Flyin’ Cut Sleeves (1993) – Dir. Henry Chalfant w/ Rita Fecher

In 1969 Rita Fecher got her first teaching job; in a school in the South Bronx at a time when the city’s longstanding crime reputation was being written.

As documented well in Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop – or any hip-hop writings to be fair – this oft-talked about time in New York’s history is when the impoverished areas was likened by some as a concrete war zone, filled mostly with blacks and latinos. The gangs that rose up did so out of their own communities and makeshift families, becoming community leaders to some and the biggest threat to others. It was a bleak time for many with around 40% welfare and 30% unemployment in the South Bronx, and with the American government in general distancing itself further and further from the ongoing issues.

As a teacher Fecher noticed the system’s distinct lack of understanding of the background and home lives of the kids in her school. As is drilled home many times in this documentary, if some of these kids had been born in to different families they would’ve grown up to be senators and country leaders as opposed to heads of gangs. Fecher started filming the kids of the Bronx neighbourhoods outside of class, at home and on the streets, initially for her colleagues to gain a better understanding of who they were.

Her recordings from 1969 – 74 make up the basis of this documentary.

Directed by the great Henry Chalfant, Flyin’ Cut Sleeves was produced on VHS in 1993, and featured interviews from this time with the same gang members who featured prominently in Fecher’s original recordings. In proper Chalfant style it all feels very real, borderline intrusive, which is partially why it’s so engaging.

Talking about the roots of the gangs, their names, the fashion and even how the female divisions came to be is the really fascinating part of this. Black Benji’s death and the famous Hoe Avenue Boys Club peace treaty of 1971 are covered in depth too, but the real gripping stuff is the juxtaposition with the lives the members lead now.

There’s some deep messaging in there, worth paying attention to.

And while we were initially pulled in by our love of archive, we also need to talk about the brilliant soundtrack, which mostly consists of that tough latin street funk that there’s not enough of kicking around. The Ghetto Bros – who’ve since been reissued by Truth & Soul – feature heavily from about twenty minutes onwards, and it all just clicks in to place beautifully.

Released in 1993 it wasn’t until a few years back that Flyin’ Cut Sleeves got the DVD release it deserved. Well happy it did though, as it’s definitely worth checking out.

Trailer below, and full VHS rip version underneath that for those who want to try before they buy.