Frontline L.A. Is Burning: 5 Reports from a Divided City

One year and two convictions later, "Frontline" revisits the Los Angeles riots in search of why, and leaves with an obvious answer: L.A. hates itself. But a bigger question arises as viewers watch five intellectuals sent into the streets: How did such anarchy rule this divided city for three days? "Frontline" leaves the question unanswered.

With:
Correspondents: Susan Anderson, Edward Chang, Ruben Martinez, Tim Rutten, John Edgar Wideman.

One year and two convictions later, “Frontline” revisits the Los Angeles riots in search of why, and leaves with an obvious answer: L.A. hates itself. But a bigger question arises as viewers watch five intellectuals sent into the streets: How did such anarchy rule this divided city for three days? “Frontline” leaves the question unanswered.

Show assigns five writers — two blacks, one Hispanic, one Korean, one Caucasian — to question Angelenos with the same ethnic backgrounds. “Frontline, ” expanded to 90 minutes for this outing, hits and misses, with L.A. residents Ruben Martinez and Tim Rutten the best of the five. Instead of going into the flashpoints one year later and asking people to remember, Martinez and Rutten relive those days.

Martinez, of the L.A. Weekly and more and more proving himself a decent television journalist, comes close to understanding what happened as he explores how political anger turned to anarchy.

The violence near Parker Center downtown had political roots, but sometime after the first glass shattered, an unexpected euphoric lawlessness intoxicated the rioters.

The L.A. Times’ Rutten recalls the smoke encircling his neighborhood, and the gun-toting white homeowners. While many escape property damage, mental wounds remain, and Rutten shows their personal therapy is a private arms race, with guns and ammo giving a sense of security.

Exploring the black community are John Edgar Wideman, who flew here as the riots unfolded on TV, and Susan Anderson. Wideman seems lost in L.A. though Anderson, like Martinez, pricks the surface of something larger.

Wideman finds emotional cinders still burning throughout Watts in 1993 and seems to strain to understand the prevailing attitude that 1992 was just a warmup. Confronting Georgiana Williams — mother of Damian (Football) Williams, one of those accused of beating Reginald Denny — Wideman fails to ask any tough questions after she justifies Denny’s beating.

Anderson takes a tougher approach, asking one of the accused what he’d say to Denny today.

“I’d say, ‘Now you know how it feels to be a victim … Now you know how it feels to be black.’ ”

Out of the ashes of Koreatown, Edward Chang focuses on the continuing tensions between blacks and Koreans. He and Wideman have the most difficulty pulling off their reports; both tread familiar ground.

This “Frontline” begins strongly with fresh homevids of the riot.

One mammoth question left unanswered is why the police in general retreated, especially at the onset of the riots, even when not coming under attack.

Direction and editing are tight, with no one side getting too much time — but there are no real answers to the questions posed.

Frontline L.A. Is Burning: 5 Reports from a Divided City

(Tues. (27), 9-10: 30 p.m., PBS)

Production: Filmed by Frontline in L.A. Exec producer, David Fanning; senior producer, Martin Smith; producers-directors, Elena Mannes, Karyn T. Taylor; writer, Mannes.

Crew: Editor, Donna Marino.

Cast: Correspondents: Susan Anderson, Edward Chang, Ruben Martinez, Tim Rutten, John Edgar Wideman.

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