Directed by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin
I watched and reviewed two films about the Robert King riots in less than three months. Of the two, this is the one worth catching. On the other hand, when you’re comparing it to the very disappointing Gook, that’s not much of a compliment.
In 1991, four Los Angeles police officers gave Rodney King, an African American already subdued and on the ground, a beating so hard it sent him to the hospital. And for probably the first time, the act of police brutality was caught on a bystander’s video. A year later, despite the very strong evidence, a jury convicted two of the police officers of minor charges; the others were found not guilty of anything. The riot that followed was the largest and most destructive in American history.
This documentary provides historical context, starting with the Watts riots of 1965. It then quickly covers 25 years of Los Angeles race relations before coming to the beating. Then it covers the trial, which the defense successfully moved to Simi Valley, a small, suburban town with an overwhelming white population.
Part of the context includes the murder of Latasha Harlins. Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du shot and killed the African-American teenage girl that she assumed (incorrectly) was shoplifting. The owner was found guilty of murder, but the judge gave her probation and a fine.
Maybe half of the film covers the riots, and this is very painful to watch. After breaking into stores and taking what they could carry, people set the buildings on fire. Rioters pulled drivers out of their cars and beat them. The riots spread over much of Los Angeles.
And yet, oddly, these scenes are the weakest part of the movie. Unlike a single act of police brutality, or a court case, a riot is too chaotic to tell a story. Running on for nearly an hour, the horrible incidents became monotonous. This section should have been considerably shorter.
Finally, everything quiets down. People came together, cleaned up the streets, and called for peace.
The film tells its story almost entirely in archival video, mostly television news coverage. Occasional intertitles help fill out bits of information not caught visually (there is no narration). When a TV news reporter asks a looter why she’s breaking the law, there’s a raw immediacy that you rarely see. Far more upsetting is the image, taken from a helicopter, of a man getting pulled out of his truck and beaten almost to death.
LA 92 doesn’t hold punches. The first half makes you angry at how the justice system holds down African Americans. But the second half, showing angry blacks violently tearing down a major city, provides a troubling view of justice denied.