The Bastard Question
“How did we go from calling each other brother to saying, ‘Kill that nigga’?” asks Cle “Bone” Sloan, gang member turned filmmaker, in his documentary Bastards of the Party. Illuminating, frequently infuriating and often depressing, Bastards is an exhaustively researched look at the history and legacies of the Bloods and the Crips. Bone, a 38-year-old former Blood, made the film after years of banging and bloodshed finally led him to ask the simple question Where does this culture of death come from?
Bastards starts in the present, then leaps back to the great African-American migration from the South to the West in the mid 20th century. It chronicles the racism black folk encountered upon their arrival, and how they slowly carved neighborhoods and communities of their own. News to many will be the fact (also detailed in a comprehensive 2006 report on the history of the Bloods and the Crips by Sheriff’s Department gang expert Detective Wayne Coffey) that white gangs — with names like the Spook Hunters — planted the seeds of modern gang strife in L.A. when black school kids banded together to protect themselves from attacks. By the time white flight solved the problem of white gangs, black gangs like the Slausons, the Farmers and the Gladiators began to turn on one another.
The axis of the film, however, is the new life it breathes into the not-altogether-novel argument that the federal government, and the FBI in particular, pitted the Black Panther Party, and its L.A. leader, Bunchy Carter, against Ron Karenga and his US (United Slaves) movement, leaving both movements in ruins and creating a devastating political and cultural — not to mention spiritual — void in the local African-American community. Bastards is filled with fantastic gangsta-on-the-street interviews, archival photos and news footage, and interviews with Geronimo Pratt, other black activists and L.A. historian Mike Davis. As it unfolds, it presents an ever-deepening perspective not just on gang lore but on the black experience in Los Angeles, with its ripple effects on the national stage.
In the midst of a frenzy of promotional activity to hype the film’s February 6 HBO premiere (you can catch it all month on HBO’s various channels), while at the same time taking care of his young son, Bone sat down to answer questions about the film, the current state of black life in Los Angeles and his take on black and brown tensions in the city.
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L.A. WEEKLY: What made you decide to make this film?
CLE SLOAN: After I started learning the information, getting the whole story down and connecting the dots, I began sharing the history with my homeboys, explaining to them that we were the bastard offspring of the black liberation movement — out of the ashes of the Panther party, the Crips were born. Crips stood for Community Revolutionary Inter-Party Service. That alone tells you that the Crips initially were trying to identify with the Black Panther Party and the whole black liberation movement. I got obsessed. A couple of homies started saying, “Bone, you should write a book!” I said, “What for, y’all ain’t gon’ read it!” At the time, I was a second A.C., camera assistant, by profession and decided to make it easy for them by putting the information on film.
Bastards was begun in 1996. How does the final film differ from what you first imagined it would be?
My vision was always based on history, so it pretty much stayed the same. The only thing that changed since ’96 was me. In 1996, my young homie Mouse was killed. He was the son of my O.G. homie, Big Mouse, who’s now serving 40 years in a Nevada state penitentiary. Before Big Mouse went to jail, he asked me to look out for his twin sons, Tyrell and Cyrell. Cyrell was killed three days after I interviewed him for the film. A week after that, the question was posed to me on film: What would I do if I ran into Li’l Mouse’s killer? Back then, I said I wouldn’t hesitate to kill him. In 2003, I was asked if I felt the same way. I said no. Because I know the killing won’t stop unless I stop.
Were there films or filmmakers you studied to model your filmmaking technique on, and to model Bastards on?
It’s a combination of all the great people I’ve worked with — Antoine [Fuqua, director of TheReplacement Killers and Training Day, and executive producer of Bastards] and John Lindley, Mauro Fiore and a couple other cinematographers. I was exposed to Kurosawa by Antoine and fell in love with his work — movies like Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai and Ran. I watch a lot of foreign films. My recent favorites are Memories of Murder and Oldboy — great films.
What was the most shocking thing you learned in the course of your research and filming?
When I sat down with former FBI agent Wes Swearingen, who explained just how far the FBI went to neutralize the black liberation movement, particularly the Black Panthers on the West Coast. He exposed the murder of Bunchy Carter in his interview, explaining how they not only wanted to neutralize Bunchy but to discredit him. In his own words, he said that the FBI originally planned for Bunchy to die in Watts in a drug-deal-gone-bad scenario, but — and these are his words — sometimes informants don’t do what you tell them to do. Instead, on January 17, 1969, Bunchy Carter was killed in Campbell Hall on the campus of UCLA. That revelation was definitely a smoking gun for me. Blacks in America have always been written off as conspiracy theorists, even though some of these things have manifested before our own eyes. But when we try to point some of these things out, they almost mockingly say that our accusations have no credibility, can’t be proved. The murder was not only a smoking gun, but a confirmation that behind the scenes, strings are definitely being pulled.
