HBO's "Thug Life in DC" is not about Bill Clinton's proclivities toward Serbia. It is a stunning wakeup call about the growing warehousing of young black men in the nation's jails and prisons. It is about the disturbing and increasing merger of black male youth culture and prison culture. The program has created somewhat of a controversy - well not really - by some in the black community who feel that it portrays young black males in only a "negative" light. Anti-rap crusader and self-appointed censor C. Deloris Tucker has taken it upon herself to make an issue where there is none. Virtually everyone else who has seen the program have praised it for its insightful and poignant, though tragic presentation of one young man's sojourn into hell. "Thug Life" humanizes a population that has been mostly reduced to stereotypes and poster children for Republican (and Democratic) never-ending get-tough-on-crime policies.
The term "thug life" was made famous by the late rapper Tupac Shakur who had the slogan tattooed on his torso. In Shakur's milieu, thug life referred to a lifestyle of professed and celebrated criminality. Echoing real and cinematic gangsters styles, a small, but significant segment of inner-city young black males have embraced a fatalism that envisions a heroic, shoot-em-out death with either their "enemies" on the street, or with cops. For most, they are more likely to end up spending (too) many decades incarcerated or worse. Death, when it comes, whether in prison or on the pavement, is hardly romantic.
Thug Life romanticism, however, can not just be reduced to a below-the-surface social slice. One of the popular fashion statements today among inner-city youth is the wearing of brightly colored jail jumpsuits. These garments - coming in "prison" orange, blue, or green - are sold in popular clothing stores in sizes ranging from toddlers to oversize adults. A society's whose children want to look "criminal" is a society in trouble. It is the prison side of this culture that "Thug Life" brings to the screen.
The program focuses on Aundrey "Bruno" Burno, who shot a police officer (who survived) and murdered another teen. The film interviews Bruno, his mother and younger brother, and his jail house inmates at the DC City Jail and the Lorton Correctional Facility (which is now being closed down). One of the more interesting dimensions of this film is the interview with the warden, who is a woman. She is both tough and sensitive, but mostly depressingly at a lost at how to handle scores of prisoners entering her house of horrors every single day.
The casualness presented by the inmates who are interviewed floats just above a tidalwave of repressed violence and aggression. Many of the inmates speak, in a language that is often both stunningly lyrical and incomprehensible, of a world where nothing short of naked power rules - either that of individuals, gangs, or jail/prison authorities. They rap, they talk, they project bravado, but, in the end, it is the state that is getting the last laugh.
What should really give us all pause and not a few sleepless nights is the realization that we are talking about hundreds of thousands of young black, Latino, Native American, Asian, and white men and women whose live in a truly different world where what should be the most creative and productive years are not just lost, but unmercifully crushed. Overall the 1.8 million incarcerated in the United States, part of 5 million who are caught up in the criminal justice system in some way, are a ticking social bomb for the nation.
"Thug Life in DC" presents us with a crazy house mirror that Clinton, Congress, other policy-makers and political leaders (and busy bodies like Tucker) refuse to glare into. To listen to 15, 16, and 17-year-olds discuss the hopelessness they face with 25-to-life prison sentences is to listen to a nation on a downward slope with no brakes. While the nation wrings its hands over Columbine and ponders how to rescue those youth who should need no rescuing, it continues to ignore, no, passionately collaborates in the social murder of so many others.