To put it simply, LA 92 (which premiers Sunday 4/30 at 9/8 Central on the National Geographic Channel) is one of the most powerful cinematic experiences I’ve had.
And the reason is simple: it uses a brilliant but unusual documentary style to tell the story of the riots in Los Angeles in April 1992. Keep in mind, these riots went down in the record books as the most destructive civil disturbance in American history. 58 deaths. 2,383 injuries. 11,000 arrests. The damages exceeded $1 billion.
But there’s no voice-over. No cut scenes to actors standing in front of a dramatic green screen in a studio reading from a script in between clips from the riots. It’s all just original footage of the riots taken by eye-witnesses, news broadcasts, and law enforcement recordings, and it’s pieced together to show the flow of events chronologically from different vantage points.
It begins not with the 1992 riots but with the Watts riots, also in Los Angeles, during 1965. The Watts riots, and some of its raw footage, serves as eerie foreshadowing to the events of 1992, and that old footage becomes bookends to the footage shown from 1992.
Through it all, and possibly one of the most effective elements of the film, was the pulsating orchestral music that added an unmistakable tension to certain points. Because there is no voice-over or actor telling you what to expect in the next scene or telling you what to think (a common bad habit of both documentaries and college professors in our current culture), the normal cues the viewer is accustomed to are not there.
The music, for this reason, becomes the facilitator of the footage.
With a Steve Reich-like Minimalism-infused nervous energy (I kept thinking of the Reich piece “Different Trains”), the music leads you by the hand, but the hand is sometimes rigid and nervous, sweating and trembling, and you can’t help but feel nervous yourself and your heart pounding as you wonder what is about to happen next.
It’s pretty impressive how much is packed in the two hours. It moves fluidly without awkward or abrupt transitions.
And it’s horrifying. Tear-jerking. Exasperating. Shocking. Deeply moving and, at times, encouraging. Those moments of “uplift” come sparsely, quickly and quietly, to be clear. For a fleeting moment, for example, you see a black man carrying an injured elderly white woman to safety. It almost happens so fast that you miss it. Important little moments of kindness and humanity unfold on the edges of the screen throughout the film.
To be clear, however, this documentary is not saccharine. It shows dead bodies. It actually shows a person being shot in the head and murdered on-camera in one loop of footage (though it is grainy security camera footage and not vividly graphic). But the level of “detail” is not what makes it so horrifying.
It’s not re-enacted with actors. The actual moments of brutality and, in that one case, death, happen in front of you. It is extremely difficult to watch at times for this reason. And it doesn’t censor the rage and heartbreak. It doesn’t censor the swear words that people are screaming at each other with seething, blood-thirsty anger.
One thing I noticed: without the distraction of voice-over narration or commentary from cut scenes to an actor, it was much easier to follow the course of events. I was able to quickly jot down an outline of the key events, and many of the little overlooked details, of LA riot footage, as I watched. It was a masterwork of editing.
In addition, the documentary brings some things to life that perhaps our culture has forgotten about the LA riots. It was not just racial tension between whites and blacks. There was serious tension between black communities and Korean communities in the years leading up to the riots.
One particularly shocking event–a female Korean business owner shot a 15-year-old black girl in the head and killed the girl over a dispute about orange juice–gained publicity because, astonishingly, the judicial system did little more than give a slap on the wrist to the Korean woman for the blatant killing, which was caught on security footage (and which is shown in the documentary). The Korean woman, to the horror and outrage of the black community, was not convicted of murder but of voluntary manslaughter, did not receive any jail time, and only paid a small fine. The female judge who made this decision to reduce the woman’s sentence happened to be white. All of that received a great deal of media attention, and it happened shortly after the Rodney King footage came out. (For this reason, during the riots, there was a tremendous amount of violent acts that targeted Korean business owners in Los Angeles.)
The shocking heartbreak and injustice surrounding the teenage girl’s murder (it was hard not to well up with tears during those scenes) laid a simmering hot foundation of anger for the riots. When, not long after the killing of the girl, the police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted in yet another shocking turn of events in the courts, that was the final spark that set the explosion off.
