LA92 — a raw presentation of both media and personal film footage of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, as well as the events and circumstances which sparked it — isn’t so much a retrospective as it is a submergence into a negative feedback loop of racial turmoil in US inner-cities. The film’s timely debut at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival — a mere two years after the Ferguson riots, and at a watershed moment in American history when flagrant racism and racial violence has once again metastasized across the nation — serves to punctuate the film’s prescience.
Directed by Oscar winners Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin (Undefeated, 2012),LA92 is the most recent in a surge of docudramas about institutional racism in America. Three films from the Oscar Best Documentary Category in 2017 — I Am Not Your Negro (2016), 13th (2016), and the category’s winner O.J .: Made in America (2016) — each capture racism as an intransigent fixture embedded deep in this country’s ethos.
LA92 accomplishes the same task, in part by dedicating its first 20 minutes to the inequities which kindled a five-day riot tallying 58 deaths, over 2,000 injuries, and close to one billion dollars in structural damages caused by arson, looting, and other forms of mayhem. However, unlike its companion films, LA92 doesn’t use any retrospective interview coverage or voiceover to guide its narrative. Rather, it lets the events speak for themselves, which has the startling effect of capturing the riots as if they were in the present day.
The ultimate progenitor of the ’92 LA Riots was the Rodney King trial, in which four police officers were prosecuted on multiple counts for excessively beating King during a traffic stop in L.A., and each was eventually acquitted on all but a single charge. Immediately after the acquittal was announced, riots began to spread across Los Angeles. However, behind this watershed moment was a building flood of institutional racism already testing the strength of the levees.
LA92 visually suggests a hodgepodge of factors responsible for the riots, rather than explains them away. Indeed, there will be some curiosity as to just how footage of George Bush’s presidential address declaring US victory in Operation Desert Storm as a source of “pride”, a 1992 L.A. ordinance limiting water usage, the steamy, smoggy L.A. air, and the final term of LAPD Chief Daryl Gates tie together as equally contributing forces to the LA Riots. On a textual level, a connective argument would likely be ridden with loose assumptions and attenuation. However, because LA92 eventually connects each piece of the puzzle over crisp, seamless editing and authentic footage, these various divergent forms of suggested oppression eventually meld into a sweeping ethos of institutional racial injustice. Indeed, LA92‘s gamble on making the audience’s eyes do most of the work pays off with a feeling of heightened emotional distress and urgency.
Soundbites in LA92 are contemporaneous to the footage; they have been purposefully selected to resonate during later portions of the film.In perhaps the film’s most pivotal clip, City Council member Zen YaroSlavsky expresses dismay to Chief Gates that the officers charged with brutalizing King were recorded using racial epithets, which should be taken as an indication that the LAPD’s tolerance for racist discourse must be scrutinized. Gates responds, in a chilly and cryptic manner, “if you don’t speak up on behalf of the Los Angeles Police Department… in this crucial moment in our history… you are going to have the kind of police department that is not going to be the kind of department that you want.” When pressed further by City Council member Michael Woo for clarification as to whether criticism of the LAPD will lead to a withdrawal of police service — a reasonable question given Gates’s preceding statement — Gates responds with theatrical indignation and umbrage, which hardly serves as reassurance that potential police brutality issues would be addressed, and peace and unity will be restored.
The anatomy of the scene is rife with historic subtext, which LA92 leaves to the audience to learn on its own. When Gates delivers his responses at the Council meeting, the film deliberately cuts to Woo, thereby pitting two schools of thought on policing head to head. Gates’s reputation for hard-line rhetoric and rigid authoritarianism preceded his Rodney King statements. The film doesn’t mention, for example, that in 1990 Gates stated before the Senate Judiciary Committee that casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot”, a heinous declaration which he later dismissed as “calculated hyperbole”.
