How Six New Films and Specials Reframe the 1992 L.A. Riots

Several gifted filmmakers (including John Ridley and Spike Lee) tackle the events of April 1992 - and the results are essential viewing.

The parallel thinking that led to two separate super-sized treatments of the trial of O.J. Simpson in the same year – one a dramatized mini-series, one a multi-part documentary – was itself an astonishing coincidence. But it was even more remarkable that both worked from the thesis that the 1991 beating of African-American motorist Rodney King by four white LAPD officers, and the days-long riots in that city after their acquittal the following year by an all-white jury, was essential to understanding why the Simpson trial and verdict went the way it did. And, it appears, more parallel thinking ensued, but at a scale heretofore unknown; next week marks the 25th anniversary of the verdict and riots, and we have no less than six different documentary films and specials about those events, on television, in cinemas, and at film festivals. Yet, somehow, all of them are at the very least worth viewing. And some are downright essential.

The subject matter drew the interest and intention of several gifted filmmakers, and what’s so fascinating about viewing all of their works, as this writer did, is that no one made the same film. No one told this story in the same way, with the same participants, or the same emphasis. Multiple perspectives in documentary filmmaking are crucial; why should we not equally engage with the multiple perspectives of documentaries? Of course we should see more than one interpretation of this seminal event in our cultural history; you don’t make a documentary where you only get one side of the story. The narratives are mostly linear – it’s the variety in perspectives that matters.

And it’s not hard to see why this event would attract these documentarians. The L.A. riots were a perfect storm of legitimate fury, horrifying violence, opportunistic greed, and bafflingly bad policing. But more than that, it’s a compelling story for filmmakers because it’s several widening, layered stories: the riots, the King beating, the roughly simultaneous story of Latasha Harlins, the long history of racism and brutality in the LAPD, the Watts riots of 1965. Every room of this narrative has a door to another room; you can get lost in it.

The most straightforward of the new works is The Lost Tapes: L.A Riots, part of the Smithsonian Channel’s recurring Lost Tapes series. True to the title, it begins with the tape that started it all, George Holliday’s home video of King’s March 1991 beating. It then leaps right to the day of the verdict: April 29, 1992. Footage from early in the day, before the verdict, is time-stamped in relation to the “not guilty”s, treating it as the ticking bomb it was; the film then becomes a tick-tock of the minutes and hours after, the fuse lit by the spark of that verdict.

The style here is one of the trickiest but most effective. The “present tense” documentary structure eschews retrospective interviews and framing narration for the simplicity of onscreen narration and footage of that moment — TV and radio reports, photos, internal LAPD videos (most of it previously unseen), and intense home videos of the uprising, from the inside looking out (rather than the usual inverse). The cutting is tight, particularly as the film intercuts Reginald Denny’s beating at the corner of Florence and Normandie, seen by the television audience from a news chopper overhead, with simultaneous video from the ground – a reminder that the violence in that intersection, and throughout the riots, were broadcast live, as it happened.

LA 92, by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin (directors of the Best Documentary Oscar winner Undefeated), adopts a similar approach and takes it to its full capacity; it may well be the best of these films, and it’s certainly the most immediate. This is not to say that the events aren’t placed in proper context; in fact, it opens with archival footage of the week-long Watts riots, culminating with a CBS reporter reading the official report on that uprising, which could, it notes, “be a curtain raiser to what could blow up in the future.” Truer words, etc.

The film draws together sounds and images from disparate sources: police scanner tapes of the King arrest, news reports of the tape gathering attention, LAPD chief Daryl Gates threatening (Out loud! In a public forum!) the city council if they don’t support his department. And proper attention is paid to the story, that same year, of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African-American girl who was murdered by Soon Ja Du, a Korean shopkeeper, following a (false) accusation of shoplifting – a crime for which she received merely probation, community service, and a $500 fine. LA 92 folds in news footage of the bitter protests after that verdict, well aware that it was just a warm-up, and that leftover fuel from that fire (and the ongoing tensions between Korean shop-owners and their inner-city clientele) would reappear in the targeting of those shops in the uprising.

Present-tense documentaries are marvels of editing, and LA 92 is breathless. Each film shows us the footage of the King’s verdict announcement and the shocked reactions across the city, yet each finds a fresh spin; here, Lindsay and Martin use those reaction shots, but only the video (the audio stays in courtroom, and that refrain of “not guilty”). The selection of raw news footage outside the courthouse shows temperatures rising far from South Central, a feeling matched by the mounting dread of the music – you can see it all coming to a boil, and the sense of montage is flawless.

