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AUSTIN – Although shown here in SXSW’s music-centric “24 Beats Per Second” section, Mark Ford‘s Uprising: Hip-Hop and the LA Riots is too provocative to be lumped in alongside concert docs and rock star profiles. L.A. rappers indeed deserve credit for diagnosing social ills and prophesying unrest, but what this film captures is bigger and, sad to say, more enduring than any epoch in popular music. Thorny and debate-fueling, it should be seen in packed theaters, though a high-profile cable run may be more likely.
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The doc’s thrust, where music is concerned, is that hip-hop was a kind of underground news agency, fully alert to deplorable police tactics in minority neighborhoods long before traditional news outlets noticed them. As KRS-1 puts it here, “Rodney King was the confirmation of everything we’d been saying since the ’70s.” The implication is that N.W.A.‘s 1988 “Fuck Tha Police” was less provocation than prediction of 1992’s uncappable fury, and cultural finger-waggers would have done better to direct their dispproval elsewhere.
Looking back, some rappers interviewed here say they’re glad the riots took place. If that sentiment startles viewers, there’s more to come: Uprising‘s defining characteristic is its refusal to sanitize the past; if anything, it argues too little has changed in the 20 years since L.A. burned.
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The doc’s centerpiece is dramatic video footage of the riots, including buildup starting well before the infamous beating of Reginald Denny at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. As a crowd gathers outside an AME church, refusing to accept the not-guilty verdict for Rodney King‘s attackers, emotions escalate. People move toward the streets, where ugly interactions prompt police to retreat — leaving a white news photographer the closest thing to an establishment figure on the scene. Footage of a crowd stalking him is chilling, and editors Martin Cutler and Parris Patton keep that horrific mood building through the more familiar scenes to come.
The first day’s most familiar sight, of course, is the Denny beating, which mirrors the King footage. One participant in that attack, Henry Watson, is interviewed liberally here, and initially helps humanize the mob by describing the sensation of being carried away.
But when finally asked if he regrets participating, Watson is shockingly unable to say “yes.” His hesitation exemplifies the film’s open-wound power — yes, Ford goes on to discuss a post-riot drop in crime, show blacks and Koreans making amends, and recall how a relaxed new musical vibe from Snoop Dogg (the film’s narrator) and Dr. Dre spoke to a wider, whiter audience. But too many of the film’s interviewees echo Watson’s ambivalence to let The Uprising treats 1992 Los Angeles as a closed chapter in America’s supposed movement toward racial and economic harmony — a too-commonplace narrative contradicted by current events like the Trayvon Martin scandal.
STORY: SXSW 2012: Snoop Dogg Smokes Pot (Surprise!), Praises Doritos in Bizarre Show
Venue: South By Southwest film festival, 24 Beats Per Second
Production Company: Creature Films
Director-Screenwriter: Mark Ford
Producer: Wesley Jones
Executive producers: Mark Ford, Kevin Lopez, Brad Abramson, Stephen Mintz, Shelly Tatro
Director of photography: Robert Benavides, Scott Marshall, Jeffrey Nichols
Editors: Martin Cutler, Parris Patton
Sales: Brad Abramson
No rating, 66 minutes
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