Rubble Kings

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Rubble Kings Movie Poster Image
Inspiring doc on hip-hop's roots has some violence, cursing.
  • NR
  • 2010
  • 67 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Music and dance can provide a healthy outlet for self-expression and the competitive drive, and can bring a sense of self-worth and belonging in rough neighborhoods where street gangs often fill that role. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Amidst the crushed ideals, gang violence, and terrible poverty of the South Bronx in the early 1970s, the Ghetto Brothers emerged as a force for positive change, as a gang that encouraged nonviolence, working together for the good of the community, and using music and dance as a force for good. The brutal killing of one of its members, a peacemaker trying to stop a brawl between several rival street gangs, is widely viewed as the catalyst that not only brought a cease fire to South Bronx gang violence, but also led to the dance parties from which hip-hop music and fashion developed into an international phenomenon. 

Violence

Frequent talk of gang fights in the early 1970s, of how gangs fought then, and the ferocity in which they fought. Footage of gang enforcers punishing members who violated the code of the gang -- an African-American man is shown being whipped in the back with a belt, an enforcer stands in front of a door and talks of how gang members who cause problems for the gang are locked inside as punishment. Talk and footage of gang initiation, including an "Apache Line," in which an initiate runs between two lines of gang members who punch, kick, whip, and hit with baseball bats. Talk of how one's gang initiation was rumored to have been a game of Russian Roulette. Talk of how one gang, after beating up a rival gang member, would carve the initials of their two-word name into the forehead of the person they just beat up. 

Sex
Language

"Motherf----r." "S--t." "C--k." "Goddamn." 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Documentary footage of gang members drinking and smoking marijuana. Footage of heroin users nodding off. Talk of how the despair felt by many in the South Bronx led to drug addiction. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Rubble Kings is a 2010 documentary about how a gang of peacemakers amidst violent street gangs in the South Bronx helped create the positive conditions that brought about hip-hop culture and fashion. The movie shows how music and dancing brought former enemies together, and how it brought a sense of self-worth and competitive drive to the youth of a community that had previously only found it through gangs. The gang violence of that time is shown through pictures and film from that time, and discussed at length by those who were a part of that world. Gang culture, initiation, and violence both inside and outside several of the hundreds of gangs is shown in detail. While not overtly glamorized, there is an air of nostalgia permeating this documentary that might make the style and attitudes conveyed in the dozens of photographs of the gangs seem compelling and something to perhaps emulate, especially since it's only in the movie's final act that it shows all the good that came out of moving beyond the rivalries and violence. There is some profanity, including "motherf----r." Alcohol drinking, marijuana smoking. Overall, especially for fans of music and hip-hop culture in particular, this movie is an important historical chronicle about hip-hop's emergence from the humblest of beginnings. 

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What's the story?

RUBBLE KINGS tells the story of the early 1970s, when the South Bronx was a bleak blighted area of high crime, burned-out buildings, and the aftermath of the crushed ideals and hopes of the 1960s. Amidst this backdrop, hundreds of street gangs with names like Savage Skulls, Javelins, and Assassinators lived, fought, and died for their turf, finding in gangs a sense of belonging and self-worth that they couldn't get from the institutional poverty and racism of American society. As the killing and violence spiraled out of control, one gang, The Ghetto Brothers, tried to put a stop to it. They encouraged and fostered peace in the South Bronx, pleading with rival gangs to see a bigger picture, to understand that the real enemies weren't each other but the conditions keeping them down. They even started a band, believing music to be a powerful conduit to spread their positive message. However, their altruism was put to the ultimate test when one of the Ghetto Brothers, a peacemaker named Cornell "Black Benjie" Benjamin, was murdered while trying to stop a fight between rival gangs. Despite initial feelings of anger fueling a desire for revenge, after meeting with Benjamin's mother, the Ghetto Brothers realized that the best way to honor Benjamin's memory was not through more violence, but through more peace. In that spirit, they organized a massive meeting with representatives from many of the rival gangs at a Bronx YMCA, and brokered a truce and encouraged cooperation and unity. The relative peace this created brought about concerts and dance parties in which former rivals got together, united by the love of the music and channeling their competitive spirits into dance contests. From these parties emerged the earliest beginnings of what would come to be known as hip-hop, whose musical and cultural legacy spanned the globe. 

Is it any good?

Believed to have influenced the 1979 movie The Warriors, the attempts to bring peace amongst the warring street gangs of the South Bronx as shown in this documentary gave the world so much more. This documentary tells of how the violence of South Bronx street gangs circa 1971 and the senseless killing of a gang peacemaker led to a massive gang cease-fire that helped create the spaces and music that brought about the musical and cultural revolution that was hip-hop. Through archival footage and interviews, the culture and codes of the hundreds of street gangs running rampant throughout the Bronx and New York City is presented in vivid detail. The Ghetto Brothers, the peacemaking gang who brokered the cease fire and encouraged positive change through their musical group, get the credit they deserve. 

It's a relatively little-known yet important chapter in history that, quite literally, changed the international cultural landscape. It could almost be viewed as a prequel to the documentary Fresh Dressed, which basically picks up where Rubble Kings leaves off. If there are any reservations to this documentary, it's that it goes a little too far and too long in talking about the war and violence, and not enough about what thrived after the hard-won peace. Nonetheless, it's a story that needs to be heard. And while it's a little strange to see former gang members from that time, much older and seeming to get a nostalgic twinkle in their eye for how things used to be, if there is nostalgia at work, it's because for all the crime, bankruptcy (both moral and fiscal), and general decay that defined New York City in the 1970s, both punk and hip-hop emerged from that place and time, cultural revolutions whose effects still resonate today. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about historical documentaries like Rubble Kings. How do documentaries about specific times and places of the past present information? 

  • How did this documentary balance the photographs, home movies, and media reports showing the South Bronx in the early 1970s with interviews of the people who were there at the time? 

  • How did the documentary provide historical context with what was happening in America and the world during the years this movie covers? 

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