The elements – archival clips, off-air footage, call-in shows from black and Korean radio stations, home videos (most, as with The Lost Tapes, shot by South Central resident and amateur videographer Tim Goldman), newspaper clippings and headlines – are weaved together with seamless dexterity, and it’s all sort of spellbinding. Yet the cutting is never separated from the emotion. When Rodney King appears, a few days into the riots, to plea for understanding, the quick cuts of his name spray-painted onto buildings underscore how far this goes, beyond even him. And when LA 92 shows the whole of his statement, for full context, portraying the emotion, sincerity, and desperation of what he says, it’s even more tragic that it became a sound byte (“Can we all get along?”) that became a punchline.

LA 92’s closing sequence draws the line most clearly from Watts to South Central, from this civil disturbance to what came before, with a power that’s astonishing. But its saddest moment comes in the middle of the uprising, when a Nation of Islam leader asks, from the pulpit, “How many more Rodney Kings does there have to be? How many more Latasha Harlins does there have to be?” If he only knew.

The more traditional documentaries of this group have an eye towards our present, and can more freely engage with the questions of what has changed, and what hasn’t. Sacha Jenkins’s Burn Motherfucker Burn starts making connections right away, coming out of the credits with one of (too many) contemporary analogues for the King video: the 2015 cell phone footage of L.A. cops murdering unarmed African-American Charly “Africa” Keunang. From there, we’re bounced back to a distant counterpart, the harrowing story of the April 1962 police shootings and brutality at Mosque No. 27, and brought up to King via a kind of cultural history of the city: migration from the South; the formation of gangs within these communities; the Watts riot, in detail.

Burn is another well-made film; Jenkins’s cutting is inventive, particularly in his segues from one topic to another (he introduces Chief Bill Parker via a television game show clip, and comes in on the King chapter via Chief Gates’s internal LAPD video message on “The Foothill Incident”). But the film’s main virtue is the clarity with which it lays out the cause and effect relationships: the rise of activism and consciousness in the wake of Watts (particularly via the Black Panthers), then how the faltering of those movements led to the reemergence of gang culture/warfare, which led to the crack epidemic (and LAPD’s involvement in it), and then the music and culture that came out of that.

Most importantly, with regards to the riots themselves, Jenkins acknowledges and does his best to grapple with the complexity of that event, granting equal consideration to factors of true injustice, racist coverage, unapologetic looting, horrifying violence, and blank-check policing. That question is also key to Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, directed by American Crime creator and 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley (and made with the assistance of ABC News). “If you don’t know better, you don’t do better,” explains one of his interview subjects, as Ridley contemplates the biggest lingering concern of the uprising: what, if anything, was truly warranted and excusable.

Burn’s interview subjects include not only participants, but historians and contemporary counterparts; Let It Fall takes a more ground-level view, interviewing mostly retired cops, surviving family members, witnesses, and South Central residents. (None of the documentaries interviewed the four officers indicted in the King beating, though this one indicates they all refused requests; King is only heard in archival interviews.) Their candor results in some unexpected agreement – for example, both the apologist retired cop and a tough South Central resident agree, in different ways, that the King beating was not extraordinary.

That doesn’t make it any easier to watch, and Let It Fall (like LA 92) lets it play in uncomfortably long stretches. But it should be uncomfortable, and it’s easy to be desensitized by flashes. (Ridley lets the silent security camera video of the Harlins murder play out in much the same fashion). And he shows us much of Chief Gates’s message to his troops, less than a week before the riots. “Maintain a calmness… that is your job,” he tells them. “I know, in this instance, you’ll go out and show the people real quality in law enforcement.” It’s hard to imagine a human being fumbling a prediction more spectacularly.

Let It Fall’s construction is shrewd: it moves fast from the verdict into the riot, far faster than the other films, but effectively dramatizes the speed with which the conflict escalated. After that quick overview, Ridley goes back, breaking the uprising down from the beginning, moment by moment. The next hour or so takes the events of the riots as they come – but then, after calm descends, the film continues for a good twenty minutes to follow the trial of the four men accused of beating Reginald Denny in that intersection. It’s a genius postscript – especially once he reveals who those men are.

Some of those interview subjects are shared, not only by Burn but by L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later. The director/producers are One9 and Erik Parker (who made 2014’s Nas: Time is Illmatic); the executive producer is John Singleton, whose 1993 film Poetic Justice included the first images of the post-riot L.A. on film, and who memorably (and accurately) told news cameras outside the King trial courthouse, “What these people have done, they’ve lit the fuse to a bomb.”

