Five of the six judges at the recent Portland Motorcycle Film Festival had racing backgrounds. As a group, we (I say “we,” because I was one of them) wouldn’t naturally gravitate to the story of an outlaw biker gang.
And yet, when we sat down after the festival to compare notes, we quickly agreed that “Take None, Give None” was the best feature film at this year’s festival. The film was also the judges’ top choice at the 2016 International Motorcycle Film Festival in Brooklyn last September.
“Take None, Give None” is an all-access portrait of the Chosen Few, a motorcycle club formed in South Central Los Angeles in 1959. The members openly describe themselves as “one percenters.” An LAPD detective who appears in the film goes further, to describe them as a criminal gang.
So where did the film festival’s judges and the Chosen Few find common ground? For starters, the film makes it clear that the club’s members share our love of motorcycles, and that they get the same sense of freedom, independence, and self-actualization from bikes as we do. And, it didn’t hurt that at least a dozen members of the Seattle chapter rode down to the festival, braving the January weather in the Pacific Northwest.
“Take None, Give None” is not without its flaws, but it was the most ambitious film in this year’s Portland festival program. I believe it was also the only one that wasn’t made by a “motorcycle guy.”
The director, Gusmano Cesaretti, is an Italian who’s worked in Los Angeles, in the film business, for decades. His background is in still photography; he’s done everything from shooting production stills and location scouting to serving as second-unit director for Hollywood legend Michael Mann.
But in spite of that fairly impressive resume, he still considers himself to be a “street photographer.” Gusmano was driving on an L.A. freeway 25 years ago when a member of the Chosen Few rode past, no helmet, sporting a big afro. He followed him, introduced himself, and asked if he could take his picture. Before long, he was persona grata in the Few’s “mother chapter” — which was just off the 110 freeway in the notorious South Central district.
I’d say Gusmano stuck out like a sore thumb except he was too small and much too white for that to be an apt description. Just getting out of his car with an expensive camera would’ve been dangerous, but even gang-bangers respected the Chosen Few.
In 2011, Gusmano was invited to participate in “Art in the Street,” an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. He put up a bunch of those still photos and the bikers were flattered by the attention. The time was right to ask the club for permission to make a movie about them.
“This was all the result of Gusmano’s personal relationships,” the film’s executive producer, Bruno Sere, told me. “If Spielberg had shown up with a million dollars he would not have gotten the access we had.”
Gusmano brought in a younger photographer, Kurt Mangum, who’d been experimenting with the video capabilities of his DSLR cameras. Kurt became a co-director on the project. He shot most of it himself, but on some days they worked with a small crew. They shot it from 2011 to 2014.
The Chosen Few was one of the first African-American one percenter clubs, but in 1960, they admitted a new member they called “White Boy Art.” With that, the Few became the first racially integrated biker gang.
In the film, White Boy Art (now an old man on oxygen) recalls his initiation. He’d been working at a motorcycle shop with a black dude who was a member. One day that guy took him to the club president’s house. After a while, they asked if he wanted to join their club and he said, “Sure.”
Art told the filmmakers that he didn’t realize he was the only white member of the club until he arrived at the first club meeting and looked around. Later, the club opened a San Bernardino chapter that included a number of Hispanic and Asian members.
For me, the most interesting parts of the film deal with that early integration. Older members talk over Ken Burns-style still animation of photos and clippings, many of which have an arresting Black Panthers vibe — guys in Ray-Bans with huge afros, posing with guns, with a few notably paler dudes in the mix. That story could easily be pulled out of the larger film; it would make a really terrific short.
The club’s still proudly racially integrated, and interestingly the members also ride a wide range of bikes. (Harleys predominate, but there’s a good sprinkling of stretched Hayabusas that, I imagine, would not be accepted by some other gangs.)
The movie doesn’t mention the club’s connection to the most famous motorcycle of all time. Cliff Vaughs, who was a charter member of the Chosen Few, designed and built the motorcycle ridden by Peter Fonda in Easy Rider.
