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What the Riot Documentaries Told Us

The networks lined up to deliver numerous retrospective documentaries on the silver anniversary of the events that began just hours after the Rodney King beating verdict was read. The results are decidedly mixed.




Trailer for Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992

If it is true that studying the past can keep one from not making the same mistakes in the future, then reexamining the unrest that took place 25 years ago in South Central Los Angeles could not be timelier. In the past few years, social media has highlighted a slew of killings of unarmed black people by the police, giving rise to public outrage and engendering organizations such as the Black Lives Matter Movement. Whether this more organized reaction has released enough pressure to avoid yet another civic explosion is too early to tell, but networks lined up to deliver numerous retrospective documentaries on the silver anniversary of the events that began just hours after the Rodney King beating verdict was read. The results are decidedly mixed, but history has provided some new perspectives both for those who were surrounded by the fire and those who watched it, glued to their televisions.

National Geographic’s plainly titled LA 92 uses only archival footage and audio, while eschewing any narration or talking-head interviews. The conflict unfolds in a fresh, powerful and, at times, surprisingly revelatory way. Producers  Jonathon and Simon Chinn do a remarkable job of uncovering previously unseen footage that provides directors Dan Lindsey and T.J. Martin material to shape into unique and compelling ways. Among the discoveries are the largely forgotten audio tapes from Los Angeles Police Department radios after the King beating, which reveal that reveal the participating officers calling the victim a “lizard” and comparing the officers experience to something out of “Gorillas in the Mist.” There is riveting footage outside the Simi Valley courtroom showcasing the confrontations between local conservative residents who support the police, and others who are enraged by the latter’s actions.

In virtually every moment of the two-hour documentary there is rarely seen footage: One particularly haunting clip captures a distraught woman in the street lamenting the lack of police presence screaming over and over, “This is not fair! This is not fair!” Other gripping vignettes include a scene of an LAPD officer in riot gear sobbing and frightened, and of Congresswoman Maxine Waters wielding a bullhorn to calm her constituents.

LA 92’s juxtaposition of sound and image elevates the film to a special status, with Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ often anachronistic score especially eerie and transfixing. In one coup de théâtre, the filmmakers run a 1965 news program from the streets of South Central L.A., where CBS correspondent Bill Stout reports on the Watts riot. Stout relates the sequence of events: A black motorist leads the LAPD on a chase, only to be stopped and beaten; black religious leaders call for peace, only to be ignored by an outraged public that sets the city aflame. When Lindsey (who also edited LA 92) inserts 1991 footage of the King car chase and beating, speakers at the First AME church and rioters into this older footage, the montage becomes transcendent in its message and meaning.

John Ridley’s Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 (released theatrically and now available on takes a decidedly different approach, looking back at the conflagration through the recollections of those who lived through it. The multi-talented Academy Award-winning writer of 12 Years a Slave and ABC’s acclaimed American Crime series delivers a piece that is powerful in its graceful simplicity. Ridley starts by focusing on seemingly unrelated events and topics that took place years before the explosion of April 1992. They tell the stories of drugs flooding South Central, the Los Angeles Police Department banning the use of a deadly chokehold and of the shooting of a Japanese-American woman in upscale Westwood Village that spawned the militarization of the LAPD against gangs. But like tributaries of fuel, the consequences of all these coalesce to help ignite the flames of April 29, 1992. Ridley cogently lets these individuals tell their stories their way. They unfold slowly and sensitively, mesmerizing the viewer with nuance and detail.

By rooting this journey in emotional stories, Ridley’s piece resonates, with a couple of supremely moving moments that speak to the this filmmaker’s deft and artful touch. While many of the other “riot docs” bludgeoned viewers with footage to make their points, like bullies with a pulpit, Ridley uses simple passages of introspection and reflection to make the heart ache. Whether it’s the Korean-American mother recounting the moment she realized that the photo of a dead man on her morning paper’s front page was of her son, or the police officer who came out as a lesbian to her partner as they prepared to ride into the conflagration, or one of the men convicted of pummeling Reginald Denny grappling to explain his actions as the truck driver clung to life on the hard asphalt, Ridley’s piece is a series of whispers that speak louder than all the screaming moments found in most of the other docs combined.

