Street gangs are one of the nation's greatest scourges but also one of its greatest shames—imagine a life so bereft of opportunity that you'd take a bullet defending your nonexistent ownership of a street corner. But Lord Thing, a bold 1970 documentary recently restored by the Chicago Film Archives, revisits a period when the Conservative Vice Lords, one of Chicago's oldest and largest gangs, aspired to something better, launching numerous initiatives to empower people in the Lawndale neighborhood. The movie also serves as a bitter reminder that state power vastly outweighs the influence of any street gang, and that no criminal organization hoping to legitimize itself can ever escape its violent past. (Just ask Michael Corleone.)
The Vice Lords began in 1958 when Edwin Perry banded together with six other kids in Lawndale who'd been incarcerated with him at a reformatory in suburban Saint Charles. The usual itinerary of robbery, battery, and extortion followed, with armed clashes between the VLs and the neighboring Cobras, before the Watts riot in summer 1965 led to a new political consciousness among the leadership. Renamed the Conservative Vice Lords, the gang embarked on a remarkable series of social programs, including a teen community center, a management training institute, a tenants' rights organization, and a popular Afro-centric clothing boutique, the African Lion. By 1970 the CVLs had built up enough credibility to win a $275,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Most gangbangers write their autobiographies in blood; Lord Thing is a rare instance of gang members telling their own story on film. Filmmaker DeWitt Beall includes numerous statements from Perry, CVL spokesman Bobby Gore, and CVL acting president Kenneth "Goat" Parks (who took over when Perry and two other CVLs won scholarships to study at Dartmouth College). Gang members took part in staged re-creations of beatings, large-scale brawls, and gunfights, shot in black-and-white and impressionistically edited. The movie's voice-over narration was supplied by Leonard Sengali, spokesman for the Blackstone Rangers (who were counted among the CVLs' allies).
As detailed in Lord Thing, the CVLs' social renaissance came to a screeching halt after Mayor Richard J. Daley and Cook County state's attorney Ed Hanrahan issued their 1969 report on gang activity in Chicago. The ensuing crackdown—which included the notorious police shooting of Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton—brought murder indictments for Gore, Sengali, and CVL president Alfonso Alford. Gore was convicted and served ten years, though some still think he was framed. Lord Thing breezes over the fact that the CVLs' criminal activities continued even as the leadership tried to steer the gang in a new direction; the movie is best viewed not as history but as a tragic document of a personal vision for the future that would never—and could never—be realized.