Following a gang intervention organization in LA, this inspiring doc is a worthwhile addition to the conversation on race and crime.
License to Operate
Since that day in February 2013, when a black kid in Florida was shot down on his way home from buying a bag of Skittles, the question of racial profiling has remained a fixture in the current national dialogue. But underneath the footage of riots and banter on cable news, there’s a second narrative, for those willing to listen. The critically acclaimed hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar sings on his 2015 track “The Blacker the Berry,” “I’m the biggest hypocrite in 2015” before going on to point out the double-standard of weeping for Trayvon Martin, then, through gang violence, killing another man “blacker than me.”
For black America, the ceasefire doesn’t just need to come from outside but from within its own streets. A new documentary by director James Lipetzky takes this second premise and runs with it in License to Operate, a compassionate glimpse at a group of ex-gang members in south-central LA that are now working alongside police to curb violence and trauma in the neighborhood. Like Lamar’s lyrics, the gang members from different neighborhoods, some of which used to be arch-rivals, are self-aware enough to see that this violence is systemic and requires a new way of doing things. They’re on the streets working with grieving families at the scene of the crime, they talk to the youth in order to try to fend off any retaliation, and they work as liaisons to the increasingly willing-to-listen LAPD.
It sounds like intense subject matter—and indeed it starts out at a breakneck speed with one of the former gang members recounting a life or death experience on the street—but strangely, and maybe thankfully, Lipetzsky’s addition to the national dialogue on race and violence feels like the first glimpse of hope in a while. In 1992, during the Rodney King riots, the Los Angeles Police Department may as well have been the symbol for black oppression. But through interviews with senior policemen, government officials, and church leaders, it’s clear that the former gang members involved in the License to Operate program are now seen as community heroes. When we get story after story about police-instigated hate crime in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, it’s refreshing to hear officers clearly articulate the limits to their role and the profound reach they see the LTOs having. License To Operate shows the power of communication and collaboration. Lipetzsky’s film is a great reaction piece to the Americans that read another story about a young black man shot down and find it hard to see any hope. The statistics show the program is working. And it’s working in Los Angeles, of all places.
To testify to its working, the film follows about 10 volunteers—most prominently Reynaldo “Whiz” Reaser, a former Raymond Crip, who is trying his hardest to adopt a pair of sisters who have been labeled problem children, left to bounce around from foster home to foster home. The older sister, Jasmine, a 16-year-old who just lost her third friend in a year to street violence, is awaiting her own sentencing for assault with a deadly weapon. Across town former Florence-Firestone member Alfred Lomas is working hard to help 17-year-old Jose see he can be more than a kid who steals cars. Fortunately, and another sign that there’s a bit of hope for the situation, there are more happy endings in this film than grim ones. And the film certainly does its job helping us root for the kids—both by letting us into their homes and by interviews with juvenile justice experts, who cite a report that shows the level of PTSD children face in urban, high-crime environments is similar to children who grow up in war zones. The odds are stacked against them.
But as much as the film celebrates the heroes and roots for the kids featured, there seems to be an important character missing: the gang members themselves. It isn’t necessary to glorify violence by taking us on a chase, like an episode of Cops, but by choosing to follow a pair of young girls and a teenager who is more into stealing than shooting, we do seem a bit too cautious to step into violent crime territory. It reminds me a bit of the film, The Case Against 8, a documentary about two same-sex couples who sought to break down California’s law against gay marriage. The attorneys went out of their way to track down the two most wholesome, clean-cut, loveable gay couples you could find in the U.S., lest any blemishes let their argument crumble. The result is a beautifully made movie, but one that at times feels more like a press release, curated by the filmmakers, rather than the whole story. It’s a bit different here. The youth showcased live far from a pristine life, and Jasmine’s story, in particular, is heartbreaking, but the movie seemed too shy to get at the hardest youth to reach. And their absence does beg a few questions—at least it suggests a few missed opportunities.
Regardless, the film remains a ray of hope within a national dialog that could sorely use some. And most of the emotional cues are right on, although at times the sound mixing seems a bit off (a couple of the songs, like a gospel number over a Relay for Life scene, come off a bit loud and thus distracting). But these are minor problems, and the heart of the movie does indeed have a lot of soul. The interventionists aren’t just inspiring but impressive—footage of their training classes show critical thinking skills and calm under pressure that most college students probably could never muster. The best part about the film is that sometimes a little indie can say something the mainstream media can’t, and License to Operate does just that: Things can get better.