Documentaries are an important genre of film because they can spread light on the people, especially marginalized communities who don’t always get center stage. Documentaries can explore the histories of the communities that don’t always get centered in the news or get lost in the shuffle that is the the mainstream perceptive that gets recorded or broadcasted. Doc film can serve to educate. Yet ultimately a documentary’s true goal is to persuade an audience to adopt or act on an opinion.
Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin the directing duo behind LA 92 have a few documentary films under their belts, most notably they won a Oscar for 2011’s Undefeated (which they share with Rich Middlemas). According to the IMBD, the duo picked up a Primetime Emmy for LA 92 in the Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking category.
Twenty five years after the Rodney King trial’s verdict which sparked the Los Angeles riots, this film seeks to frame the narrative in a way that acknowledges past history such as the Watts Riots, makes sure to account for on location shooting and heavily depends of editing to flesh out a compelling, accessible journey to the past.
To many, there are several starts that serve as the fuel to the fire that created the Los Angeles riots. Some mark the footage captured by George Holliday on a balcony in 1991, of the severe beating King endured on the pavement of a freeway, seen around the globe as the start. While every important to the series of the events that help cause the riots, the filmmakers choose to start the film with older, archival footage of a Los Angeles in a different time.
Archival footage of coverage of the Watts riots decades past in the 1960’s is present on the screen, suggesting there has been an element of police brutality and an ever present ire of communities of marginalized communities that include African Americans that has existed for some time. The angle of this narrative to present that Los Angeles, seen as inner city populace, has historically been disenfranchised and over policed sets the stage for a city that will suffer and once again erupt in riotous fashion, the voice of the unheard.
When touching upon on location shooting, this film certainly does that through all the footage captured, edited and worked together by a myriad of persons including local news channel cameramen with newscasters present, citizens and even cameras from helicopters. When we think about deliberate choices that filmmakers make, the opening of this film is no exception. This film opens with a quote across a black screen and with audio to help establish the location of the film’s setting.
Footage of the 1965 Watts Riots is shown showing the Los Angeles area decades ago in a similar time of unrest. It them cuts to archival footage covering the 1965 Watts Riots, Black and white, dated with even footage of the slain civil rights activists Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to important city figures in that era such as Tom Bradley (L.A.’s first African American mayor) and Daryl Gates(the city’s Chief of Police).
The film continues to follow the line of the small proverbial fires that pop up around the city that eventually result in the spark that created the major fire that was the riots in 1992 on a hotbed of activity. From the 210 freeway where Rodney king’s brutal beating by police officers took place to the Compton Court House where the Latasha Harlins verdict was delivered, this film covers the story throughout the city and beyond. Other notable places mentioned and seen are the Baldwin Plaza, the Greater A.M.E church Korean Town and different police station. Certain intersections that are imperative to the narrative are also documented including: 75th and Broadway, Florence and Normandie and 71st and Budlong.
It is with editing that helps this film achieve the compelling and accessible journey to the past that as audiences will soon discover feels like is happening in real time. True the riots happened in April of 1992, yet it was March 3, 1991 when King was beaten and the following day when the footage captured of the beating was delivered tape to a local television station. Even before then, the acknowledgement of previous mass disagreements in a community is presented with the Watts Riots in 1965. Editing pulls together this extraordinary thread that follows the story with a first arc of the film setting up from Watts to the 1970 and 1980’s where there was a boom of immigrants, Operation Desert Storm had ended. The first arc of the film ends with an inciting indent that is Rodney King.
Our second act and the longest opens with the charging of the four police officers involved with King’s beating and the city’s figures are pressured to take action and serve justice. The video of King’s beating is seen nearly worldwide and it is a defining factor in modern history that continues to haunt the LAPD in regards to dismissing police brutality on their end. There are public forums held to address grievances by the community across the city. Teenager Latasha Harlins loses her life and her murderer, a shopkeepers receives no jail time, further complicating African American Korean relations and these incidents serve the rising action. April 29, 1992 marks the day of the Rodney King verdict, where the four white LAPD officers are acquitted. Yet it is not until the public reacts to the news of the verdict is the midpoint of the film. The third and final act of the film is perhaps somewhere when the cleanup of the city starts and the calls for peace for that united front of the city begins sweeping to the resolution.
On the topic of editing, the attention to detail when handling all the archival footage is superb and done in such a way as if one is, in fact watching a feature film, which is an testament to the film makers’s visions and the narrative they wanted to present. As mentioned earlier this documentary film is portrayed in happening in real time, there’s a countdown at the start of the film, all the archival footage is from accurate time periods. To further the point of ‘happening in real time’, there is plenty of footage of newscasters, political figures and the like seconds and minutes before and after broadcasting giving us that behind the curtain feel, behind the scene feel.
This is felt further in the distrust felt in the and out of touch and apathetic portrayals of such figures of then president Bush and Chief of Police Daryl Oates. The president is seen joking and making funny faces caught on video before giving an address on the violence. Oates is repeatedly seen fumbling over answers to questions in briefings. Both are shown to be outsiders to this community and this city and are heavily criticized by everyone from locales to local representatives such as Congresswoman Maxine Waters who is very vocal in her disapproval. Other features of the editing that enhance the film’s narrative: split screens of footage with multiple streams of audio to demonstrate the confusion.
The voice overs via audio set to filmed footage of people’s reaction including the shot of the man with the single tear before bowing his head in defeat while other reactions are seen with shots of sadness, rage and disbelief are cut to the joy of the defendants. Lastly, it would be erroneous to not take into account of the medium used to make all this happen: there is footage in black and white and color. There is surveillance video footage (Latasha Harlins), as there is footage from camcorder (Rodney King) and footage from the cameras from the local television channels. Along with the wealth of archival video footage there is also mugshots, shots of newspapers and the like.
LA 92 does detail what events led up the the riots that would cover over five days in the spring of 1992 leaving more than 50 people dead, more than 2,000 injured. As CNN also reported damaged over 1,000 buildings in the Los Angeles area with an estimated cost of the damages over $1 billion. Yet LA 92 also returns to its roots that the narrative presented in the opening shots of the film.
The footage of the 1965 Watts Riots is brought back and merged seamlessly with footage from 1992 leaving us, the audience with unsettling feeling that this is a pattern that can very well happen again due to pressing down on the neck on a people, of a community and of a city that has had enough and is moved to violence and chaos.
As a California native, I don’t remember much of this time as I was very young yet my father tells me he remembers much about this trying period for the city. He recalls the fires, the violence and the destruction as a dark period for the city. He also remembers the struck of luck he had upon driving to work the first night of riots, untouched even though he drove a automobile similar to what undercover officers and detectives often drove with tinted windows and an antenna as he had a mobile cell phone in his vehicle.
As a child born in the 1950’s who lived through seeing footage of the Watts Riots and knowing that community well, the connecting of it with the riots of Los Angeles in 1992 made sense. It made sense to him not just as an Angeleno born and raised but also as an African American who has felt like a second class citizen many times over in his life in this city, the place he’s always called home. LA 92 serves as a great offering released on the 25 anniversary of the riots and the great ruin and turmoil that followed in some of the city’s darkest hours.