Regardless, Gates enjoyed a 14-year tenure as the LAPD Chief starting in 1978, which was the second longest stint at his position in the city’s history. On the other hand, Woo — the first Asian-American member of the L.A. city council at a time when the city had been experiencing a rapid influx of Korean-Americans for years — lead the Council’s opposition against Gates but didn’t not go on to experience the same political success as he did. Woo’s lone mayoral campaign failed in 1996.
These details are important, as throughout American history, combustible rhetoric and aggressive leadership which condones (if not supports) institutional violence has been a norm in what is supposed to be a democratic society. This is so during the Watts Riots in 1965 (covered briefly and effectively early in the film), 27-years later during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, and another 25-years later in 2017 as the Trump Administration’s continually careless dispensation of menacing rhetoric begins to set the world aflame and heighten interracial hostility across the US. For despite our advances in space in the ’60s, and then again in cyberspace over the last two decades, our electorate’s predilection to equate pomposity to strength and revitalization in lieu of judicious intellect and fairness continues. In this regard, the conditions which helped espouse the ’92 LA riots are not so much historic as they are ever-present.
LA92‘s coverage of the riots is an uninterrupted, hour-long plunge, which escalates from profane tirades and exchanges of racial, and sexual epithets between civilians, to multiple forms of inner-city warfare, which some officers bemoan to reporters was worse than war overseas. The film portrays the violence as a series of sickeningly repetitive instances: an approach is in stark contrast to the piecemeal offering of information, which has spread across social media today, and which has affected documentary filmmaking. One of the small flaws in 13th, for instance, was that differing ideas on racism’s root causes were offered over two- or three-minute increments, and through a festoon of interviews. The coverage was breathless and powerful, but could easily refuel one’s outrage from one disturbing element to the next without holding onto a pointed emotion for too long.
However, there’s something to be said for allowing a single horrific scene to sustain a slowly building emotional response. LA92 does just that, and as each minute passes by — while camera footage sweeps across storefronts burning to the ground; Korean merchants arming themselves to protect their storefronts absent adequate police protection; and innocents breaking down into hysteria while the LA police and fire department delayed mobilization — an immediate sense of outrage transitions into haplessness.
Sorrow is an emotion rarely valued in political debate, but it’s an important one because it has a better chance of breaking down polarity than textbook arguments or academic interview clips. To this end, LA92 incorporates a melancholy orchestral score by two prolific composers, Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi, who have recently done fine scores in Barry (2016) and The Gift (2015). As a blend of dejected violin strums and a soft, conciliatory piano notes, the score pleas for heartfelt concern rather than outrage; the former, arguably, is a more lasting motion.
The sad score surrounds George Bush’s national address at the tail end of the riots, in which he blatantly uses the tragedy as yet another opportunity to promote “Law and Order” — a status quo position responsible for “broken windows” policing, and other policies which do little to address the police brutality responsible for the L.A. riots in the first place. Cleverly, the footage cuts to Bill Clinton, paying close attention to his opponent’s words. Clinton indeed used institutional racism as a rhetorical cornerstone during his 1992 campaign, only to then spearhead as part of a centrist political agenda federal sentence maximization laws largely responsible for exponentially increasing the mass incarceration of black Americans in the United States.
LA92 suffers a notable if not common flaw among documentaries on racism in the United States, as it doesn’t offer any solutions to institutional racism, save for a small amount of coverage showing a peace rally in Koreatown during the riot’s aftermath. If a documentary’s interest is to show the horrors of anger and violence, shouldn’t it at least have several more minutes vested in highlighting the virtues of a peaceful resolution?
Certainly, haplessness is an effective emotion, and it reflects a truthful account in the face of ongoing institutional racism in America. Every time social progress accelerates in the right direction toward egalitarianism — such as through the election of Barack Obama — an equal and opposite political force seems to move the needle back to zero. But that can’t be the only truth available to America, and with an inundation of documentaries detailing the horrors of racism, a film with the same quality of LA92, which details the tired and tedious work of others to combat this heinous injustice, would be just as important at this time.