This year, the April 29 anniversary of the Rodney King riots became a recognized event on the programming calendar. Over the next week, networks are releasing a half-dozen nonfiction narratives to commemorate the 25 years since the Los Angeles uprising, including three from some of our most compelling African-American filmmakers: Spike Lee, John Singleton, and John Ridley.
“Black directors have different viewpoints,” said Lee, who directed writer-actor Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show “Rodney King” for Netflix. “We don’t see the world all the same.”
Ridley and Singleton took a more traditional path to the material, digging into period video archives and interviewing many of the people directly involved in the riots that yielded 55 lives lost, 1,100 buildings destroyed by fire, and some $1 billion in property damage.
Lee came at the subject from another direction. Smith has performed “Rodney King” for four years in small venues and when “Rodney King” hits Netflix on April 28 in 190 countries, said Lee, “this will be its introduction to the world.”
The 145-minute cut of Ridley’s “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982 – 1992” opens in theaters today, and an 88-minute version will air on ABC on April 28. Singleton’s “L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later” is currently streaming on A&E Live.
On the day of the uprising, Lee was at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, showing Terry Semel and Bob Daly the four-hour rough cut of “Malcolm X.” “Throughout the four hours, secretaries were coming in handing them notes,” said Lee. “I knew something was happening. They stayed throughout the four hours while the uprising was going on. They did not leave. And I would have understood if they said, ‘Spike, we got to get out of here, there’s a situation, we gotta go home.'”
John Singleton was driving to a Simi Valley location for “Poetic Justice” when he heard the verdict was coming down. “Oh fuck,” he said. “I’ve got to go to the courthouse.” He joined the protests outside (“No justice, no peace, fuck the police!”) and camera crews interviewed him. “They have just lit the fuse to a bomb that’s about to go off,” he said prophetically.
For anyone who experienced the uprising, reliving it is intense. At the time, my husband and I were working at home in Koreatown, and as fires, looting, sirens, and helicopters moved closer to our apartment, we threw our bags into the car, scooped up our toddler from a playdate across town, holed up in a motel in Ojai, and watched TV as our neighborhood burned.
When we returned, we learned that 18-year-old Edward Song Lee had been shot and killed at the mini-mall just around the corner on Third and Hobart — by Koreans trying to protect their property. We saw burned-out holes on block after block, from grocery, drug, and liquor stores to Samy’s Camera. For a large swath of East and South Central Los Angeles, it took years to rebuild and recover.
For Singleton, who supervised “L.A. Burning” with directors One9 and Erik Parker, he serves as an interview bridge between the parallel stories of Rodney King and Reginald Denny.
“I put my heart on the line,” Singleton said. “I lived it, I knew it. I was in the middle of this. This is where I’m from. This has been festering with me for a long time. It’s very opinionated. It takes the point of view of those who have a dissenting opinion from the views of other documentaries. It’s going to make some people’s ears hot who are not used to hearing those voices being expressed.”
When ABC came to Ridley, he’d already spent a decade developing a movie narrative of the wide-ranging events surrounding Rodney King, delivering some reporting to NPR and Los Angeles Magazine. “It was a difficult undertaking in a film, with the money involved,” he said. “There were no particular heroes or villains.”
Still, that was enough to know who the main characters were and where to take them. “The news division producers know how to put together a factual story,” he said. “And I knew how to weave an appealing and engaging narrative, to put together all the parts to form a revealing mosaic.”
Ridley conducted many of the interviews himself and got people on all sides of the story — cops, rioters, victims of assault and their saviors — to share their perspectives over a 10-year period, 1982-1992. “I wanted these individuals to feel comfortable,” he said, “not indicted or examined. Let the camera roll, share your story.”
Even after 25 years or more, their memories and emotions remain vivid. “My life has changed and the city has changed. It’s hopefully a better place,” said Ridley. “They recollected moments like they happened moments ago. They all describe that moment from different points of view, so we’re connected to the events that led up to it.”
One African-American grandmother remembered reacting to the savage King beating on March 3, 1991: “It reminded me of what my ancestors went through.”
