The animus between African-Americans and the Los Angeles Police Dept. is explored in fascinating detail by “Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots,” marking the 20th anniversary of the widespread unrest unleashed by the “not guilty” verdict in the Rodney King beating. Writer-director Mark Ford has done a splendidly economical job in capturing the complexity and history of that anger, and the role rap music played in powerfully voicing community discontent. Although this VH1 documentary ostensibly looks backward, in light of the Trayvon Martin case, the subject matter feels both sobering and timely.
Narrated by Snoop Dogg, who is among the producers, “Uprising” begins by taking King back to the scene of his arrest and pummeling by LAPD officers in 1992, which was captured on amateur video.
As filmmaker John Singleton recalls, after years of abuse by police, there was a strange jubilation in the African-American community, validating their claims, because somebody “finally got them on tape doing this.” Or, as civil-rights attorney Connie Rice puts it, the city and nation got the chance to “see what everyday African-Americans have been talking about for 20 years” — an LAPD rooted in the militaristic approach of former chief William Parker, which was embraced by then-chief Daryl Gates.
Those feelings erupted when the officers were acquitted, birthing cries of, “No justice, no peace,” and resulting in wholesale looting and random violence.
Without apologizing for that, “Uprising” looks deeper into its origins, including the lack of economic opportunity following the Watts Riots; longstanding accusations of racism by the LAPD; and festering resentment over the probation given a Korean store owner for shooting an African-American teenager, LaTasha Harlins, the year before.
Ford also chronicles how hip-hop became a virtual soundtrack for the uprising, with N.W.A.’s “F tha Police” and Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” both alarming the establishment and articulating the sense of rage and detachment, especially among black youths. And while those feelings remain raw, as the documentary notes, hip-hop was subsequently absorbed into mainstream culture, so we get Snoop hanging out at Comedy Central roasts and Ice-T graduating to an E! channel show and the “Law & Order” franchise.
In addition to King, Ford finds other ordinary people who received fleeting fame or notoriety during the riots, including Korean gunstore owner David Joo, famously captured defending local merchants with a handgun; and Henry Watson, one of the “L.A. Four” convicted in the senseless beating of truck driver Reginald Denny. Even now, it’s jarring to hear Todd Boyd, a USC sociology professor, say he “didn’t shed a tear” for Denny, whose only crime was being in the wrong intersection as the riots spun out of control, after the outnumbered police retreated.
“Uprising” is more than just a snapshot in time; rather, it’s a primer on the underpinnings of racial unrest, and perhaps a warning. It’s among the best of the VH1 documentaries, which, for once, really do go “behind the music” — and in the process often unearth something profound, if not necessarily reassuring.