Review: Five L.A. Riots Documentaries Chronicle History, Impact and Effects 25 Years Later

Burn Motherfucker, Burn!
Courtesy of Showtime/Los Angeles City Archives

On March 3, 1991, in an incident that became national news, white bystander George Holliday filmed several Los Angeles police officers savagely beating a unarmed black man named Rodney King. Despite the brutality caught on tape, King’s assailants were all acquitted, 25 years ago, on April 29, 1992 — sparking upheaval and violence in South Central L.A. that caused 54 deaths and $1 billion in property damage.

The anniversary has compelled several filmmakers to look back on those transformative, pivotal events. Like other events in recent history — such as the well-rendered treatments of the O.J. Simpson trial — the problem with telling the history of the 1992 unrest is not a lack of information but instead a total deluge of it. The much-reproduced and still-horrifying grainy footage King’s beating is the foundational footage for each of these films, from the hourlong installment of Smithsonian’s “The Lost Tapes” (which has also covered other major events) to the clear masterpiece of the bunch, John Ridley’s “Let It Fall.” What’s intriguing about all five of these documentaries is how much each reinforces the value of the others. There is a clear range of production values and overall quality, but each finds a way to tap into a particular angle — whether those are eyewitness accounts, never-before-released recordings, extraordinary editing, or historical framing. Despite sharing essentially the exact same material, the five films are all quite different.

“LA 92,” on National Geographic, is constructed entirely of archival footage, edited together with rigorous precision. Other documentaries have narrating voiceovers. “LA 92” strings together exposition and context from extant, period-specific footage — snippets from the anchors, soundbites from politicians, on-the-ground interviews during the unrest. It’s a remarkable commentary on overlapping media, and an immersive history of the moment.

“Burn, Motherf**ker, Burn!,” on Showtime, begins by offering up a history of the 1965 Watts riots — demonstrating how the events of 1992 were so deeply rooted in how South Central Los Angeles and the LAPD clashed nearly 30 years prior. It also tracks the cultural history of African-Americans in Los Angeles from when communities first started forming, through the Watts riots, and into the rap tracks and gang warfare of the ’80s. In an incredible segment with a diverse set of Angelenos, including Korean-American hip-hop artists, documentarian Sacha Jenkins asks about the violence between Korean immigrants and black rioters before and during the uprising. In between discussing the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du, the film listens to “Black Korea” by Ice Cube, released in 1991.

Less affecting, but still intriguing: “The Lost Tapes” emphasizes the previously unseen and unheard — including, most affectingly, a litany of recordings from KJLH in Compton. Heard one after another as the archival footage unspools, they provide a soundtrack to the violence that sharply contrasts with the anger and violence of the streets. Similarly, John Singleton’s “L.A. Burning” on A&E doesn’t feel vital in its retelling, but gets intriguing once it moves past the riots to focus on a question hanging over the story of 1992: How does a black man reconcile these truths and survive, in this world?

What sets “Let It Fall” apart is its journalistic sensibility — the hallmark of the best documentaries. Ridley was joined by a team of ABC News reporters to make the ABC documentary, and it shows. “Let It Fall” goes a step further than the other films to really investigate the events of those three days, searching for patterns and clues. The other films in this collection of debuts essentially make the same major points, nearly with identical footage: King, Harlins, the Watts riots, the LAPD, and several harrowing hours at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. “Let It Fall” covers all of these things, and shares much of its archival footage and interview subjects with the other documentaries. And yet there are moments in “Let It Fall” that feel like a significant reframing of the riots, both in terms of what actually happened and in terms of who’s really to blame.

What’s always astonishing about Ridley is how precisely he measures the distance of objectivity from his subject. He is never so close to the material that he imparts his own spin on it, but he is never so far removed as to diminish its human element, either. Ridley highlights the moments of kindness that characterized the riots as much as he explores the tinderbox of anger and outrage; he observes how some people, acting with the best intentions, made a chaotic situation explosively worse for others. Of all of these documentarians, he has the strongest sense of narrative structure; characters start to tell their stories before Ridley tells us who they are, which makes each voice a slowly dawning realization waiting to happen. And in an extraordinary coup, he finds footage from three different camera angles on the ground on the night of April 29, 1992. If the other films are individually a showcase of different ways to look at the riots, “Let It Fall” is about finding the balance between them all.

Throughout all the films, King’s beating is witnessed over and over again, in different contexts, with occasionally different significance. In “The Lost Tapes: LA Riots,” the King beating is showcased almost at the very beginning. In “Burn, Motherf**ker, Burn!” it’s so deep into the storytelling it’s almost an afterthought.

After watching the horrible footage of King being assaulted (again), Congresswoman Karen Bass offers quite a different take on it, in “Burn, Motherf**ker, Burn!” “This is a terrible thing to say. We all felt bad for his beating. But we cheered the fact that it was finally documented.” But what first seemed like damning evidence — a smoking gun — wasn’t able to change Los Angeles’ paradigm. The documentaries about 1992 are about re-examining the extant archive of material about King. They are also about trying to re-assert the power of videotaped truth, 25 years after realizing its surprising, galling, and definitively maddening limits.

‘L.A. Burning’
Directors, One9, Erik Parker

Executive producers, John Singleton, Tara Long, John Morayniss, Mark Ford, Kevin Lopez, Trevor Engelson, Elaine Frontain Bryant, Shelly Tatro, Brad Abramson.
A&E: Tues. April 18, 9 p.m. 120 min.

‘Burn, Motherf**cker, Burn’
Director, Sacha Jenkins

Executive producer, Misha Louy
Showtime: Fri. April 21, 9 p.m. 90 min.

‘The Lost Tapes: L.A. Riots’
Executive producers, David Royle, Charles Poe, John Cavanagh.

Smithsonian: Sun. April 23, 8 p.m. 60 min.

‘Let It Fall’
Director, John Ridley

Executive producer, Jeanmarie Condon
ABC: Fri. April 28, 9 p.m. 120 min.

‘LA 92’
Directors, Dan Lindsay, TJ Martin

Executive producers, Matt Renner, Tim Pastore
National Geographic” Sun. April 30, 9 p.m. 120 min.

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  1. Tonie Hielscher says:

    Sad that you report about the riots of the 90’s, what about the 5 day riots August 1965. Don’t forget about all the issues involving history, people need to know this was the norm for the area and it’s residents. If you’re going to just pleasrize the 90’s, why bother, tell it all

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