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Chicago Gang-Violence Documentaries Online

The Interrupters hits the Web courtesy of PBS’s Frontline. Plus: The Heart Broken In Half, an old doc by Taggart Siegel and the late Dwight Conquergood; and the eerie, low-budget Great American Youth, a quasi-encomium to the Gaylords.

For me the biggest news of the Academy Awards was what didn’t happen—The Interrupters getting denied an nomination, much less an Oscar. Which… forget it, Jake, it’s Hollywood. The film speaks for itself, and continues to; Alex Kotlowitz recently published an excellent essay to accompany its PBS Frontline premiere, “I See Everything Through This Tragedy”:

Shopping? He’d just seen someone killed. The facile explanation is to say he didn’t care or that he’d had become hardened to the violence. (He’d seen other people shot, as well.) But as it turns out, his behavior wasn’t all that unusual. To protect himself, he had lost the capacity to feel fear or anger or grief. He had cut himself off not only from others, but also from himself. The children who grow up amidst such violence become kind of spiritual nomads with no one to turn to, often not even themselves.

Recently I’ve taken an interest in a couple documentaries about Chicago street violence that are considerably more obscure than The Interrupters. One is a documentary that Chiboulevards dug up a couple weeks ago off YouTube. It’s identified on YouTube as “Broken Heart in Half,” but it’s actually The Heart Broken in Half, an early work of Taggart Siegel (probably best known around these parts for The Real Dirt on Farmer John) and the late polymath Dwight Conquergood, who taught at Northwestern among many other things. The video at Chiboulevards seems to be just two extensive excerpts, but the full hour-long documentary is available on YouTube in six parts on this user’s channel; here are the first two (parts of it are disturbing and NSFW, FYI).

Even further under the radar is Great American Youth, a very-low-budget documentary about the Gaylords, the city’s most well-known greaser gang. They’re all but gone now; the Chicago Crime Commission Gang Book estimates their membership to be “at least 210,” and the leaders that the book lists are all pretty old (the youngest turns 40 next year), though an August federal bust of nine members suggests that they still might be somewhat active.

“Great American Youth” is a reference to the polite part of the gang’s acronym; the once white-supremacist gang, according to the Gang Book, “dropped their supremacist philosophy because of the diversity of races among the street gangs in the [People] alliance.” It’s narrated almost exclusively by old Gaylords—a gang in winter—shot by a filmmaker who seems sympathetic to them. But the eerily nostalgic approach means that the subjects are speaking to a putatively sympathetic documentarian. It’s a different sort of observational bias, and a curious contrast, even if it’s likely to offend. For its slant, it’s still an interesting look at the persistence of urban violence and the rhetoric of people who once created it.

And one of particular interest to me. The “motherland, the birth of the Gaylords,” according to one interviewee who spent ten years in the gang, is at Huron and Noble, a block from my old apartment, at an ominously blank storefront that always mystified me. It’s weird to see someone standing at that corner, talking about “defending the neighborhood,” which “turned to s**t” because of “whores and junkies,” a year before I moved there—just two blocks off a hep strip of Chicago Avenue. Unless he’s using particularly colorful language to describe peripatetic gentrifiers like myself, it’s an odd and telling misperception. Here’s part 1; the rest is available on YouTube:

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