As heartrending as it is heart-racing, “LA 92” will make an uneasy fit when it gets broadcast on National Geographic alongside episodes of “Monster Fish” and “Locked Up Abroad.” Receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s unnerving documentary is one of several retrospectives coming out this year on the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It remains to be seen how other televisual docs like John Ridley’s “Let It Fall” for ABC or Showtime’s “Burn Motherf*cker, Burn!” will fare in the final reckoning. But viewed on its own, “LA 92” is not just a defining work on the riots and a wrenching visual essay on power, race, media, and mob violence in the modern era, but also one of the year’s best documentaries.
Like Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made In America,” “LA 92” takes a wide-angle, slow-burn approach to its kinetic topic while retaining a taut structure. Unlike contemporary news coverage, and much commentary about the riots afterward, the documentary doesn’t limit itself to a simple cause-and-effect schematic. The quick-take view of the riots has been that it was a response to the not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King trial. The movie argues that while the acquittal of the four Los Angeles police officers charged with excessive force after being caught on videotape beating King during a March 1991 traffic stop was an accelerant, the fuse had been lit years before.
Lindsay and Martin’s framing device places the 1992 riots in the context of August 1965. That month, rumors of LAPD harassment — contextualized here by radio audio of officers casually using racial epithets — sparked a riot in the primarily black Watts neighborhood. The days of fire and riots that followed saw National Guard troops with fixed bayonets taking over Watts on national television. The result was 34 dead, nearly all of them black, and a legacy of mistrust. “It’ll never stop,” says one man to a reporter in the aftermath of riots, his tragic tone foreshadowing the myopia that followed.
Jumping to March 1991, “LA 92” brackets the hand grenade-like release of the video that captured the King beating with the month’s other big news story: the conclusion of Desert Storm. (The clip of President George H. W. Bush announcing the cessation of hostilities might seem out of place at first, but the reason for its inclusion becomes clear in the powerful concluding montage.) LAPD chief Daryl Gates, the protégé of chief William Parker, turned a blind eye toward his officers’ systemic racism and rights violations, initially trying to blow off the accusations as “human error,” and is even seen here essentially threatening the city council with civic disorder if they continued criticizing his officers.
Confirming suspicions that the city’s power structure was closing ranks around the offenders, the trial was moved out to the majority-white community of Simi Valley. This was ostensibly done to assure a fair trial, even though as one commentator notes, massive show trials like those for Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson were kept in downtown Los Angeles. Adding to the sense that the city’s black community was under attack was the killing later in March 1991 of Latasha Harlins, an unarmed black 15-year-old shot in the back by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du, who accused her of theft. The protests that followed took on a racial hue, with black marchers shouting, “Go back to Korea!” Even though the shooting was caught on video and Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, Du received no jail time, only a fine, probation, and community service. Thus, another match for the violence to come was lit.
By splicing together its deep vault of news clips with epic urban vista views of Los Angeles and an eerily plaintive score, “LA 92” makes the unspoken argument that by the time the King trial verdict came down on April 29, 1992, the metropolis was already a seething cauldron. Once the officers are pronounced not guilty, the movie starts an inexorable build to the explosion later that day. While most stories on the riots jump to the first disturbances at the intersection of Florence and Normandie as the flash point, the filmmakers make clear that inchoate, ad-hoc demonstrations sprang up almost immediately at the Simi courthouse and LAPD headquarters.
But within a matter of hours, rioters in South Central were attacking motorists, frequently choosing their targets based on race. The voices we hear, from the white LAPD defender shouting “they’re keeping back the jungle!” to the black rioter directing others to go after the “Buddha heads” and “white boys” but to “let the Mexicans through,” are those of the diverse city’s uneasy racial balance coming apart. As the city burns, righteous anger over the verdicts gives way to an entropic freefall.
Once businesses are smashed up by rioters looking to vent rage, multi-ethnic mobs with no seeming stake in the protests start running in to grab whatever they can. Pairing institutionalized racism with a staggering lack of leadership, the LAPD essentially stands down as the violence mounts and random people are beaten and shot. In one of the more haunting clips, a local newscaster shows a blank-eyed man walking down a street and lighting every palm tree he passes on fire. The movie arcs from blazing destruction to eerie tension and back again.
Following a welcome trend in documentaries, Lindsay and Martin forego the use of contextualizing talking-head interviews. This device can leave the viewer feeling unmoored at times, particularly as the riots continue to spiral in the face of ineffectual law enforcement and the sense that decades of fury at the city’s elites has finally been uncorked. But this uneasiness works in the movie’s favor, leaving the audience tense and occasionally sickened. Without the presence of modern interviews that help put the riots in whatever context makes sense to that particular commentator, the dozens of deaths and widespread devastation could be put too easily in a neat little box.
The broad-spectrum approach of “LA 92” resists easy answers while still holding a strong editorial viewpoint about the overlapping institutional defects that led to the riots. It’s a delicate dance, holding the powers that be to account while not ignoring the breakdown in civil society that occurred at an individual level. There are a lot of victims here and very few heroes amid the flickering warnings of the fire next time. [A]