It only takes a single soundtrack cue to elevate Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin’s LA 92 from being a good documentary to an essential one. It comes about 15-20 minutes into the film. The city of Los Angeles braces itself for the verdicts on the Rodney King police brutality trials. In a few hours, the four police officers charged with beating King so badly his face would need reconstructive surgery would walk free. Soon afterwards, Los Angeles would ignite into a cataclysm of looting, arson, and destruction. It would be the worst civil disturbance in American history, leading to 58 reported deaths, over 2,000 injuries, and more than a billion dollars in damages. Afterwards the riots would become the stuff of folk legend in African-American culture, leaving its imprint on the burgeoning gangsta rap sub-genre and black cinema. For millions, it would be the ur-moment of American race relations in the late twentieth century, dwarfing even the OJ Simpson murder trial. But for the moment everything is quiet. Everything is still. And then, the unmistakable sound of an orchestra tuning up for a concert swells and swells and swells.
LA 92 is less a straight-forward documentary than a cinematic symphony; it’s less interested in the nitty-gritty details of what led to the riots than in reconstructing the palpable sense of unease and dread that preceded it, the orgasmic release of the hate and fury that provoked it, and the shell-shocked disbelief that followed it. This isn’t to say it ignores the riots’ historical context. Lindsay and Martin dutifully begin the film with the 1965 Watts riots and their uncanny similarities with the ’92 riots: both were inspired by police brutality, both sparked up within the Los Angeles African-American community, both lasted six days. They also touch on the death of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year old black teenager shot in the back of the head at point blank range by a Korean shop-owner who suspected her of shoplifting. Though found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the killer was given probation with no jail time. This further exacerbated the tensions between Los Angeles’ African-American and Korean communities—for years the former had resented the latter as a kind of privileged merchant class that bled their communities dry. (Suddenly the scene in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing where the mob confronts the Korean shopkeeper makes much more sense…) By the time the riots begin, we realize that the Rodney King verdicts weren’t just an isolated incident, they were the straws that broke the camel’s back.
All this background information takes up about the first fourth of the film. The rest is devoted to the riots themselves. How to describe the way Lindsay and Martin assemble and present their footage? Bruising? Punishing? Perhaps the best way is exhausting. By the end, we feel like we’ve relived the riots in person and survived the six days of violent unrest. They pull no punches with their material: we watch innocent men and women brutally beaten and killed in the streets. One of the most harrowing scenes sees rioters graffiti the broken body of a dying bystander with spray paint. As the paint mixes with the victim’s blood, we hear someone off-camera casually comment “yeah, he’s definitely going to die.” Elsewhere gangs of African-Americans yank white people out of their cars and attack them, laughing at their feeble attempts to escape and warning nearby good Samaritans away: “No sympathy for the white man!” And in one of the most notorious incidents of the riots, bands of Korean shopkeepers do battle with looters, engaging in street-level shootouts with high-powered rifles and handguns.
Yet the most difficult moments of the film to watch involve innocent bystanders scrambling to make sense of the riots. An elderly Korean woman wails in grief when she finds her laundromat looted and destroyed. A sobbing black man screams at looters to stop: “I came from the ghetto, too!” A priest stands above a riot victim, holding a Bible aloft to ward off other attackers. A gang member rips off his gang colors: “Take off the red and blue and unite!” A small business mounts a hand-written sign in their front window reading “Black Owned Business.” A visibly disturbed and shaking national guardsman mutters that he never thought he’d see this kind of horror outside Vietnam. A local television reporter yells to her cameraman that they need to flee when a firefight breaks out in front of them. A looter smiles at a different news reporter when asked whether he knows what he’s doing is wrong: “It’s free stuff!” And civilians in a temporary shelter during the government enforced curfew mumble about being hungry.
Lindsay and Martin come to a sobering conclusion: these riots are cyclical in nature and endemic of the systemic racial inequality existing in the United States. The documentary’s coup de grace comes in a sequence where brief shots of the 2014 Ferguson riots are interspersed within the footage of the ’92 riots. It’s eerie how similar the two are. The rioters even share the same slogan: “No justice, no peace.”
For further Tribeca Film Festival 2017 coverage, click here.