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L.A. Riots 25th Anniversary Documentaries, Ranked: Which Ones Best Explain the Unrest Now

From John Singleton to John Ridley and beyond, filmmakers examine the Rodney King trial aftermath and how the roots of that civil unrest are still relevant.

"Burn Motherfucker, Burn!"

“Burn Motherfucker, Burn!”

KABC-TV/Courtesy of SHOWTIME

There’s no question that Rodney King was brutally beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers – video taken of the savage act proves it. Yet the four men seen clubbing King were acquitted by a Simi Valley jury in 1992, lighting a match for one of the deadliest and costliest civil unrests in U.S. history.

READ MORE: How Spike Lee, John Singleton and John Ridley Left Their Marks on the 25th Anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots

It’s 25 years later, and Los Angeles – and the LAPD – have changed. But has the rest of the country? Regular reports of police brutality, now well-documented in an age of phone cameras, makes it clear that we haven’t come all that far. Several new documentaries explore the L.A. riots, including the underlying reasons, the actual events, what happened next, and how it relates to today. Among the filmmakers putting their own stamp on the story: John Ridley, John Singleton, Sacha Jenkins, Dan Lindsay, and TJ Martin. All are powerful and well done, but some manage to better encapsulate why it’s important that we study, and learn from, what happened on April 29, 1992.

“Burn Motherf*cker, Burn!”

"Burn Motherfucker, Burn!"

“Burn Motherfucker, Burn!”

Los Angeles City Archives/Courtesy of SHOWTIME

Auspices: Sacha Jenkins, who chronicled hip-hop and urban fashion from a historical perspective in “Fresh Dressed,” tackles civil unrest in Los Angeles before during and after the Rodney King verdict in 1992.

Source footage: Jenkins mines multiple sources including archival news footage, security cam footage, camcorder tapes, cell phone videos for more recent footage of police brutality, snippets of game shows and talk shows to present a bigger look at the culture of unrest and distrust that existed far longer than even the 1965 Watts riots. The most disturbing piece opens the series in which a black journalist interviews an eighth-generation plantation owner who discusses how Southern whites viewed their black slaves.

Key talking heads: The series interviews a broad swath of people ranging from the Los Angeles’ current police chief Charlie Beck, to a juror in the Rodney King trial, residents of South Central LA and Asians in the community to those who would comment on the situation from a cultural perspective, such as civil rights attorneys, an urban theorist, journalists and famous Los Angeles residents like musicians from Jane’s Addictionand B Real and Chef Roy Choi.

Standout music: The soundtrack is energetic and angry, with songs mainly from Los Angeles musicians. Jane’s Addiction’s “Pigs in Zen” kicks off a frenzied opening sequence that serves as a backdrop to the montage of images black inequality, racism and civil unrest. Other songs echoed this atmosphere of frustration, such as Ice-T’s “6 in the Mornin,’” “Peace Treaty” by Kam, Ice Cube’s “Black Korea” and “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” by Cypress Hill.

Overall theme: The provocative title well summarizes the hate and destructive mentality that are at the root of black people wanting to fight back after being mistreated for centuries. Jenkins delves into the difficulties between blacks in Los Angeles and the LAPD that have been nurtured through decades of systematic racism and mistrust. Under the watch of two police chiefs — William Parker and his protege Daryl Gates — white officers sought to control the poverty-stricken black neighborhoods using military tactics, but that ongoing oppression led to fuses being lit during the Watts and Rodney King riots. While Jenkins makes an effort to tell this Los Angeles story from every side, it has roots from the oppression from slavery in the South as well that followed both blacks and whites as they escaped west. Blatant and unflinching, the documentary depicts a world that is neither well-balanced nor fair.

Relevance to today: The documentary draws an easy parallel between the situation in Los Angeles to the country’s ongoing issue with police brutality and killing of black people and the current Black Lives Matter movement. While the doc seeks to find a solution to the situation, even some of the talking heads are stumped as to how to achieve mutual empathy when hatred and fear are so ingrained. It’s a cautionary tale of how we’re doomed to repeat this pattern of oppression, disorder and violence unless somehow we break it before it breaks us.

“Burn Motherf*cker, Burn!” premieres Friday, April 21 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

Grade: A

“LA 92”

"LA 92"

“LA 92”

AP/National Geographic

Auspices: Directed by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin (the Oscar-winning doc “Undefeated”), the film will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival before airing on National Geographic.

