A conceptually ambitious attempt to examine the 1992 Los Angeles riots from four distinct ethnic points of view, “Riot” is better at showing effect than cause. Consisting of four segments examining Asian, Latino, white and black responses to the uprising and directed by filmmakers of the same respective ethnicities, this Showtime presentation brandishes good intentions, but its insights prove glancing rather than penetrating, a problem not helped by the episodic structure. Theatrical distribution is planned for foreign territories, but similar hopes for domestic release couldn’t extend much further than specialized urban situations.
Producers have tried to unify the short stories dramatically by overlapping and dovetailing the action at the same locations and making the leading characters in some segments peripheral figures in others. Despite the use of four directors, there is also an attempt at stylistic unity through the use of the same cinematographer, editor and key crew members throughout.
All the same, the quality varies considerably. Weakest seg by far is the first, “Gold Mountain,” in which writer-director Galen Yuen attempts to delineate the familiar generational split between Old World Chinese parents and New World son while the family liquor store is being looted during the unrest.
Early part of the seg, in which the son and two teenage buddies drive a low-rider with lifts through South Central, scores some points in its presentation of how young “Buddha heads” feel pressured to act and talk “black” in the minority neighborhood.
But the dramatic situation feels contrived and insufficiently fleshed out, leading to a climax that’s pure hokey melodrama. Ineffectiveness of the 19 -minute episode encapsulates the problems of the whole film, in that there is time only to dramatize attitudes and situations, not to build well-rounded characters and generate earned emotions.
Second seg, the 22-minute “Caught in the Fever,” which was meant to be directed by writer Joe Vasquez before he died, is rather more engaging, as it traces how a young teen Latino couple goes over the line into joining the lawless hysteria despite their knowing better.
The various forces in play, including the conflict between the older brother who tries to get his teenage sibling to behave responsibly, the attitude of the kid’s wilder friend who thinks the riots make this the greatest day of his life, and the relative ethical superiority of the women to the men, are interesting and believable, and Alex Munoz directs with force and vibrancy. But the brief running time limits the piece to an expose of behavior rather than an examination of the reasons behind it.
Third episode, the 29-minute “Empty,” shifts focus to a clean-cut, white L.A. cop (Luke Perry), who begins his day asking, “What happened to this country? How did it go wrong? How did we go from Martin Luther King to Rodney King?,” and ends it stranded while a bunch of hostile youths surround him and set his car aflame, which provokes the cop to begin firing.
Writer-director Richard Di-Lello tries to lend his leading man a little depth by giving him an estranged wife, daughter and girlfriend, but the strongest scene takes place in the LAPD locker room, where cops talk about how there is no contingency plan in the event of violent reaction to an acquittal of the cops in the King beating case.
Climactic installment, the 21-minute “Homecoming Day,” throws the most balls in the air, as it ambitiously tries to relate a multiplicity of black generational perspectives. The central figure, Turner (Mario Van Peebles), has moved out of South Central with his pregnant wife to escape its negative influences, but when he goes back to the hood to see his mother (Cicely Tyson), who works at a barber shop, he not only gets an earful about the Watts riots of 1965, in which his own father died, but also gets sucked into the eye of the hurricane when the storm comes down.
Mario’s real dad, Melvin Van Peebles, plays a stubborn shopkeeper intent on defending his turf against the young punks. One of the potent but unresolved confrontations here has Turner arguing with some of his angry former buddies not to destroy their own neighborhood but to “Take it to Simi Valley,” only to be met with angry, unarticulated defiance. Writer-director David C. Johnson gets quite a few things going here, perhaps even too many for the short form to handle; the piece is in essence a nonstop argument giving voice to problems and attitudes toward them.
Overall picture certainly manages to suggest the diversity of viewpoints on the subject of racial discord, but only in sketchy strokes that don’t throw much new light on the matter. Result could provoke further discussion, but format preordains that its insights are superficial and audience emotional involvement stunted.Film moves along at a good clip, and actual news coverage of the riots helps broaden the view a bit. Re-created scenes of street violence are sometimes credible in a borderline way.