Singleton is, unsurprisingly, interviewed here; L.A. Burning is also the only film to interview King videographer George Holliday and Denny videographer Zoey Tur. Yet even when covering familiar ground or talking to familiar faces, each film has new details to add, new light to shed, and a new way to look at the events. “The only thing Americans understand is violence,” insists Henry “Keekee” Watson, one of the men convicted of the Denny beating, a point underscored by the film’s explicit image-to-image comparisons of the King and Denny videos. Sure, two wrongs don’t make a right. But the difference in the outcomes, in the fates of the men administering those blows, is telling.

L.A. Burning’s primary contribution to the dialogue between these films is how, as other films so masterfully connect these events to Los Angeles’s past, it draws the lines to our present. The film starts not in South Central or in Watts, but in Ferguson; it continues to a fast-moving montage of mayhem, of the murders of young black men (Alton Sterling, Freddy Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin), names and pictures, and dates, a flurry of tragedy. It returns to those names and murders at the end, deeming them the “aftershocks” of Los Angeles in ’92, creating a powerful juxtaposition of the past and present.

It also devotes the most time to Rodney King himself – and the tragedy that followed him throughout the rest of his life, which ended in 2012. His story became about so much more than himself that he almost becomes an abstraction in considering the events of Los Angeles in 1991 and 1992, and while Netflix’s Rodney King is, unlike the rest of these films, not a documentary, it gets close to him in ways that a non-fiction film might not have.

It’s a filmed theatrical solo performance, written and performed by the great Roger Guenveur Smith, directed by Spike Lee; they filled the same roles on Smith’s earlier production A Huey P. Newton Story (and he’s appeared in several of Lee’s narrative films, going back to the weirdly King/L.A. riot-predicting Do the Right Thing). Smith’s text is less straight monologue than spoken-word poetry, using complex rhyme patterns and a tricky second-person perspective – in essence, he is King having a conversation with himself, but only to himself, referencing “You” and “Rodney,” rather than “I.” In fact, his name is used as a refrain, an incantation, rather than a presumption of familiarity; Smith is guessing at what King’s responses would’ve been, as he watches the riots on the TV, or suffers through the misery of the time that followed.

Rodney King is a powerful piece of work, putting us in his head during that still-shocking beating, Smith counting off the baton hits in a manner that returns this historical event into the realm of the visceral and personal. He puts us up close to an event we’ve seen many times, but only from a distance – reminding us that it happened to a human being, who in many ways never recovered. And when he finally goes into King’s own words, using the “get along” speech as climax, it’s potent and bruising (particularly in the final moments, when he moves from King’s words to someone else’s).

These six works end up complementing each other in ways both obvious and unexpected – picking up each other’s strands, filling in each other’s blanks, engaging in conversations and sidebars, situating the events they describe and the stories they tell against one another. If LA 92 and The Lost Tapes airdrop us into South Central Los Angeles in April 1992, urgently animating that particular present, then Burn Motherfucker Burn and Let It Fall connect those events to the city’s past, after which L.A. Burning bridges them to the future – our present. And Rodney King circles them all, running in the realms of poetry and magic realism, yoking the historical to the human.

Yet even that most personal of films, with its subject in the title, is not just about King, because it can’t be. The wide-ranging text finds King holding forth on Reginald Denny and Leticia Harlins and Edward Lee and Patrick Bettan; their names, and many others (more than 50 deaths, more than 2,000 injuries, more than 11,000 arrests, more than a billion dollars in property damage) are inescapable. There are more stories to be told here than any one film could tell, so many angles and approaches, so much history to consider, so many current ramifications to contemplate. Taking in the full complement of new films about this event is a big ask; then again, so was O.J.: Made in America. In fact, the King story and the L.A. uprising could have been an O.J.-style, multi-part documentary. And now, in many ways, it is.

“The Lost Tapes: L.A. Riots” premieres April 23rd on the Smithsonian Channel; it is also streaming on their YouTube channel. LA 92” premieres at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival on April 21, followed by theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles on April 28 and broadcast debut on National Geographic on April 30th. “Burn Motherfucker Burn” premieres on April 21 on Showtime. “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 21, with a shorter version airing on ABC on April 28. “L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later” premiered last night on A&E; it will re-air on April 29, and will air on HISTORY May 4. “Rodney King” debuts on Netflix on April 28.