Source footage: Though the film does use some camcorder footage from amateur videographers, most of this story is told through the literal lens of a news camera. Rather than just use the local coverage that Angelenos would have seen on TV news, Lindsay and Martin focus on the B-roll moments in the seconds before the feeds go live. Given the volatility on the ground in the heaviest-affected neighborhoods, there’s also a significant amount of aerial footage, complete with accompanying running commentary from copter crews.

Key talking heads: Without the familiar setup of interview subjects looking 25 years into the past, the key figures rotate between the reporters, bystanders and protestors within the camera’s range. Some are unwitting participants, like a well-wisher outside the Simi Valley courthouse awaiting the King verdict. Others seize the platform, bombarding live news hits, grabbing the microphone to speak their minds.

Standout music: Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ (“Enemy,” “The OA”) score moves throughout the film, even in moments where the archival audio would be better served unadorned. But the elegiac strings give a majority of this footage a timeless, sweeping feel, connecting the various neighborhoods that felt this tragedy the most.

Overall theme: Filtering so much of this footage through a media perspective, “LA 92” shows how much this chapter in the history of Los Angeles was shaped by media coverage. Much like King’s beating led to an unprecedented reaction because it was caught on tape, that same power of images reverberated through the violence in the riots that followed. What cameras were trained on and which sequences became iconic had a profound impact on how people reacted in the moment, not just how we see that effect from today’s vantage point.

Relevance to today: Bookending the film through the prism of the 1965 Watts riots, there’s an undercurrent of systemic, cyclical problems lurking just below the surface. The film’s on-screen epilogue doesn’t go too far past the 1992 aftermath, but it doesn’t need to in order to evoke the tensions that are still present in cities far from Los Angeles. Lindsay and Martin do their utmost to remain impartial observers, taking a full view of the damage done and the impassioned responses left in its wake. But their parting shots are aimed directly at those who, faced with the magnitude of this crisis, learned nothing from it. That they failed to grasp the importance of this episode and its roots in the history of both the city and the nation meant that it was doomed to repeat, whether they realized it in the moment or not.

“LA 92” premieres on April 30 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.

Grade: A-


“Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982 – 1992”

"Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992"

“Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992”

ABC

Auspices: 
Airing on ABC, the two-hour documentary is written, produced, and directed by Oscar-winner John Ridley (“American Crime,” “12 Years a Slave”).

Source footage: Ridley uses historical footage from a variety of sources. There’s shots from police training sessions, news cameras, old VHS cameras used during the riots, broadcasts, and more, but it’s how Ridley carefully cuts it all together that further enforces its power. Haunting images are brought back; frames are trimmed and enhanced; montages prove as effective as ever. It’s a lot of content, and Ridley uses it wisely.

Key talking heads: The interviews in “Let It Fall” are conducted solely with people who were there, in Los Angeles, during the decade under investigation. Family members of victims, former cops, persecuted immigrants, and survivors are all given ample time to tell their stories, and Ridley efficiently cuts together the two-hour documentary to amplify their messages.

Standout music: An original score by Mark Isham is what stands out here, supplementing the story without overwhelming it.

Overall theme: “Let It Fall” is, in the end, a call for equality and a cutting examination of how the system is failing all of us. Similar in theme and using some of the same evocative tricks as Ridley’s “American Crime,” the documentary finds power in its wide array of — and excellently sourced — subjects. The people who lived through the uprising tell the story, and the film feels like it’s theirs because of it.

Relevance to today: Aside from seeing “Let It Fall” as a cautionary tale — will someone, someday, make a documentary titled “America 2005 – 2015” or “2015 – 2025”? — Ridley wants us to focus on the combination of elements that built up to the unrest in Los Angeles.

Korean families opine that black protesters were taking out their frustrations with the white community on Asians. A black protester posits that the unrest wasn’t caused by the Rodney King verdict. Events in the early ‘80s, largely forgotten in comparison to what happened in 1992, are given a spotlight to illustrate the building turmoil in the city.

That most of the interviews were conducted recently and still evoke such deep, human responses in the storytellers speaks to the power of what they lived through, but the specificity of their stories elicits the humanity Ridley wants to impart. Everyone is equal, and “Let It Fall” depicts what happens when inequality becomes systematic.

“Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” premieres on Friday, April 28 at 9 p.m. on ABC.

Grade: A-

“The Lost Tapes: LA Riots”

"The Lost Tapes: LA Riots"

“The Lost Tapes: LA Riots”

Smithsonian Channel

Auspices: Tom Jennings (writer/director/producer), David Tillman (editor/producer/writer), David Royle, Charles Poe and John Cavanagh (executive producers for Smithsonian Channel)

Source footage: A rich wealth of material. The entire “Lost Tapes” series, commissioned by the Smithsonian Channel, focuses on depicting major events in history through then-contemporary footage, including rare or never-before-seen audio and video. In just 50 minutes, the story of the riots is told entirely through archival materials, graphical maps and title cards, including courtroom footage, internal LAPD video and news reports.

