Exploitation Documentaries

In shows such as Gangland on the History Channel, Gang members are portrayed more like violent animals fueled by drugs and killing instead of humans trapped in a system they were born into.  Through my research, I have found that recently, documentaries and reality TV are combing creating a new genre of documentaries that are no longer devoted to revealing truth about gangs but instead exploiting them by exaggerating their violence to make the show more entertaining for the public.  In a documentary by National Geographic called The World’s Most Dangerous Gangs, the host explores the origins of Mara Salvatrucha or more commonly known as MS 13 which is a Salvadorian gang that is not only spreading across the U.S. but also the rest of the world.  The host refers to the gang as a deadly virus, which not only dehumanizes the gang members but also adds to the misconception that all gang members are all bloodthirsty killers.  Because of National Geographic’s popularity it is easy for the people who watch it to forget that gang members are people just like them, they were just born into a different situation.  Another method used to dehumanize gang members is done by showing clips of violence, drugs, or other criminal activity during member interviews.  They show these clips to make the episodes more appealing to watch but in doing so they exploit the gang members and contribute to a continuous cycle of misconception.  


In “Inmate Homicides: killers, Victims, motives, and circumstances,” Mark Cunningham, Jon R Sorensen, Mark P Vigen and S O Woods they reveal the truth about prison homicides despite the perceptions brought up by the media. They perform a study and focus primarily on 35 inmate homicides but they also explain the effects the media has on prison policies and society’s view. Shows such as Lock Up and Oz, along with other media sources show inmates routinely killing each other. The truth of the matter is that prison homicides have decreased by more than 90% since the 80’s and continues to drop. The medias portrayal of prisoners may have an influence on sentencing determinations and policy regarding corrections. The skewing of information is also proved in “Unlocking the Gates: an Examination of MSNBC Investigates- Lockup” by Cecil, Dawn and Leitner, Jennifer. Their in depth study explains how all of the episodes of Lock Up examine maximum security prisons and those make up less than one quarter of the prison system. Lock Up also over emphasizes many aspects of prison life, including prison gangs because they focus on prison gang violence in 13 of the 18 episodes when it is estimated that gang members represent about 26.3% of prison violence. We these misinterpretations of prison’s people are left to thinking that all prisons are filled with violent, murderous gang members. The documentaries focus more on the behavior of the inmates instead of their struggles. If they were more directed toward the struggles of the inmates and informing the masses on the true workings on the prison system, something good can come from it.

Work Cited

  • Gunckel, Colin. "Gangs Gone Wild": Low-Budget Gang Documentaries and the Aesthetics of Exploitation." Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film & Television 60 (2007): 37-46. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.
  • World's Most Dangerous Gang by National Geographic Jan. 16 2006. http://www.streetgangs.com/movies/wmdgms13.html
  • "Racist Mexican Gangs "Ethnic Cleansing" Blacks in L.A. Jan 22 2007. http://www.prisonplanet.com/articles/january2007/220107mexicangangs.htm
  • Cunningham, Mark D., et al. "Inmate homicides: Killers, victims, motives, and circumstances." Journal of Criminal Justice 38.4 (2010): 348-358. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.
  • Cecil, Dawn K., and Jennifer L. Leitner. "Unlocking the Gates: an Examination of MSNBC Investigates – Lockup." Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 48.2 (2009): 184-199. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Dec. 2010