Coming at Rodney King from another angle is Smith’s one-man show; he addresses the man whom the prosecution deemed too hulking and threatening to put on the stand, even though four cops whacked him with 56 baton blows. While he was drunk and speeding in his White Hyundai at 115 MPH on March 3, 1991, King knew enough to pull into an apartment complex where he could be seen. When the police eventually took him to the hospital, a nurse told him he had been videotaped. Surgeons placed a metal plate behind his eye to keep it from slipping into his brain.
In the movie, Smith says: “Rodney King, you’re on heavy rotation, locally, nationally, internationally, everyone is viewing you and fast-forwarding you and freeze-framing you. You’ve gone viral before viral was viral. You are the first reality TV star.”
While the acquitted officers directly involved did not want to speak, other officers came forward. “They made choices,” said Ridley. “You can feel their regret, their understanding of how things got to where they were. They were willing to sit down and talk about it, even though we knew that some people might demonize the LAPD. Systems fail. Some people fail. It was important to at least add context to those individuals on how people viewed them.”
Certainly LAPD chief Darryl Gates failed to set a plan for his department to follow in the event of a Rodney King acquittal. Gates was attending a West Side fundraiser as his 77th Street Division LAPD Lieutenant Michael Moulin arrived at Florence and Normandie where looting was under way. After chasing down one gang member who was throwing rocks, Moulin pulled his forces, which were without helmets or riot gear, out of South Central, terrified that they would end up shooting at the angry mob— but this left looters and fires unchecked.
Many Korean stores were the target of arson and looting because a Korean store owner shot and killed 15-year-old Latasha Harlins a year earlier, in March 1991. (She thought the girl had shoplifted a bottle of orange juice, and received a $500 fine, five years probation, and community service.) With no police in sight, they armed themselves to defend their property. “L.A. Burning” brings back a woman who watched her parents’ store burn down, which ruined her family.
And several citizens were moved to action when unfortunate victims like white truck driver Reginald Denny were beaten to a pulp in the middle of the street, filmed from above by helicopter cameras. “Now Reginald Denny is Rodney,” says Smith in “Rodney King.”
Videographer Tim Goldman, horrified by the mob assault on New York Times photographer Bart Bartholomew, took action and packed him into his car; he was excoriated by the black community for providing his videos to the police and moved to Florida. “L.A. Burning” brings the two men together years later. “It had a huge toll on their lives,” said Singleton. “The photographer’s doppleganger’s story had never been told.”
“They rose to the occasion, from all stripes and backgrounds, irrespective of who was being victimized.” said Ridley. “To see people unwilling to sit by and see their fellow human go through those things is very reassuring.”
Ridley knows what he is doing, as he builds up to those random acts of heroism. One policewoman and her male partner insisted on returning to the fray to save someone who was being attacked, knowing they would be in extreme danger. When the man asked his partner to contact his wife if anything happened to him, she came out to him by asking him to contact her girlfriend.
As Ridley’s movie kept getting longer, ABC — partly influenced by the rapturous reception to Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour Oscar-winning ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America,” which covers some of this material — allowed him to go long with a 145-minute film for theatrical release in addition to a shorter network version.
Where are we 25 years later?
“As far as cops and the black community, it really depends on the place,” said Lee. “Mike Brown and Ferguson, Missouri was not that long ago. What scares me is that it’s much harder to rein in police departments across the country with Jeff Sessions as Attorney General of the United States of America, who has let it be known what his intentions are. We shall see what we shall see.”
“Yes, L.A. is better off,” said Singleton. “So much has changed. A lot of areas have been gentrified. A lot of people have moved out or been displaced. We still have the prison industrial complex that has taken a lot of people, especially men, out of the area and into prison. The police are much better than they were, the LAPD has done everything it could to become more community-based, with federal oversight. Many chiefs made it a mandate to try and work with the community. It’s not an occupying territory anymore. And it’s a vast improvement that more blacks are in the police department.”
“As my son got to driving age,” said Ridley, “I will say that when we put him in the car and send him out, maybe we feel different and have different concerns than parents not of color. We are blessed and have means, and ways to advocate, but when somebody pulls over my son, I don’t know what will happen.”