Key talking heads: Technically non-applicable, but director John Singleton does make an appearance, thanks to a man-on-the-street interview he gave just after the verdict of the Simi Valley trial, and there’s plenty of footage of Chief Daryl Gates at the center of the madness. An interview with Ice-T is played as well, and Rodney King’s famous plea to the city — “can we all get along?” — is shown in its entirety.

Standout music: No notable tracks beyond composer Rafael Leloup’s ever-present score, which never overburdens the impact of the footage being shown.

Overall theme: “The Lost Tapes,” on the surface, doesn’t have an extremely strong point of view due to its lack of a central narrator, but it does heavily emphasize the specific racial tensions that led to the riots happening. It especially gives voice to the Korean population who saw their businesses burned to the ground, including a heartbreaking call made to a Korean-language radio station in which a woman finds out that her store is on fire, and there’s no sign of the LAFD.

Relevance to today: Thanks to its reliance on first-hand footage (something that’s become a endemic part of our news coverage today, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones), “The Lost Tapes” might constantly remind us that April ’92 was 25 years ago, but it has the feel of something we could be watching right now. It also reveals that some of the live news coverage from that insane time actually helped fuel the insanity, a fascinating Mobieus strip of a problem we haven’t quite escaped. A different approach (and a longer runtime) might add some depth and nuance, but as a basic yet visceral primer on what happened, “The Lost Tapes” is gripping viewing.

“The Lost Tapes: LA Riots” premieres on Sunday, April 23 at 8 p.m. on Smithsonian Channel.

Grade: B+

“L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later”

John Singleton, "LA Burning: 25 Years Later"

John Singleton, “LA Burning: 25 Years Later”

A&E

Auspices: Directed by One9 and Erik Parker; executive producers include John Singleton, Trevor Engelson, Tara Long, John Morayniss, Mark Ford, Kevin Lopez, Elaine Frontain Bryant, Shelly Tatro, and Brad Abramson.

Source footage: A mix of new interviews, news reports and interviews from 1992 and found footage from videographers who covered the riots on the streets. There was no shortage of coverage of the riots from both professional and amateur camerapeople at the time, including striking images of the very beginning at the corner of 71st and Normandie – before it spread to Florence and Normandie, the infamous focal point of the three-day unrest.

Key talking heads: Almost every key figure who is still alive was interviewed for the documentary, including George Holliday, the man who watched from his apartment balcony and filmed Rodney King getting beat by police; Henry “Keekee” Watson, one of the “LA4” who was arrested for nearly killing Reginald Denny; Steve Lerman, King’s attorney; community leader Rev. Cecil Murray of the First AME Church; Retired LAPD Lt. Michael Moulin, who LAPD chief Daryl Gates used as a scapegoat to blame the police’s lack of action as the riots began; Zoey Tur, the news helicopter pilot who covered the beating of Denny and the start of the riots; Edward James Olmos, who helped organize a city cleanup after the unrest; and Singleton, who was filming “Poetic Justice” in Simi Valley at the same time a jury there voted to acquit the officers accused of beating King. Other South Central residents and victims of the riot are also interviewed, while the late King and Gates are both seen in archival footage. In perhaps the most emotional moment of the film, photographer Bart Bartholomew, who covered the start of the riots for the New York Times, reunites with the man who saved his life that day, Tim Goldman.

Standout music: Nothing of note, standard score.

Overall theme: For audiences not familiar with the 1992 riots, or people who have forgotten the details of the events that transpired, “L.A. Burning” is a very thorough documentation of what took place, and who’s to blame. In this case, the blame is pointed directly at LAPD chief Daryl Gates, who is accused of not having a plan in place to respond to public reaction as the King verdict is read. Gates was attending a fundraising dinner as the riots broke out, and Moulin – who was in charge of the forces at Florence and Normandie – ordered the force’s retreat to its crisis command center in Van Nuys. Moulin is seen frequently, defending that move and also criticizing Gates for trying to make him the fall guy. Beyond the violence of those three days, the doc doesn’t spend much time laying out the history of relations between the South Los Angeles community and the police.

Relevance to today: “L.A. Burning” opens and closes by focusing on how, after 25 years, African Americans are still frequently the target of police brutality – including the deaths of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and others. “We certainly didn’t learn much in the past 25 years,” says one voice.

“LA Burning” aired on April 18 on A&E.

Grade: B

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