Photos by Gusmano Cesaretti unless noted

Gusmano Cesaretti and Kurt Magnum made a feature documentary about the Watts, California-based outlaw motorcycle club The Chosen Few. Animals discussed the club and the making of the documentary with the two filmmakers. The excellent, touching movie has won awards as it makes its way through the film festival circuit, definitely see it when you get the chance. The teaser video is embedded below. 

ANIMALS:                 How did you meet The Chosen Few and when?

GUSMANO CESARETTI:             It was about 20-25 years ago on the Pasadena Freeway. I see a rider, I look at the back at the patch, and the guy had a flowing scarf on his face, it looked very beautiful, a romantic, biker-ish moment.  I pull next to him, and I says, “Pull over, I want to talk to you,” and he goes “OK.” I said, “Look.  I’m a photographer.  I like the way you look.  Can I take some pictures of you?" He goes, “Come next Sunday to the clubhouse.  We have a big party there.  You get to know everybody.”  I said, “Great.  Where is it?”  “108th Street and Broadway.”  “Excellent.  Thank you.”  I didn’t even know his name.  I went down there on Sunday.

I’m walking through the clubhouse, and I see all of these bikers all over the place, and everybody says “Hi!  How are you?  What are you doing?  Are you taking some picture?”  I said, “Yeah, one of your members invited me over. I love the way you guys look, the patch and everything, so I’m here to take some pictures.”  “Oh yeah, go ahead. Take a picture of me.” They all start posing and making fun and having a good time. 

ANIMALS:                 Were you surprised that they were so open to you taking pictures?

GUSMANO:              I was incredibly amazed that those people were so nice and open to anything.  It was,  “I’m an artist from Italy.  I’m taking pictures.”  “Oh great. This guy here is really crazy.  Take a picture of him.” It was really beautiful, they just opened up their door.  So then, slowly, I started learning about their club, how they started with black and white.

ANIMALS:                 They were the first integrated club.

KURT MAGNUM:     The Father, Lionel Riggs, started riding in 1959.  He started the club with another guy named Frank Atkins, and it was just two of them. They were cruising around LA together and then the club really formed in 1960. White Art came in he it was about 8th guy. I think he was also in 1960. And shortly after, it kind of grew pretty quickly.  The Chosen Few were around before gangs, really.  It was the Chosen Few, then the Gladiators, then the Business Men, and then it was the Crips and Bloods that came out of the Panthers and stuff.

ANIMALS:                 So, that’s super radical.  Before the Civil Rights Movement

GUSMANO:              Before the Civil Rights Movement, man. Lionel said to me, “I have no family and I wanted to start a family. I’m a biker so I started a club." Then he decided, "I’ll integrate it,” without thinking about politics or anything like that, which is wonderful.

KURT:                        Yeah, it was just about motorcycle-riding, that’s it. Lionel told us a story about when police chased him. He actually ran away from the cops a couple times, and one time, he got away from them.  But the second time, he got caught, and the first thing he did was lay his motorcycle down on the ground, because he knew that being a black guy, they would come up to him and push his motorcycle down to destroy it. There were two white cops, and one of them was holding a Billy club like they were going to, you know, beat the shit out of him, and then his partner had actually told him, you know, “We’re not going to do that to this guy this time,” for whatever reason.  I think that they were just dealing with that stuff on a daily basis back then.

GUSMANO:              Yeah.  Being black on a motorcycle and going through LA, in 1960, the white cops, you can imagine.  So Lionel made the club about "It’s just motorcycles.  If you like to ride motorcycles, I don’t care what color you are, you’re a member."  Lionel did something the Civil Rights Movement did years after that.  Respecting each other, and giving love to the world, that's what they are. When Lionel created the club it was about friendship.  He didn’t care about black and white.  It wasn't about politics.  It wasn’t even intellectually thinking about, “Oh, I’m going to make this an integrated club, so I’m going to create something different,” no.  He was not an intellectual, but a wonderful human being.

KURT:                        They didn’t start out to be an outlaw club, they just felt, “We’re here, you have to fucking deal with it.” That meant a lot to them, and it was the ‘60s and ‘70s, so they really had something to fight for, in terms of being this inter-racial entity in Los Angeles.  And it’s not really like that anymore. 

