Riots or rebellion? Anarchy or insurrection? Unrest or uprising? Whatever words are used to categorize it, as the 25th anniversary approaches of the frenzy of violence that swept Los Angeles beginning April 29, 1992, attention is being paid. A lot of attention.
No fewer than six documentaries are being broadcast about those events, and no wonder. For one thing, the havoc caused was considerable, with more than 50 people killed, thousands injured and roughly a billion dollars in property damage sustained. Wherever you were in the city, you could see the smoke of a metropolis attacked by flames.
And though a quarter-century is past, the events that began with a notorious acquittal verdict in the Rodney King trial are far from settled history. And the societal situations that caused them are no closer to resolution.
Two of those documentaries are in theatrical releases in Los Angeles before their TV airings this weekend. Though their aesthetic approaches are almost diametrically opposed, the skill with which each has been made enables them to in effect speak to each other.
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Seen back to back, these two documentaries have a powerful, even explosive impact even though they both cover essentially the same events.
First was the March 3, 1991, traffic stop and savage beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, followed days later by the fatal shooting of high school student Latasha Harlins by Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du. Though Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the judge rejected the jury’s recommendation of prison time. Then came the trial of the four LAPD officers indicted in the King beating. They were acquitted, and incendiary crowd reaction at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues soon went from bad to worse.
The documentary first on TV is John Ridley’s “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992,” which is in local release in a version that is nearly an hour longer than the one that will be broadcast 9 p.m. Friday on ABC.
Though it has its share of excellent footage from back in the day, the strength of “Let It Fall” is in its remarkable contemporary interviews, compelling both for the people recorded and the way the conversations are allowed to unfold.
“LA 92,” screening Friday two days before it is broadcast on the National Geographic Channel (8 p.m. Sunday), takes the opposite tack. Directed by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, who won an Oscar for “Undefeated,” “LA 92” intentionally avoids interviews and constructs a narrative entirely through immersion in archival footage.
That “Let It Fall” takes a deep dive into its interviews is no surprise, and not just because a team of veteran ABC folks, starting with producer Jeanmarie Condon, were involved. Ridley’s previous writing credits, including “12 Years a Slave” (for which he won an Oscar) and ABC’s “American Crime,” point in that direction as well.
Understanding that the past is prologue, both documentaries, like the Oscar-winning “O.J.: Made In America,” go back years before Rodney King. “Let It Fall” begins 10 years earlier, with the chokehold death of James Mincey Jr. that led to policies that had an effect on the King beating. Spoken to at length, for instance, are Mincey’s girlfriend at the time and an LAPD officer who was part of the Mincey arrest team.
The list of involved and involving people “Let It Fall” has persuaded to talk on camera is considerable, including Terry White, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the King beaters; Lakeshia Combs, an eyewitness to the Latasha Harlins killing; Henry King, a Rodney King juror who for years hid his multiracial past; and Bobby Green, who says God instructed him to go to Florence and Normandie to save the life of badly beaten truck driver Reginald Denny.
One of the film’s most significant interviews is with former LAPD Lt. Michael Moulin, who passionately defends his controversial decision to pull police back from an early altercation in the Florence-Normandie area.
“Let It Fall” understands the value of allowing its interview subjects to talk at greater, more involving length than is usual for documentaries, a technique that illuminates the complexities of reality and gives listeners a sense of the emotional textures of these people’s lives.
If “Let It Fall” begins 10 years before Rodney King, “LA 92” goes back even further, to the violence of Watts in 1965, in itself a huge and significant event.
By sifting through and tying together an enormous variety of footage, directors Lindsay and Martin (who also served as editor) create an experience that gives a full sense of the anarchy and rage of the post-King verdict days, thrusting us fully and disturbingly into events in very much of a You Are There manner.
Among the more memorable clips are those showing the victims of the beatings and, later, of the arson: a Korean woman recoiling from her burned store as if physically assaulted, another repeating, “this is not fair, this is not fair,” an African American arson victim close to tears, saying, “I come from the ghetto, that’s not right.”
Perhaps the quote that has the most impact, however, is one of the earliest, a passage from 1965’s McCone Commission postmortem on what happened in Watts.
“What shall it avail our nation if we can put a man on the moon but cannot cure the sickness of our cities?”
It was a potent question then and, as these two fine documentaries demonstrate, it remains one today.