Often, documentaries about historic events prompt the question, "why now?" Sadly, that will never be asked about Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin's searing LA 92, which arrives on the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots to address an America more conscious than ever of the problems between the country's law-enforcement institutions and the black populations they are supposed to protect and serve. Unmediated by historians, journalists or any other interviewees and seething with emotions it doesn't need to announce, the picture deserves to be seen in public settings, even if it will reach most viewers on the small screen, via National Geographic.
In a connection that is wholly logical but provocative — given that the gap between the two events (26 years) is just a year shy of that between the L.A. Riots and today — the film begins with clips of the 1965 Watts Riots, which also were triggered by an arrest gone wrong involving white cops and a black driver. We see vintage news footage in which white newsmen try to make sense of events and black leaders issue calls for nonviolence, to no avail.
Briskly, the film then notes the 1973 election of the city's first African-American mayor, former police officer Tom Bradley, and the 1978 promotion of Daryl Gates to the top position in the L.A.P.D.; after a little other historical stage-setting, we find ourselves in March of 1991.
Even today, after so many similar films have been witnessed online and on TV news, it is difficult to watch the Rodney King videotape — which the filmmakers show for 36 uninterrupted seconds, before cutting to a montage of citizens, newscasters and politicians responding to its brutality. We see an event at which King, recovering from his injuries, lifts his shirt to expose an ugly Taser-induced burn. "That's where they shocked me," he says. "They got a big kick out of that."
We're watching the public reaction unfold when another, less-well remembered incident intrudes: Fifteen year-old Latasha Harlins is shot in the back of the head by a Korean shopkeeper, Soon Ja Du, who incorrectly believed she was shoplifting. A jury found the killer guilty of voluntary manslaughter, making her eligible for up to 16 years in prison. But Judge Joyce A. Karlin felt she knew better, and waived jail time entirely. Du got probation, some community service and a $500 fine.
"This is what you get with video of a killing," cries Congresswoman Maxine Waters (recently the target of insults from a soon-to-be disgraced Bill O'Reilly). That sentiment, of course, was then shared by those observing the trial of the officers who beat King. The doc offers a good recap of that problematic trial, and by the time it witnesses the not-guilty verdicts that emerge, it has created an edge-of-your-seat tension.
LA 92 displays a tight grip on our attention as it progresses from here, still relying only on period footage and the bare minimum of explanatory titles. We watch as violence, looting and fires erupt; hear police dispatchers "advise units not to respond"; puzzle over the slow action of National Guard troops called in for the state of emergency. Always conscious of the big picture, the directors also single out personal-scale interactions that illuminate the complicated mix of impulses, prejudices and grievances on the ground.
Thanks in part to excellent editing and a subtly gripping score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, LA 92 never lags during its nearly two-hour running time. Near the end of that stretch, a soundbite that long ago was transformed by cynics regains its poignant strength: Coming out for a press conference days into the riots, Rodney King looks heartbroken when he begs, "Can we all get along?" and argues that the riots using him as an excuse are "not gonna change anything." Twenty-five years later, his statement isn't corny or trite. It, like this movie, demands our attention.
Production company: Lightbox
Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films
Directors: Dan Lindsay, TJ Martin
Producers: Jonathan Chinn, Simon Chinn
Executive producers: Matt Renner, Tim Pastore
Editors: TJ Martin, Scott Stevenson, Dan Lindsay
Composers: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)