The voice of Cecil Murray, the legendary former pastor of the influential First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Central, seems to be divinely inspired, its deep, gravelly tone infusing every syllable. It’s the voice that bookends LA Burning: The LA Riots 25 Years Later (streaming on, A&E’s riveting account of the events that shattered his community. As the film starts Murray intones, “Who will protect us from our protectors? That is the question for America.” And then comes the sober montage of 10 incidents of unarmed black men, women and boys killed by the police in recent years. It’s an auspicious start, and a harbinger of the 87 minutes to follow.

Twenty-six years after his acclaimed debut film Boyz in the Hood, filmmaker John Singleton returns to his roots in South Central to executive-produce a searing, emotional chronicle of the L.A. rebellion. L.A. Burning takes many of the same stories and material often used in other riot docs, but does so in a far more powerful manner. The editing (Yvette Amirian and Dan Cooper) is the star here, moving the viewer at a sizzling pace through the events, expertly juxtaposing personal and public perceptions of those volatile moments. Singleton himself appears in the piece, prophetically telling a news reporter, minutes after the verdict had been handed down, “They have just lit the fuse to a bomb that’s about to go off.”

But it is an explosion that was years in the making, as the doc illustrates how the community had for decades endured far too many beatings and indignities at the hands of the police and the justice system. The film concludes by tying up many loose ends — there is a quaint reunion and some wishes for a better and not bitter future — with a warning that the recent spate of blue-on-black killings may be pre-shocks to yet another quake. But in the end, it is again Murray, whose resonant voice elevates the piece sublimely, by relating a parable about a boy holding a bird — and fate — in his hands. A moving finale to a work that largely soars.

Showtime’s profanely titled Burn Motherfucker, Burn! (streaming at reaches the farthest of all these documentaries. Tracing the history of South Central and race relations back to post-World War II L.A., it illustrates that the issues facing the community in 1992 were determined far earlier than any single trial. It’s not new turf, but director Sacha Jenkins deserves kudos for swinging for the fences, and while he strikes out at times, he, for the most part, makes contact. He doesn’t just revisit the standard talking heads of the other anniversary specials, but instead finds sources deep within the community who provide a fresh and compelling take on the events leading up to that Wednesday in 1992.

Where he misses the most is when he tries to use pop culture footage and animation to tell his story. In one particular instance, he uses a clip of Gary Coleman saying, ‘What you talking about Willis” as commentary on a preceding quote. It’s sloppy and an easy shot, more witless than witty. Also curious is the choice of a Jane’s Addiction song to start the piece (and later, other more mainstream music). It appears the filmmaker thought some rock and roll might provide a paradoxical juxtaposition, but instead it just comes across as puzzling. Burn Motherfucker, Burn! ultimately provides some necessary historical context, and the creative fires are stoked throughout — it’s just that it too often doesn’t burn brightly.

It is one thing to burn brightly, but it’s another to be inflammatory. Lost Tapes: L.A. Riots (streaming on borders on exploitation and comes across as a doc made by someone inordinately unfamiliar with the issues at hand. Featuring an overly dramatic score that could just as easily found on a Fox Shock special from the early 2000s (When Riots Attack!), this piece’s hook is the numerous clips that have never before been seen. Some were taken by the police, while others were audiotapes from callers who phoned in to two community radio stations, one urban and another Korean-American.

For the most part, the new material does not add much, other than at times to capture the desperation and panic in people’s voices as they called in to ask for help or to seek information. Its over-emphasis on this material is a detriment, and the result is a documentary that gives short shrift to investigating the reasons behind the rage. It’s as if the doc was made by people who only watched the footage and listened to the audio that they were handed, with no understanding or desire to understand the social and civic issues that gave rise to the conflagration in the first place. Lost indeed.

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