11:47am PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: A Guide to the Los Angeles Riots 25th Anniversary Documentaries
The combination of boundless networks needing to fill programming, boundless libraries of primary source footage and boundless reservoirs of nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.
Back in the fall, the 20th anniversary of the death of JonBenet Ramsey produced a cottage industry of sleazy, exploitative offerings made by ghouls and for ghouls. One by one, these ostensible documentaries were trotted out with limited original reporting, minimal new footage and absolutely nothing resembling insight on how the murder of a small child was being used as anything other than a tawdry ratings grab. (I've heard Netflix's upcoming JonBenet documentary is several notches above the rest. We'll see.)
I offer that as a contrast to the eight-plus hours I spent watching documentaries and event programming associated with the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. The six days of civic unrest began on April 29, 1992, after the acquittal of four LAPD officers on trial for excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King. More than 50 people were killed, nearly 2,400 people seriously injured and there was nearly $1 billion in property damage. The riots were instigated by a failure of the justice system, but wrapped up in the eruption of protest and anarchy were 50 years of tension between a community and law enforcement, decades of segregation condoned by suspect urban planning, simmering racial and ethnic resentments and too many years of lessons unlearned and voices unheard. The L.A. Riots were birthed in the Jim Crow South, in the Depression and in the Watts Riots of 1965, and the riots planted the seeds for uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore. It's a period marked by almost unwatchable "I can't believe that happened in the streets of an American city" moments, but it's also a story with hissable villains, complicated heroes, depressing reality and the possibility of uplift.
It is, in short, a story that completely lends itself to multiple interpretations and narrative approaches and that rewards in-depth investigation and sometimes even repetition. Watching Showtime's Burn Motherf*cker, Burn!, National Geographic's LA 92, ABC's Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982 – 1992, Smithsonian's The Lost Tapes: LA Riots and A&E's L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later in a three-day period meant five-plus times watching the George Holliday-filmed Rodney King video, five-plus times observing the attack on Reginald Denny, five-plus times seeing Rev. Newton standing over Fidel Lopez, and five-plus times viewing Korean merchants protecting their stores with guns. Each viewing was different, though, each given different and cumulative perspectives from the participants in the previous documentaries.
The five major L.A. Riots documentaries fall into three categories, which may already be enough curating to tell you which one (or two or three) is right for you:
The Lost Tapes: LA Riots and LA 92 are archival footage documentaries, without talking heads or outside analysis. Just the facts — or the media-depicted, filtered versions of the facts — ma'am!
Let It Fall and L.A. Burning don't lack for news or home video footage, but they're primarily personal stories, with interviews with South Central residents, cops on the scene those days and members of the city's Korean-American community. There's a reasonable amount of overlap, both in terms of individual talking heads and their memories.
Finally, Burn Motherf*cker, Burn! is the most historically and ethnographically varied. It tells a more slow-burning story, gives more context and features a wider range of interview subjects.
One caveat that regular readers will already have seen coming: O.J.: Made in America covers the same material as these five documentaries, does what they do at an even higher level and, as a bonus, also delves into O.J. Simpson's performance in Capricorn One. It can't be topped.
Now, capsule reviews for the five documentaries, three of which have already premiered and are available OnDemand (and seem likely to be getting replays this weekend, though I'm not vouching for it) ...
L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later (Directed by One9 and Erik Parker)
John Singleton is the executive producer here and perhaps the source of much of its access, which includes an astounding assortment of key figures from these incendiary days. Most of the documentary's interviews were filmed in South Central with neighborhood residents explaining and sometimes struggling to justify the things they saw and did. Standouts include Tim Goldman and Terry Ellis, whose home videos comprise much of our collective memories of that horrible first day and who, once you learn to recognize them, can constantly be spotted in the background of news footage. Lt. Michael Moulin, famously scapegoated by Daryl Gates for pulling unprepared officers out of the Florence-Normandie area, works hard to restore his name, as does Henry "Keekee" Watson, one of the four men charged with nearly beating Reginald Denny to death. Since Moulin, Watson, Goldman and several other talking heads are also in Ridley's ABC doc, the biggest get for L.A. Burning has to be a new interview with George Holliday, the man who filmed the Rodney King beating. A reunion between Goldman and New York Times photographer Bart Bartholomew is also tremendous. The on-the-ground production in South Central is a major asset, but the storytelling lacks focus. It's not that it's an overreach to evoke the names of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland, but I wish those modern cases were given more than glib "See? This is more of the same" treatment. I also think the directors could have trimmed John Singleton out of the documentary entirely. Every time he appears, it's to talk about himself — he lists his Oscar nominations for no good reason — or to give superficial history lessons that a more venerable subject could have handled better.
