A searing, touching documentary about the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles, “The Fire This Time” is also the first work to place the riots in the context of the black community’s history in L.A. Viewed from inside by residents of South Central, and containing invaluable interviews with Betty Shabazz (Malcolm X’s widow) and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, this important and timely docu deserves theatrical bookings before airings on public TV and other outlets.
It’s ironic and prophetic that the 1992 L.A. riots occurred precisely 25 years after the commission appointed by Lyndon Johnson came up with its 25-year Master Plan to restore the city in the wake of the Watts riots. As one resident comments, blacks were missing from the plan, and the report itself has disappeared from the archives.
Randy Holland’s docu examines the riots not as a sudden reaction to verdicts in the first Rodney King beating trial, but from a historical perspective, beginning with the arrival of the first blacks in California in 1850, the evolution of the inner-city ghetto, the 1965 Watts riots, the rise and fall of the Black Panthers and the emergence of violent street gangs in the 1970s and 1980s.
What comes across most powerfully is the consistent breakup of what used to be a lively community, through the sabotage of the Watts Writers workshop, the decimation of the Black Panthers, the harassment of the community’s black leadership by the FBI and L.A.P.D.
If “The Fire This Time” is less emotionally exciting or stirring than its explosive subject matter warrants, it’s due to its conventional style and even tempo. The excessive, often dull narration spoken by Brooke Adams creates an unnecessary distance between viewers and the screen, lending pic the aura of a clinical survey.
Though technical credits are accomplished and the footage used is most satisfying, at times Jurg Walther’s camera wanders instead of highlighting the personal experiences shared by the residents.
That said, in its fastidious attention to historical background, “The Fire This Time” is a provocative documentary, a wake-up call and a warning that the riots can happen again — in L.A. and elsewhere.