GUSMANO:              So, four years ago, Kurt and I were working on a TV show together.  I wanted to give him an introduction to LA, not just the bullshit Beverley Hills and the beach, and all that shit that everybody knows.

KURT:                        The first club that we went into was Defiant ones, which are also an old club.  And I remember kind of walking in there and being like, “Wow this place is amazing,” and he said, “But there’s another one.”  He took me to the Chosen Few’s club, which was right around the corner, and they had a totally different energy.

ANIMALS:                 What’s different about it?

GUSMANO:              Well, first of all, they’re really nice people. Sometimes they do bad things, but they’re nice people. Once they've said to you, “You’re my friend” nobody’s going to fuck with you.  And that’s their mentality.  It’s about brotherhood and the ride.

ANIMALS:                 Is it still that way now?

GUSMANO:              It’s still that way. They’re having a problem. It’s complicated.  There is a large amount of old members and a large amount of new members, so they’re having a little—a little conflict between contrasts.  The new members like the idea of being One Percent, which a is kind of an ‘outlaw motorcycle club,’ so they like to think that “Oh, motherfucker, get the fuck out of here. We are Outlaw and we are like [names a well known MC]. ”   But the old club, it’s about brotherhood, family, being together, loving each other—

KURT:                        And it’s not like the young against the old right now, or anything like that.  There’s just a shift, and I think they are confused about which direction they should go, as a club.  Like what does it mean to be a One Percenter club now?  You know?  In 2017.

Some clubs don’t view them totally as a One Percent club.  They have the diamond, but it doesn’t actually have the '1%', it’s got the multi-colored fist instead.  The fist came because they were an inter-racial club, which at that time was a big, bold thing to do.

In 1968 they got a chapter out in San Gabriel, and because they were out there, they were in other bikers’ territories, there was friction with [names a well known MC]. That was a big struggle for them was from like ’68 until the mid-‘70s, and that’s when they really became a One Percenter club.  Because before that, they were tough guys riding around but they didn’t have the diamond.  I don’t think they ever had any problems, really, with the [names a well known MC] about having the patch.

KURT:                        Lionel's whole thing was, “We got the patch because it showed that we can go party with the [well known MC].” In Lionel’s mind, it was really about partying and having a good time.  That was their main thing.  They just wanted to fucking party and do a lot of fucking drugs, speed and red devils. They used to make this jungle juice, to where it was like—they would put all different kinds of tequila in it, and wine, and whatever, and then they would put acid in it. Sometimes they’d put some red devils in it.

GUSMANO:              Yeah they were really into that kind of scene.  Having a good time, getting stoned, and fucking a lot of girls.

KURT:                        And Lionel doesn’t drink now, he doesn’t do drugs.  Totally sober guy.

GUSMANO:              He doesn’t do nothing.  He just enjoy life, enjoy riding the motorcycle, being with the people, giving love to the people and being part of the club.

KURT:                        Lionel, he has no leadership role, really, but they all respect him and listen to him.

GUSMANO:              I was over one time at a meeting where they start arguing with each other, and Lionel was falling asleep in his chair and suddenly he slammed his hand on the table.  And everybody left the clubhouse.  Just like that.  He didn’t even say one word; he just went slam!  Like, "I’m sick and tired of you guys arguing." So that’s Lionel. He’s like the guy—he’s the god.  He started the club, it’s there, and everybody has respect for him.

ANIMALS:                 Why are these new members different than the old guys?

GUSMANO:              Most of the new members of the club, Fontaine, Zoe—they’re all wonderful human beings that come from the gangs.  So it’s an upgrade to their life, being in a motorcycle club, because when you’re in the gangs, you try to make a living by fucking around with people and doing the gang shit, right?  But when you’re in a motorcycle club, you are respecting each other; it’s not a gang. Like Zoe said, “Damn, I can’t believe it.  If it wasn’t for this, I don’t know where I’d be now,” because he was a gangster, he did what he needed to do in the gang to survive. But when he became a motorcycle club member, he changed his whole life.  He needed to have a job to be responsible to the club.  And then he became a Vice President. 

KURT:                        There’s a huge amount of motorcycle clubs in South Central, but they’re one of the oldest.  Everybody knows about them because they’ve been around for so long, and they represent another option.  You know?  You don’t have to be in a gang.  You could go join this motorcycle club and hang out with these guys, and you would still have the respect from your peers. Every single one of those guys, if they wanted to turn it on and get mean, they could do it in a second. I feel that when I’m there. I never feel worried or threatened or anything like that, but you know that energy is heavy and it’s interesting that when we filmed that stuff we didn’t even know those guys but we were always safe.