The filmmakers unsurprisingly portray the Chosen Few in a generally positive light; after all, they became friends. But the film takes a major turn when the club’s busted by the LAPD and harassed by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
One club member — a guy whose name appears on the clubhouse property deed — is found with a gallon of PCP in his car. Raids on the club yield a few weapons, including one of those cattle-stunning captive bolt guns from “No Country for Old Men.” In the end, the mother chapter’s forced to sell off its Watts property and relocate into the San Fernando Valley.
Gusmano and Kurt are careful not to take a stand in the film; they let the cops and bikers tell their sides of the story, and let viewers decide for themselves.
The older club members generally hew to the old line of “It’s not the club, it’s just individuals in the club,” but as I watched the Original Gangsters discussing it, I thought their protests of innocence were pretty half-hearted. There was a surprisingly touching moment when one of the OGs mentioned that their sons and nephews were joining the Bloods and Crips. The old bikers seem nearly quaint by comparison, though that’s not the position of the LAPD. (Ironically, when the mother chapter was busted, the cops only had to travel a block from their embattled South Central outpost; they’d been neighbors for decades.)
I had a long chat with the filmmakers at See See Coffee before we screened their film. It was clear that the film was a labor of love — they embarked on the multi-year project without any clear sense of how they’d get distribution for it or make any money back, just because they felt that documenting the club was worthwhile in and of itself. I think they were right, and that it was important to do so while the founders, now old men, were still around to commit their memories to video.
Like a lot of documentary projects, “Take None, Give None” struggles to find an ending. Real life, unlike fiction, tends to end messily. In spite of that, I was surprised they’ve had difficulty finding a distributor for the film, and have not yet made a broadcast deal. It’s basically “Sons of Anarchy” crossed with Black Lives Matter. Surely there’s a cable channel that can sell that to its viewers.
The Chosen Few ride more Harley-Davidsons than anything else. And H-D’s desperate to diversify its customer base (the company has specialized marketing outreach efforts to younger riders, women, and minorities.) I would think Harley’d back the film, if execs in Milwaukee could get over the fact that some of the club’s members are criminals. Or, maybe Harley will only collaborate on projects with fictional outlaw bikers.
As it stands, the film’s only been screened a handful of times. (Bruno Sere rented a drive-in for a Chosen Few ride-in screening in Pomona.) They told me that the club members were pestering them for copies of the film, but they haven’t dared release it because they’re sure that the whole film would be uploaded to YouTube the next day.
That’s why, right now all you can see is the trailer (unless you live in Toronto or Madrid, where it will soon be shown in two more motorcycle film festivals). If you want to see the movie as soon as it’s available, the best way to stay in touch with the producers is on Facebook.
As a motorcyclist, I’ve spent a lifetime distancing myself from the whole outlaw biker scene. I’ve long been frustrated by John Q. Public’s inability to differentiate between some bearded dude airing out his armpits on his ape-hangers as he looks for a parking spot at the Buffalo Chip and Marc Marquez dragging his elbow at COTA.
But as a storyteller, I have to admit that the whole Harley-Davidson/outlaw-biker through-line — a story that’s been told and retold from “The Wild One” through Hunter S. Thompson’s “Hells Angels” to “Sons” — is the stuff of modern myth. It’s no wonder that mainstream audiences hear “motorcycle” and imagine a burly thug in a kutte.
One reason this bugs me is that I am pretty sure a lot of contemporary “bikers” hardly ride. I don’t get that feeling from the Chosen Few — not from the bikers portrayed in “Take None, Give None” or from the dozen or so I met in Portland.
When the club got its start, back in the late 1950s, riding motorcycles was both an act of rebellion and an opportunity for early members to feel a sense of freedom that white America took for granted. “Take None, Give None” provides a fascinating footnote to America’s racial history, and the way motorcycles provided common ground, at least for a Chosen Few. Hopefully, some time soon, I’ll be able to tell you that the filmmakers have a broadcast and distribution deal.