- Thursday, Apr. 20, 2017
- LOS ANGELES (AP)
Toward the end of “L.A. Burning,” a new documentary about the fiery and deadly 1992 Los Angeles riots, a man who lived through the turmoil issues an ominous warning about the future.
“If we don’t change the way we interact with the police and they interact with us, y’all might as well just welcome the next riot,” he says.
The juxtaposition of the historic uprising with today’s high-profile police shootings of black men and the Black Lives Matter movement is the crux of six separate documentaries marking the 25th anniversary of the LA riots, which exploded after four white police officers were acquitted of severely beating black motorist Rodney King. The ensuing carnage was the worst civil unrest in US history, leaving 55 people dead and more than 2,000 injured.
Oscar winner John Ridley and Oscar nominee John Singleton are among the filmmakers using the anniversary to re-examine the events that led to the unrest and contextualize them for a new generation. All six films premiere this week.
“Whether there are five, six or seven films, I don’t think there can be enough stories,” Ridley said in a recent interview. “It’s almost stunning, considering the scope and scale of that event, what it meant in the moment and how people still view it, that it’s taken this long for these stories to come out.”
It’s unusual to have six documentaries on the same subject released almost simultaneously, though it could become more commonplace in today’s multi-option media landscape. By comparison, two films were released around the riots’ 20th anniversary in 2012.
Since then, Rodney King has died. Florida teen Trayvon Martin was shot and his killer acquitted. The Black Lives Matter movement was born. And the nation transitioned from the leadership of its first black president, Barack Obama, to the uncertainties of Donald Trump’s administration.
“I look at the conditions across our country right now and I’m thinking we certainly didn’t learn much in the last 25 years,” retired Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Michael Moulin says in “L.A. Burning.” He was on duty in South Los Angeles when the riots broke out and appears in several of the new films.
Besides the six documentaries marking the riots’ anniversary, a digital story archive and a virtual-reality project aim to make sense of the events for today’s viewers.
Anniversaries often inspire reflection, and the proliferation of outlets airing documentaries has created more opportunities for filmmakers interested in exploring the past, said Todd Boyd, a professor of cinema and media studies at the USC School for Cinematic Arts. He points to the O.J. Simpson murder case, which was the subject of narrative and documentary retellings in 2016, 21 years after Simpson was acquitted.
“As time passes, people look back on certain eras or events and reconsider them for a new age,” Boyd said. “We’re in a moment now where people are reconsidering that early ‘90s era, whether it’s the Rodney King beating, the riots or O.J.”
Those events all spoke to race relations, which may be as fractious now as they were then.
“I think that people just feel (the riots) are a really important cautionary tale right now,” said Molly Gale, a 27-year-old filmmaker developing a virtual-reality project with the Los Angeles Times. “Flash Point: An Immersive 360 Look at Photographing the L.A. Riots,” premiering April 29, was “borne out of our own lack of understanding of how huge the riots really were,” she said.
“This project is aiming to reach the millennials to make them understand the history of these places they’re living in,” she said.
Another interactive project, KTown92, focuses on stories about the riots from residents of Koreatown.
Documentarian Sacha Jenkins saw his film “Burn Motherf-----, Burn” as a way to establish historical context for today’s police shootings and demands for justice.
“What I was trying to say with the film is this thing goes way back to slavery, and it goes way back to the grievances that African-Americans have had this whole time,” he said. “I wanted people to be able to see this and do the math and let that math add up to where we are now.”
Filmmaker Mark Ford wrote and directed a movie in 2012 to mark the 20th anniversary of the riots, “Uprising: Hip Hop and the LA Riots.” For the 25th anniversary, he produced two different documentaries, “L.A. Burning” and “L.A. Riots: 25 Years Later.”
“Police abuse is as prevalent, if not more, than it was 25 years ago,” Ford said. “We all see the images across our social media pretty much every day. As filmmakers, we just want to be part of the conversation as to why this is happening and what are potential solutions.”
Singleton, a producer of “L.A. Burning” and an LA native, has been close to the riots for a long time. He left the Simi Valley, California, set of his film “Poetic Justice” for the nearby courthouse shortly after the verdict in the King case was read. Singleton appears in news footage from 1992 and also gives extensive interviews in the new documentary.
“This event affected all of us cross-culturally through the city,” he said after a recent screening. “How can we learn from this so there’s not another flash point?”