'G-Dog' Shows an Innovative Approach to Gang Intervention

PHOTO: Father Gregory Boyle at an opening screening for "G-Dog," a documentary about his gang intervention work.Albert Sabaté/ABC/Univision
Father Gregory Boyle at an opening screening for "G-Dog," a documentary about his gang intervention work.

"G-Dog" tells the story of Homeboy Industries and the inspirational priest behind it. The emotional documentary, by Academy Award-winning director Frieda Mock, is a portrait of a man whose unconditional love and humor have reinvented gang intervention in Los Angeles and beyond.

For a quarter of a century, Father Gregory Boyle, known affectionately as G-Dog, has worked to rehabilitate gang members. The story focuses on Boyle's work and his non-profit Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, which offers job training, education services, tattoo removal, therapy and drug rehabilitation.

Homeboy's fundraising couldn't keep pace with its increasingly popular programs and, like many non-profits during the economic crisis, the organization underwent financial difficulties in the late 2000s. As a result, Homeboy Industries laid off it's 300-person staff in May 2010. G-Dog himself filed for unemployment at the time.

It is emotional to see the fall of what has arguably become a pillar of public safety in Los Angeles. This remains a minor thread of a film edited to be an uplifting story of hardened gang-members turned into smiling, soft "teddy bears" by Father Boyles' unconditional love. Mostly, the film surveys the many gang-intervention programs and highlights the safe, inclusive and a remarkably strong community that Boyle has built with rehabilitated gang members who were once rivals.

Filmmakers don't venture out of the safe circle that Boyle has created in communities through his life's work. The film fails to dig deeper into the issue of gang crime or look at what happens when you marginalize a segment of society.

It would have been more meaningful, for example, to highlight some of the struggles of those who were laid off – those for whom Homeboy was a last lifeline.

It could have dealt with the history of gangs and crime in Los Angeles and fleshed out the paradigm shift Homeboy Industries brought to gang intervention. Or delved into how the Jesuit school of thought drives Boyle's innovative work.

It's hard to imagine that during the first decade of his work, Boyle endured bomb and death threats (something not mentioned in the film). Police and others reviled him in the early days for aiding gang members. In the late 90s that started to change. Police chiefs, attorney generals, and even former First Lady Laura Bush, have visited G-Dog and the Homeboy family.

At a Q&A with Boyle at the opening screening in Santa Monica, Calif., Thursday night, audience members griped about the priest's difficulty to raise funds for the nation's largest gang intervention program. Boyle was at a loss to explain it.

"The truth is, if Homeboy Industries was the center for abandoned puppies instead of a place of second chances, this city wouldn't let it close," he said. "That's why it's important to stand with the demonized and the disposable so that the day will come when people aren't thrown away."

The documentary in opens in select cities across the country this weekend. Click here to see if it's playing near you.