Shortly after the verdict was read calmly from the peaceful hills of Simi Valley, violence, looting, fires, and tragedy engulfed most of Los Angeles. In the end, as the documentary so powerfully depicts, the communities who lashed out with rioting did as much damage to their own neighborhoods, families, and businesses as they did to the groups and police officers they were targeting. There were no winners, and the vengeance certainly did not bring any healing or resolve to the wounds and the injustice. It only added more wounds and misery to an already miserable situation.
And though there are no voice-over narration segments framing the events, the editing does frame the picture. I’m not seeing it was completely unfiltered, random footage without any human direction. That would be possible. It does shape how you think about the riots and about certain people during that time period. In other words, even though it’s all raw footage, and nothing but raw footage, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any human bias.
But, refreshingly, in a culture that is become over-saturated with militaristic politick any bias in the film, if it’s there, doesn’t feel blatantly overbearing. You see some moments that surprise you, moments that you would never see if this film were a propaganda piece trying to carve out a clear villain from the events and manipulate you into despising that chosen target.
(Though its coverage of Daryl Gates–the LAPD police chief at the time, a man who fought in WWII, co-created the SWAT, founded the DARE program, yet also was known to be very aggressive in his tactics–seems, at times, a little thin. I just wasn’t given very much information about Gates throughout the documentary other than melodramatic implication, and there seemed to be a strong push in the footage chosen to make me feel great anger towards Gates as perhaps a primary villain. Maybe he was indeed, but that was one of the few aspects of the film that felt more as if the filmmakers were telling me what to think and feel and relying more on implication rather than detailed information. I would have liked to have known more about the specific policies that Gates had instituted in his career, for better or for worse. Considering all the subject material they were trying to cover, however, it was likely difficult to be thorough with everything.)
But besides the quick treatment it gave to some issues, there are many moments that catch you off guard with their humanity.
For example, we see white people and white officers trying to help. We see the tears of fear and frustration–yes, tears of absolute terror–of a national guardsman telling a shaky camera (like a scene from Blair Witch Project) that he has been placed where people are trying to brutally kill him but he has been ordered to not do anything to defend himself because of the volatile tensions. “This is worse than Vietnam,” he says. “At least there I could defend myself.”
We see black police officers being berated for trying to bring order to the chaos.
We see an innocent white trucker who happened to be passing through and was at the wrong place at the wrong time pulled out of his truck by an angry black youth and hit in the head with a cinder block that caused 90 fractures in his skull and gave him permanent nerve damage, impaired vision and a constant ringing in his ears.
(Though ten years later, the man, named Reginald Denny, said this in an interview: “People seem to forget it was black folks that saved my life,” Denny said. “On one hand, there were some out there to try to kill me or do me in. On the other hand, they are trying to save me because I’m not the enemy, and believe me I am not the enemy.”)
We see another innocent passerby, a Guatemalan construction worker named Fidel Lopez, beaten almost to death, and then as he lies on the ground slightly convulsing, the rioters spray paint his face, abdomen, and genitals with black spray paint.
What isn’t shown in the documentary, however, is how this man’s life was saved. Reverend Bennie Newton, a black man who was in the area, saw Fidel Lopez being attacked. Wearing his priestly collar and carrying a Bible, Rev. Newton ran to Lopez, stood over his body, and shouted, “Kill him, and you have to kill me too!” The rioters left Lopez alone because of Newton. After Lopez recovered in the hospital, Lopez and Newton became good friends until Newton died a year later from leukemia. (This particular side-story of hope and bravery in the midst of such darkness inspired me so much that I’ve decided to write a screenplay about Rev. Newton and hopefully bring his astonishing life story, which is itself a powerful tale, to the screen.)
There were other moments of hope and brightness in the documentary. Near the end, for example, we witness the Korean community coming together in the days after the riot to hold peace and prayer rallies, show love toward their enemies, and attempt to bring healing to the city.
In the end, “LA 92” provokes a powerful but very complicated mix of emotions–despair, shock, anger, sorrow, hope, surprise at the kindness of strangers amidst darkness–and that is appropriate because the LA riots were a complicated mix of events involving multiple communities simultaneously and many kinds of characters, both good and bad.
Its full story needed to be told, and “LA 92” does a superb job in telling most of it in such a limited amount of time. (Two hours is not very long when you’re dealing with several days worth of events and several years worth of backstory to those events.)