ANIMALS:                 How did they lose the clubhouse?

GUSMANO:              Well that was around Pee-Wee.  Pee-Wee is OG, he used to pay a lot of bills for the club, he paid for the club’s everything, pretty much.  He’s the guy with the money.  Pee-Wee owns a few buildings, he is a pilot and he owns his own plane.  You know what I mean? He got arrested in ’76 for drug-dealing. Then, he got arrested for dealing in 2011 and he is doing time for that now. So, the cop that we interviewed said Pee-Wee was one of the best drug-dealers in LA.

KURT:                        Yeah.  So the cop is convinced that he had been dealing drugs this whole time.  Doc and everybody around him say that that’s not true and that he had just gotten back into it in 2011.

ANIMALS:                 Which would make him one of the worst drug-dealers in LA.

KURT:                        Yeah, exactly.

ANIMALS:                 Is it financial impact on the club, now that he’s gone?

GUSMANO:              Yeah.  Well, they have to sell the clubhouse. 

KURT:                        The City of LA sued them. They had to sell the clubhouse to pay the $50,000 for the investigation.

GUSMANO:              They got another one that is not as good as the old one but it has a new energy, it’s a new scene, it’s lovely.  I love it. And they are making it so people get together there and become like a center of their social life, like the old one.

KURT:                        Now they’re in Compton; they were in Watts.  LA said that they were a nuisance property, that’s what they were going after them for, and they lost their case so they lost their right to have a clubhouse in LA.  Our experience with the club started with immediately Pee-Wee getting arrested and then them getting raided over and over again by the police.

GUSMANO:              Then the clubhouse closed down, then they were homeless.

KURT:                        Yeah, and that was pretty chaotic.

GUSMANO:              For almost a year-and-a-half, two years, they were homeless.  A lot of old members they died during that time because they didn’t have a place to be.  I used to go to the old clubhouse during the day and see like the old members sitting there at the fire and drinking a little bit of beer, having conversation, having a great time with each other, like a family, keep them alive.  When the police closed down the club, those people didn’t have no place to go.  It was like their identity was removed from themselves.

KURT:                        Which is also what the police did.  Their first tactic was to make them paint over all of their iconography, all of their patches, all of their colors, they didn’t want the colors anymore.  Another thing we think was a factor: the clubhouse had been in this place for 30 years, the police station popped up in the late 90's early 2000's.

ANIMALS:                 Nearby?

KURT:                        Yeah. Right on the same block. And White Art told us everything was good for the first 10 years or whatever, and then all of a sudden, there must have been a change of the guard.  That’s what we’ve been told.

GUSMANO:              New cop captain, you know. Because every time they’d drive by, they’d see those guys having a great time.

KURT:                        It’s easy to go and take out a motorcycle club, they’ve got a base and everybody’s there. And it makes good headlines, but they weren’t the real problem in that neighborhood. 

GUSMANO:              They were the neighborhood. They weren’t like a problem for the neighborhood, where the neighborhood would complain, say, “That motorcycle club, it drives us crazy.  They’re fucking us over,” no.  They were the neighborhood.  They lived there.  They’re all South Central people. 

KURT:                        But it gets murky. I think they truly did represent some sort of stability in that section where they were. At the same time, the cops aren’t totally wrong.  There was a lot of shit that was happening around the club and in the club: there was a murder that happened, there was a girl that had gotten drunk and they kicked her out and then there was like a drive-by shooting that happened. I think that there were also people partying and drinking up and down the street all the time.  It is just an extremely complex situation.

ANIMALS:                 Has it always been whatever kind of bikes?  A lot of clubs, they ride a specific brand.

GUSMANO:              No.  The bike just has to be big enough to keep up with their rides, so not smaller than 750cc.

KURT:                        Because they ride fast.  I mean they do drive really fast.

GUSMANO:              They drive fast and they’re amazing riders; they’re really together; they know what they’re doing; they’re very careful.

KURT:                        You know, that—we did a couple big rides with them, where we had a bunch of them, and it was really fascinating to see how—one of the things that we talked about was, do we need to have somebody like helping control traffic?  And they were like, no, don’t worry about it.  We’ll take care of it.  And—fuck, man.  It’s really impressive.  They just have like a couple guys cruise up in between at every stop-light, they stop traffic both ways, let everyone go through, and they just kind of do it all throughout the city.

