Los Angeles riots from new angles

LA 92 re-examines the 1992 Los Angeles riots through the use of archival footage.
LA 92 re-examines the 1992 Los Angeles riots through the use of archival footage.PHOTO: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

LA 92, a film on the racial riots in Los Angeles in 1992, seeks to bring a new understanding of the event through raw and private footage

Twenty five years after Los Angeles erupted in race riots - leading to more than 60 deaths, 11,000 arrests and US$1 billion in property damage - a raft of new films is trying to make sense of it all.

Airing on American television last month were no fewer than six documentaries revisiting the April 29 to May 4 riots of 1992, which were triggered by the acquittal of four white policemen caught on video savagely beating Rodney King, a black man.

These include Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, a film by Oscar winner John Ridley (12 Years A Slave, 2013); LA Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later by John Singleton (Boyz N The Hood, 1991); and LA 92 by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, an archival footage- based film airing in Singapore on Wednesday at 9pm on the National Geographic Channel.

Lindsay and Martin - who won an Oscar for Undefeated, their 2011 documentary about the struggles of a high-school football team - spoke to The Straits Times in Los Angeles earlier this year.

They say the riots are still relevant because of the continuing racial inequality and police brutality in the United States.

Martin, 37, believes re-examining the outbreaks of violence and looting - which were prompted by a mostly-white jury's acquittal of the men who beat King - will provide context for the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly its contention that there is a long history of police violence and systemic injustice against African Americans.

"It's an opportunity to look at our past and deconstruct our present," he says.

But the events of 1992 hold significance for more than just the African-American community or even the US.

For one thing, the footage of the King beating - filmed by local resident George Holliday on his camcorder - represented "the birth of citizen journalism", Martin says.

Adds Lindsay, 38: "There have been more and more videos showing police brutality coming out, but this is the first and perhaps the most famous."

By tracking down thousands of VHS and Betamax tapes of raw and private footage - from news outlets as well as amateur videographers - the film-makers hope to present the riots from fresh perspectives.

This includes the experience of residents and shop-owners in the city's Koreatown.

Left by police to fend for themselves, many Korean Americans saw their businesses looted or burned to the ground.

Martin says LA 92's footage will cast the actions of shop-owners - some of whom picked up baseball bats and other weapons to defend themselves - in a different light.

"What you've traditionally seen is the narrative of Korean Americans taking up arms and it looking like a very violent action, versus reshaping it into an action that feels almost justified.

"We had access to very candid conversations that were happening internally within the (Korean) community which totally reframe the experience of what you've seen."

The film-makers went through hours of footage from Korean Broadcasting System - South Korea's national public broadcaster - as well as Los Angeles-based RadioKorea to do this.

"RadioKorea was a hub for the community to talk to one another and get information that was different from what was being broadcast by the national media.

"RadioKorea was our biggest asset in reshaping the narrative of how we viewed the Korean-American experience," says Martin.

One of the film's producers, Jonathan Chinn, 49, suggests a reason for the recent wave of documentaries and dramas about contentious episodes in US race relations, including the 1994 to 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial, which was itself shaped by the LA riots.

Pointing to the success of the drama series The People V. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which swept the Emmys last year with nine wins, and the documentary O.J.: Made In America, which picked up the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in February, he says: "I think the reason O.J.'s story resonated, both in the scripted and the unscripted space, is because the issue of race in America is something that we are struggling with as a nation as much as we ever have."

"It's one of the Achilles' heels of the United States. Collectively, as a country, we want to understand it.

"And there are these moments -such as the LA riots and the trial of O.J. - where emotions got the better of us as a country and people were divided along the lines of white and black. Looking at these moments is a way of sorting through the struggle."

Lindsay says LA 92 is not necessarily trying to "pinpoint the reasons" that triggered the riots, but to promote greater understanding by immersing viewers in what it was like to live through them.

"So when we get near the end of the film, you are feeling what a lot of people in Los Angeles were feeling - including this desire to want to talk about these issues and try to come up with solutions."

•LA 92 airs on Wednesday at 9pm on the National Geographic Channel (Singtel TV Channel 201 and StarHub TV Channel 411).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2017, with the headline 'Los Angeles riots from new angles'. Print Edition | Subscribe