It’s been 30 years since the death of Latasha Harlins, and through the efforts of her family and a new documentary, South Central Los Angeles is embracing her legacy in a new way.
In March 1991, Harlins was a 15-year-old girl, grabbing a bottle of orange juice from her local corner store when the store owner accused her of stealing the juice. A brief physical altercation followed and the store owner shot Harlins in the head, killing her. The two dollars to pay for the juice were later found in Harlins’ hand.
During the trial, Harlins was painted as a threat to the store owner, but security camera footage told a different story. The store owner was ultimately sentenced to five years of probation and a $500 fine. She served no jail time. It seemed scant justice, and Harlins’ death — and the security camera video that was shown repeatedly on local news — became one of the catalysts for the Los Angeles uprising just over a year later.
That’s all that most who remember Harlins know about her: a teenager who was racially profiled and killed in a matter of minutes. But Sophia Nahli Allison’s Academy Award-nominated documentary short “A Love Song for Latasha” adds a deeper perspective by telling the story of Latasha, the living girl, rather than the brief moment that pushed her name to notoriety.
“When we see life, it becomes a tangible thing that we can hold onto, that we can identify, that is evidence of [Harlins’] existence,” Allison tells Variety. With testimonials from Harlins’ cousin, Shinese Harlins, and best friend, Ty O’Bard, “A Love Song for Latasha” presents a vivid celebration of a 15-year-old Black girl’s life. Allison even made the surprising choice to omit the footage of the shooting. Instead, the film highlights Harlins’ story with a mix of animation and appearances by ordinary girls — not actors. She uses an experimental approach to breathe new life into Harlins’ narrative.
The film is a salve for the community’s untreated wound and balm for those Harlins left behind, notably Shinese and Ty. Yet it also replies to the recent killings of Black people by examining the past and making the case that a reckoning is due in the U.S. for Black women and young girls who have become victims of racist violence.
“This is a story that needed to be known. It’s a story that needed to be revisited. This country needed to understand that this is a cyclical pattern,” Allison says. “There’s too many Black women and Black girls that have been erased within this process, which is why it’s so important for movements like Say Her Name and #MeToo, where we really re-center the experiences, the truths, of Black women and Black girls.”
The protests and demands for racial justice that started in the summer of 2020 saw Angelenos and millions around the world don masks, leave their homes and hit the streets, despite the dangers of the pandemic, to protest police brutality, racism and injustice. That also brought the story of Latasha Harlins back to the forefront, reopening the old wounds of South Central.
“Latasha was a baby,” says Allison. “Fifteen is so young — and that’s what we need to remind people, that this was not an adult woman. This was not someone that should have been seen as a threat.”
Earlier this year, a mural of Latasha honoring her life was unveiled at her childhood recreation center in South LA. The mural shows Latasha’s youthful face surrounded by poetry she wrote and words of encouragement she would tell her friends, notably “We Queens.” It was recently announced that the recreation center and surrounding playground will be renamed in Latasha’s honor. It’s one of the many small steps towards the community healing 30 years later. Allison hopes that her film will help, starting with those who were closest to Harlins.
“The biggest thing was always that Ty and Shinese are healing through this process,” says Allison. “That’s something that I did witness, that Ty and Shinese felt safe. They felt protected in sharing these memories, sharing these stories. To me, if the people directly affected by this death are healing, then the community can heal, too.”
In many ways, “A Love Song for Latasha” is an extension of the Say Her Name movement. It’s a reminder that a name should not be defined by a violent end—it represents unfulfilled hopes and dreams. Recognition for the film only furthers the impact of Latasha’s life and who she was –– a charismatic and wise adolescent girl from Los Angeles. Acknowledging this impact, Allison also admits the honor of an Academy Award could change the way many young Black girls view themselves.
“When I think about that in regards to Latasha’s story, I can’t help but think about all the other Black women that this means something for, the young Black girls watching that never thought their story was important, never thought that their existence was worthy of being remembered. It’s long overdue. It’s long overdue for Latasha to receive this type of recognition,” she says.
“It means that … that we will continue to not only fight for Latasha, but for all Black girls, for all Black women. We will continue to fight for Black women who are trying to retell their stories right now, who are trying to hold one another up.
“So for me, this means something huge for her cousin Shinese and her best friend Ty. This means that they’ve always kept Latasha with them, that this fight for justice was never over and Latasha would never be erased. Latasha is always going to be here with us.”