GUSMANO:              So extremely well-organized.  It’s amazing.  It’s almost like police cops do on a motorcycle when they’re taking the president one place to another they block all the intersections so he can keep going.  The club does the same thing. They’re very amazing.  Very amazing.  And they have all these hand signals.  They just—they know—it’s communicating with their fingers.  It’s really amazing, beautiful stuff.

ANIMALS:                 How did guys pitch the documentary to the club?

GUSMANO:              First of all, there wasn’t even an idea of making a documentary.  I wanted to do a little short film about a ride, the ride, because everybody’s talking about the ride.  So I talked to Doc and said, “Can we organize a ride?” and he agreed "Sure no problem." Kurt and I, a month before the shoot, we scouted the route. While scouting it all, we went down to Nickerson Gardens Housing Project with Pee-Wee, who is huge, and a friend of Pee-Wee who was a gangster guy, a big motherfucker too you know, like a very dangerous guy.

KURT:                        Yeah, everything was like—anything you guys say.

GUSMANO:              Pee Wee had a brand new Mercedes, beautiful car; we drive through the housing project, the friend gets out of the car and whistles and two guys came down the wall, out of the blue, said, “Yes sir, what can I do for you?”  And the guy said, “Well, these guys here are going to come over and take some shots.  They’re doing a documentary on the Chosen Few.  They want to put a camera here, camera there."  One of the project guys says, "Anybody gives you any problems you come and talk to me." We just said thank you, you know what I mean?  You can feel the energy. OK, boom.  Next day we went, we shot there—

KURT:                        No problems.

GUSMANO:              No problems at all.

KURT:                        Like, the cops just followed us through there, and they were like, what are you guys doing?

GUSMANO:              Yeah.  But even the cops didn’t do nothing to us. We were all over the fucking place. Downtown LA, can you imagine?   On 2nd street, going around to 3rd Street, going around again to 2nd Street—

KURT:                        Yeah, we did like 3 loops.

GUSMANO:              The cops were going what the fuck?  Hundreds of bikers!  And the cops would go by, saying hello to us like—"Hey, hi!  I love you, too dude!"  It was great.

KURT:                        I thought, for sure, we were going to get shut down, at any point throughout the day. 

GUSMANO:              Yeah.  But we didn’t. It was fucking amazing.

KURT:                        Yeah, it was pretty crazy. It’s been a really good experience, for sure. We got really lucky in that we could capture the whole thing really well too, because we had a lot of great sound guys and camera operators—

GUSMANO:              We work in film, so all our friends from the film industry, they came with the camera and they say, “Oh sure, I’ll help you.”  The day of the ride, we had—how many?  Ten, twelve camera guys?  Yeah.  It was amazing.  Like, all over the place with cameras.

ANIMALS:                 And you had a fucking cop helicopter?

GUSMANO:              A friend of mine is a police helicopter pilot he’s asking me, “What are you doing?”  “I’m working on the Chosen Few.”  He goes, “Great.  Great,” just like that.  And I said, “Well, you think I can like do some shots from the helicopter?”  He goes, “Yeah, but we got to do it on Sunday, because all our bosses aren’t around on Sunday, so we can do it. I’ll get you up.” OK.  So he got me up, I got the camera guy and me on the helicopter, and we were up from 3 hours and we only shot our sequence 15 minutes and then he got a call—there was a robbery in progress, and then there was a guy on the freeway running away from the cops.

ANIMALS:                 You spent the whole day chasing criminals?   

KURT:                        I was on the ground and—

KURT:                        I was sitting at the clubhouse with the guys and we were looking in the sky, and all of a sudden we see the helicopter and we’re like, “We gotta go!  We gotta go!”  And everybody got on their bikes and—

GUSMANO:              And in the helicopter I said, “Turn on the lights so they know we are there for them,” and he turned on the light and bikers were there and then we started running around following.  It was on a Sunday night, and we were going through South Central neighborhood, there was hardly anybody on the street.  It was great because we’re getting all the shadow from the light on the helicopter, moving things, and coming through the fence

KURT:                        That was—that was, for me, that was probably the funnest night.

GUSMANO:              Yeah.