’s hit doc Dogtown and Z-Boys, pro-skating alum Stacy Peralta chronicled how he and a group of his misfit buddies commandeered the empty swimming pools of Venice and pretty much invented skate culture, thereby inadvertently propelling themselves into the spotlight. Now, with Made in America, Peralta tackles the issue of gang violence in Los Angeles, bringing the same energetic, stylized aesthetic he brought to his earlier work, and creating a film that manages to be both poignant and exciting. Made in America premiered at Sundance and will be playing at the Sundance Institute @ BAM series this week. L.A. native Peralta checked in with Vulture about the race relations, the resurgence of skate culture, and the importance of dressing to impress when interviewing in the hood.
Obviously you’re best known for your skating — and your films about skating. What inspired you to focus on gang violence this time around?
It’s an issue that’s been bothering me for years and years. And while gang violence is a big problem in many other states as well, it’s been going on in L.A. for four decades. It was a problem at the high school I went to. When we began production on this film, a kid was killed at my former high school over gang violence. One of the things I like about being a documentary filmmaker is that I get paid to learn, and I get paid to satisfy my curiosity. I wanted to see if I could put a human face on this.
Why do you think the situation is so often ignored?
I hate to say this, but I think it’s because these kids are poor and African-American. Here’s the question I posed when I was trying to get people interested in financing this film: If white American teenagers were forming neighborhood gangs and arming themselves with assault rifles, and killing one another on a consistent basis, what would be the response of our society and our government? They’d probably put an end to it pretty quickly. Remember the incident that happened at Virginia Tech? That same week, something like twelve people were killed in South L.A., and you didn’t hear a thing.
But there’s been a lot of glorification of gang culture in recent years. We saw this a bit in Dogtown too, with how skater fashion was appropriated by the broader culture. Why are our psyches so drawn to the outlaw aesthetic?
That’s a gigantic question. Certainly, we like the lone hero in America. Plus, in the gang situation, they do have a really attractive aesthetic. The way they dress, the way they hold themselves: It’s attractive, in the same way that the surfing or skating aesthetic is attractive.
Speaking of which, skate culture seems to be making a comeback in recent years. You once observed that skate culture was big in the seventies in part due to the despair caused by Vietnam, Nixon, and the OPEC crisis. Is it coming back because of the despair of the Bush years?
Skateboarding is a very strong aesthetic, and I don’t know if it ever really left. But you’re right, it really has made quite a big move in the last few years. I basically agree with your analysis. It’s an honest outlet for a lot of kids that are stuck. It’s not confined to any place. If you’re a skateboarder, all you need is some concrete.
There’s a pretty funny bit in the film about how these gang members often spend 40 minutes ironing their pants to make sure they look perfect.
They’re super-aware of how they look. One of the reasons we included that scene is because, when you go into these neighborhoods, everything looks real run-down: The houses look run-down, the businesses look run-down. And the only things that stand out are the way people dress, and the cars they drive. These guys don’t step out the house unless they’re dressed really well. In fact, a couple of our subjects took me to task for how I looked. I’d be wearing a pair of Levis and a T-shirt, and they’d ask me, “Do you dress like that every day? You oughta think about how you dress more often.”
A lot of them must be marked men.
They all have to watch where they go. A number of them came with me to the Sundance Film Festival when we premiered our film, and you could see them finally let their guards down and be themselves, because they knew no one wanted to get them up there. When they returned home, they told me, “We have to put on our masks now. We’re going back to the war zone.”