Bastards makes a point of connecting dots between history and the present, showing how myriad forces have gone into destroying the black community. In what ways, if any, did the connecting of those dots change how you see the political system in America?
Connecting the dots didn’t change what I thought about politics in this country. It confirmed what I thought. Langston Hughes wrote about a dream deferred. How about a movement deferred? Or, even better, a reality deferred? With every attempt we’ve made to empower ourselves, the rug gets snatched from under us. The leadership has been nullified or, using Wes Swearingen’s words, neutralized. People don’t know our history but continue to wag fingers and dismiss our struggles.
You say at one point in Bastards that yours is the generation that has failed the political heroes and heroines from the ’60s. But it’s also a generation that has been failed. What steps can be taken, now, to get black folk — especially youth — back on track with the visions once held by Malcolm, Martin and the Panthers?
From where I’m sitting, the climate is right for change, for getting people back on track. I talk to different homies every day — Crips and Bloods, young and old — and we all pretty much agree, black males here in Los Angeles are being moved on. Our only salvation is coming together.
Explain what you mean by moved on.
It seems that we’ve been green-lit by any and everyone who ain’t black in this city. You may think that’s extreme, or that I’m overstating the situation, but like I said, this is from where I’m sitting. There’s a push toward extinction for black males here in Los Angeles. If you’re locked up for life, you’re extinct. Of course, if you’re murdered, you’re extinct. If you’re unable to join the blue-collar lightweight industrial boom that is now going on here in Los Angeles, you’re economically extinct. We are the minority’s minority at this point, unfortunately. But I believe we’re gonna get back on the right track.
Talk a bit about how gang culture has shaped the ways that a lot of black men define themselves.
A lot of us are defined and define ourselves with this gangsta shit. We hang on to it all of our lives, even when we quote-unquote stop bangin’. I think we walk around with a sickness because we haven’t been debriefed. We live out war stories every day. For example, brothas gon’ come home from Iraq fucked-up if they don’t get debriefed, because the camaraderie from killing and surviving becomes the only thing that’s tangible. From what I understand, an LAPD officer who kills someone is counseled so it doesn’t consume him. Now, take the average cat from Compton or Watts who has experienced this lifestyle; it becomes his whole persona, his very existence. He becomes that mythical gangster figure. That’s not easy to let go of.
What’s your opinion on Bill Cosby’s views about the ills that plague black America?
I respect and love Bill Cosby. I still watch reruns of I Spy. I enjoy his Jell-O pudding antics. I think the Huxtable family is a black American dream that is attainable. But Bill Cosby is out of touch with what’s going on with the black community today. We’re not a bunch of dysfunctional niggas who can’t get our shit together. Bastards proves that the stage was set before we went on. A lot of the groundwork for the foolishness and misinformation came from the generations before us. Everybody’s mad at rappers for exploiting women, for saying nigga, etc. If we are going to hold people accountable, we got to start with the CEOs at the MTVs and BETs. And if we’re talking about black accountability, we gotta talk about black CEOs like Bob Johnson, founder of BET and Bill Cosby’s friend. We gotta start at the top. I got the bottom covered.
The media are filled with stories about tensions between black and brown folk in L.A., with gangs being fingered as the primary antagonists. If you had time in the film to dissect the clashes between black and Latino gangs, the history of those clashes, and how they affect larger communities, what would you want to say, what questions would you ask of all parties affected or involved?
I guess the best way to answer that question is to start with the latest black-and-Latino clash over in Torrance, with the 204th Street situation. I’ve seen the mayor over there. I’ve seen the Torrance City Council. I even watched a so-called black-Latino gang truce. But the bottom line is, there were no gang members in sight at this so-called truce calling. The media has been playing up the murder of the little girl who rode her scooter too close to the 204th Street boundary and was shot in the face as a result. Now, we know the 204th Street gang is a Latino gang, but who is the mysterious black gang in Harbor Gateway or what we call the Great City of Torrance? If you look back, this is not the first aggression toward blacks in that area. There is no black gang versus the 204th Street Latino gang. Somebody go check the body count. This has been an ongoing assault on black civilians in that area for the last 10 years.
But if I’m going to do any more talking and any focusing on this question, I would focus on this black-on-black genocidal climate that we live in.
At the end of the film, you say that some days you have so much hope, but you leave the phrase hanging and it goes unspoken that there are obviously days where you’re pessimistic. What gives you hope, now, and what depletes it?
My hope is depleted by our social and economic situation. Our representation and key positions when it comes to power in this city are lacking. It’s the changing of the guard in Los Angeles. A lot of the doors that black folks have kicked down, Latinos and others will benefit from, yet we are ostracized in this city.
What’s next for you in your career?
I have a couple of projects coming up in the future. Look out for me. I’m pitching. I’m writing. I’m shooting. But who knows? It’s Hollywood.
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