Premiered April 18 on A&E
Burn Motherf*cker, Burn! (Directed by Sacha Jenkins)
This is the most O.J.: Made in America-esque of the five documentaries, tracing the African-American migration from the South to different parts of Los Angeles and then charting how white flight and the freeway system left certain areas of the city cut off and segregated. In more detail than any of these other docs, it builds up to Watts in 1965, explains the origins of gang culture and chronicles the transition from William Parker to Daryl Gates as police chief. It has sociologists and historians and establishes its bona fides so thoroughly that we're more than halfway into the doc before we get to the 1992 riots. While much lighter on South Central first-hand recollections than the other interview-driven documentaries, Burn has some important exclusive interviews of substance, including current LAPD chief Charlie Beck and Henry B. King, Juror #8 in the first King trial. Jenkins, whose journalistic background is mainly in music and culture, uses that angle to set Burn Motherf*cker, Burn! apart further. You may watch a lot of L.A. Riots documentaries, but if you don't watch this one, you won't find out about how high B Real and Everlast were when they observed the fires from the riots, nor will you learn about Jane's Addiction frontman's Perry Farrell's skills as a looter. Roy Choi, Norwood Fisher of Fishbone, and rappers Kam and Murs are among other offbeat interview subjects. Funnier and edgier than any of the other docs I watched here, Burn Motherf*cker, Burn! takes an emotional turn at the end as Jenkins tries to see, from Chief Beck and others, if any of the lessons we learned from the riots were permanent, or if we're making the same mistakes and falling into the same traps again. In this way, it ties the present to the past much more effectively than L.A. Burning does. Burn Motherf*cker, Burn! is messy and energetic and sad and infuriating in a lot of good ways.
Premiered April 21 on Showtime
The Lost Tapes: LA Riots (Directed by Tom Jennings)
If you can't bring yourself to dedicate multiple hours to this topic and just want to see the key moments, Smithsonian delivers a pretty tight 50 minutes as part of its The Lost Tapes limited series. A major problem here is the failure to always distinguish between which footage was "lost" and which footage is the exact same stuff you're getting elsewhere. If you've got fresh stuff, you've got to showcase it. You've gotta lead with the material you won't get anywhere else. A lot of what's new here seems to have come from LAPD sources. There are repugnant messages sent by Police Chief Daryl Gates for internal use only and there are images of the community destruction filmed by three LAPD camera crews that were sent into the streets, and I think those are exclusive. It's possible that some of the police band audio and Radio Korea audio wasn't heard elsewhere, but I can't guarantee it. I watched The Lost Tapes immediately after L.A. Burning, and I appreciated how many connections I was able to make after having seen the key figures elsewhere previously. It could work the other way, serving as the most basic primer and leading viewers to seek out additional documentaries to develop the details they want developed.
Premiered April 23 on Smithsonian
Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982 – 1992 (Directed by John Ridley)
[Ridley's documentary is premiering on ABC in a form roughly an hour shorter than the version getting a theatrical release. I watched the ABC version, since that's what I knew I was reviewing, but every time I felt like, "Well why didn't he mention this?" I pretty much assumed, "I guess that got cut for broadcast."] There are so many overlapping interviews and stories between Let It Fall and L.A. Burning that it's hard not to compare them. In many of the ways they go head-to-head, I prefer L.A. Burning. I prefer the Singleton-produced doc's location shooting to the sterile rooms Ridley filmed his talking heads in, and their shared subjects — Goldman, Moulin, Watson — are all more candid in the A&E doc. But overall I much preferred Let It Fall and not just because it didn't feature John Singleton talking about himself with limited justification. The difference is one of cohesion, and John Ridley's gifts and layered interests are as evident in nonfiction as they are in his scripted work. I love Ridley's sense of causality, as he builds little, individual tragic stories and then carefully fits them together into the larger tragic tapestry — James Mincey Jr., Karen Toshima and Edward Lee are all victims spread out over a decade, but in recollections from loved ones, they're recognized and given prominence in the bigger picture. Standout exclusive interviews include Bobby Green, one of the four people who helped save Reginald Denny's life; Terry White, lead prosecutor in the first Rodney King trial; and Sgt. Lisa Phillips, a cop with a heartbreaking personal story from the first day of the riots. There's a certain contrivance to the way Ridley withholds the identities of some of the talking heads, saving names and relationships for surprise reveals, but that's only contrivance compared to the verité approach taken by some of the other docs. In fact, I wouldn't call it contrivance at all. I'd call it master storytelling, and Ridley is a consummate storyteller.
Premieres Friday, April 28 at 9 p.m. on ABC.
LA 92 (Directed by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin)
If you don't care for the retrospective rationalization and hindsight that talking heads can sometimes deliver and if you prefer the in-the-moment, footage-collage approach of The Lost Tapes or the ESPN 30 for 30 doc June 17th, 1994, then National Geographic's LA 92 may be for you. With a running time just less than two hours, Lindsay and Martin's film takes advantage of that breathing room to show more of a lot of what you get in the other docs. That means more depth from press conferences familiar from a single quote, more testimony from the Rodney King trial, more pre-verdict nervousness outside of the courtroom, more of the reactions on Korean radio to the looting. LA 92 relies mostly on news footage, but not always from the most familiar of sources. City council meetings and public forums provide footage that's illuminating and that isn't in any of these other documentaries. The result is methodical and a bit wonky, but still breathlessly tense. The score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans does a lot of the heavy lifting and sometimes becomes overbearing in its pervasiveness, but it more frequently drives the story along. Editing links the 1992 and 1965 riots together and leaves it for viewers to make the contemporary connections. This doc premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and, like the Ridley doc, is getting a limited theatrical release.
Premieres Sunday, April 30 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic.