For everyone who lived in the Los Angeles Metro area at the time — and countless millions upon millions of others watching live on television — the horrific events that transpired beginning April 29, 1992, will forever be etched in memory.
Twenty-five years later, at least four major documentaries are examining the deadly violence and chaos that broke out after a Simi Valley, Calif., jury acquitted four LAPD officers of beating motorist Rodney King at the culmination of a high-speed chase he led them on after refusing to pull over for a traffic stop.
The 1991 police beating of King, an ex-con who was out on parole, was captured on home video and replayed endlessly, leading to further resentment against the Los Angeles Police Department, which already had an infamous reputation for using excessive force, including deploying battering rams to demolish homes of suspected drug dealers at the time.
Emotions ran high during the trial of the four officers charged with beating King, and when they were acquitted, huge swaths of Los Angeles turned into a war zone where utter chaos reigned. The riots went on for six days before being quelled by the National Guard. Nearly 60 people were killed, hundreds more were injured and close to 900 homes and businesses — not to mention jobs — were lost in the widespread destruction, estimated to be more than $1 billion.
Each of the four documentaries uses its own storytelling methods in examining the violence of police and the citizenry, which included the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny in the heart of the riot area at Florence and Normandie in South Central L.A., as news helicopters broadcast it live.
Director John Singleton’s “L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later,” which aired on A&E earlier this week, relies on personal accounts of participants, victims and close observers, with most of the interviews filmed on the streets where the events happened.
Singleton at that point had already been nominated for an Oscar for “Boyz in the Hood,” and was on his way to the set of another movie when the riots broke out. In the documentary, the director, who had grown up in South-Central Los Angeles, looks back at the verdict that stunned the world and its aftermath.
In “Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn,” which will run on Showtime, documentarian Sacha Jenkins focuses on the history of the LAPD and its relationships with communities of color in Los Angeles.
“Burn” puts the events into context by going back 30 years in LA history, to a deadly raid on a Nation of Islam mosque, the 1965 Watts riots and the rise of militarized law enforcement tactics incorporated by the LAPD under Police Chief William Parker and his protégé, Chief Daryl Gates, who took over in 1978.
Gates, who resigned later in 1992 (his tenure as chief second only to that of Parker), was accused of pulling back his LAPD forces in riot areas as payback to those communities, giving another angle to film’s provocative title. The chief notoriously left Parker Center, LAPD’s downtown L.A. headquarters, shortly after the hostilities broke out to travel 11 miles to a political fundraising event in the wealthy Brentwood section of Los Angeles.
Jenkins interviews current chief Charlie Beck, retired LAPD officers, historians, gang experts, a civil rights attorney, a former Black Panther and residents of South L.A.
There are no interviews in “The Lost Tapes: LA Riots,” premiering Sunday on Smithsonian Channel. It’s another installment in a series that aims to capture the authentic essence of historical events with vérité footage, photographs, media reports and audio recordings.
The hour-long documentary, directed by the Peabody Award-winning Tom Jennings, includes never before heard Los Angeles Fire Department dispatch calls in which firefighters are heard desperately calling for police backup as they were being attacked by rioters.
Jennings also discovered that the LAPD had sent its own camera crews into riot area flashpoints. Another source used is audio from radio station KJLH in Compton, which dropped its music format and went all news and talk for three days straight, becoming an essential outlet for the community to receive and share information.
“Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” is Oscar winner John Ridley’s first documentary. The writer of “12 Years a Slave” and creator of “American Crime” on ABC and Showtime’s just-launched “Guerrilla” teamed with ABC News’ Lincoln Square Productions for the nearly 2½-hour piece, which opens theatrically today, Friday, April 21. A shorter version will air next Friday on ABC.
Ridley, whose recent projects focus on race and class struggles, had just moved from New York to the Fairfax district of Los Angeles when the riots broke out.
Like the others, “Let It Fall” shows the infamously familiar home video of the King beating on Foothill Boulevard shot by George Holliday from his apartment in Lake View Terrace. It offers new perspectives of the mayhem that resulted by interviewing the people most closely involved. The filmmakers say they even reached out to the four officers involved in assaulting King, but not surprisingly, they declined to participate.
We spoke with the creative forces behind these filmic examinations of the watershed 1992 events that influenced the political, social and cultural fabric of Los Angeles — and the nation.
Here are some of the highlights of our conversation.
TVWeek: Your documentary went to great lengths to show the historical context in which the events of April 1992 unfolded. Looking back, what were some of the biggest revelations to you personally?
Jeanmarie Condon (executive producer, “Let It Fall”): The insight was how beautiful but volatile the American experiment really is. Each of these people no matter where they were from — they all came to L.A. full of hope and ambition for better things. We are audacious in this country in that so many of us do believe that people from such very different backgrounds can live together and treat one another with equal respect. They are uniquely placed to tell us, listen: That is hard and it requires care and vigilance to protect that. Nearly every person we interviewed revealed in his or her own way — not overtly but through the details they shared and the emotions they recalled — how much we depend on one another to make sure the bonds that keep us going as a people are taken care of — how interconnected we really are.
Sacha Jenkins: Looking back at all of the history that pre-dates the ’92 uprising, it’s shocking to see how systematically abusive the Los Angeles Police Department was when it came to the way in which they “occupied” the black and brown communities there. It was so flagrant, so relentlessly reckless. They were the law and above it at the same time. Today there are a lot of distractions. Today it is easy to get caught up in the madness of now. But today’s madness and yesterday’s madness aren’t distant cousins — they’re twins.
TVWeek: Your documentary on the events of April 1992 is unique as it is non-narrated and does not feature any interviews. What is it that you wanted to explore with this documentary?
Tom Jennings: The Los Angeles riots in 1992 were a major moment in recent history. By not having a narrator “telling” the audience what they are seeing, or by having interviews explaining “what it was like” to be there, viewers experience what happened during those tragic days in real time — as if the events are unfolding in front of their eyes. Documentaries that look back on events can be highly effective in recounting the experiences of people who lived through that time. The goal of our documentary is to let viewers themselves experience it, and come to their own conclusions about what happened and why. We feel it is the purest form of documentary storytelling.
TVWeek: Tom, you were a print reporter in L.A. at the time. Tell us about your experiences and some of the most important insights you gleaned from viewing and compiling the footage 25 years later.
Jennings: I was in the newsroom of the newspaper where I worked when the verdicts in the King beating trial were being announced. All the reporters expected the officers to be found guilty of something — there were four officers on trial and there were multiple charges against them. But when the verdicts were read one after another after another — “not guilty, not guilty, not guilty” — all I could think was, “This is not going to be good.” Within hours we were all out on the streets trying to document what was happening. I remember being scared. I remember being in places where gunfire was close. I remember standing next to raging fires. I remember people looting stores. And I remember some residents watching from a distance being afraid of what was happening in their neighborhoods. They were afraid, and for good reason. I remember that fear, and I felt it, too. I knew this was history in the making, but it was one of the most frightening things I’d ever experienced.
Looking back at the footage, the radio programs broadcasting live, combined with police and fire department dispatches, the true chaos of the event came to light. The violence, looting and fires were spread over a wide area. The LAPD may have expected some outrage if the white officers on trial for beating motorist Rodney King were found not guilty, but I don’t believe the police, the city, civic leaders or really anyone expected the level of unrest that occurred in the hours after the verdicts.
TVWeek: Looking back, what were some of the biggest revelations to you personally?
Jenkins: The diverse range of voices that I talked to for the film, I believe, get us all that much closer to the sharpest picture possible. Meaning, there is always more than one way to view a historical event. B Real of Cypress Hill and Everlast from House of Pain were tripping on mushrooms when they first saw the smoke afloat above Los Angeles — they initially thought they were witnessing the Apocalypse! Chief Charlie Beck described the event as “total chaos,” while Perry Farrell from Jane’s Addiction said the madness was essentially therapy. I learned that the ’92 uprising touched different people in different ways and the differences live inside of where folks are in society: One person’s “riot” is someone else’s clawing for survival.
Condon: I think I knew this intuitively but I really felt in a visceral way as we did these interviews how history is rarely the product of someone’s grand design. It’s personal. History is made in those moments when individuals have to make decisions often under pressure and when it’s hard to see clearly. Whether they decide to do something heroic or something inhumane or choose to do nothing. Those very personal and very human reactions can set off chains of events that change the course of human history and each of those decisions is a combination of circumstances at that moment and at the same time of everything that has come before, all we have seen and heard or felt in our lives — of our community and family histories. It’s pretty sobering to realize just how true that is.
TVWeek: What are some lessons that might be learned and applied to current-day race relations and police interactions in communities?
Jennings: After the L.A. Riots the city of Los Angeles and the LAPD made changes to improve relations with minority communities. The “us versus them” mentality between the police and residents was replaced by “community-based policing,” which strives to connect officers with the people they serve in ways that help avoid distrust. It’s been working. Even just this week, the Los Angeles Police Commission recommended new guidelines for officers to help decrease the use of deadly force in confrontations with suspects, with an emphasis on non-lethal ways to avoid bloodshed.
Los Angeles continues to be a work-in-progress when it comes to relations between its minority communities and the police. There is still distrust of the police by many, but as long as people from the community and representatives of law enforcement are willing to hear each other out, there’s a chance that something as horrific as the riots can be avoided. I believe that is the legacy of what happened — the acknowledgment that all sides must be willing to listen to each other.
TVWeek: What do you hope audiences take away from viewing your respective programs?
Condon: We never wanted to preach. We wanted people to understand this story from deep inside it. Feel the emotional truths these people lived and do the math, each person viewing it himself.
But I do think some larger truths are inescapable. One is this: When our system of justice fails one group of people it eventually fails everyone. Nobody in this story emerged without suffering the tragic consequences of that. Eventually if you let it fall apart for one group it all falls down on everyone. That, I think, is the great lesson of what you see and hear in these stories.
I hope that a person watching this will emerge with a sense of shared humanity even with those whom you don’t identify with. That’s really the only way forward. We talked to everyone not just about the events of 1992 but about the entire arc of their lives — what brought them or their families to this city. What began to emerge is how much so many of their stories had in common.
We had people in South Central tell us about coming here to flee the violence of the voting rights era; South Korean Americans who came and worked three jobs to make better lives for their kids; cops who came here from small towns to join the proudest police force in the country, because they wanted to be the best.
There is a little bit of all of our stories, or all of our family stories, in each of these people. I think we wanted to locate that part of each individual in the doc so that as each of them traveled from a place of hope to a place of incalculable loss and pain the rest of us could better access how that happened.
Jennings: My hope is that viewers will come away from our film with a deeper understanding of why the L.A. Riots occurred, how minority communities can feel so alienated from the law enforcement people assigned to protect them, how that dynamic can change, and how we can prevent something like the L.A. Riots from happening again.
Jenkins: I hope viewers walk away having a better understanding of how a good portion of folks of color in America feel about the way America has treated us for generations. What we’ve seen historically haven’t been random flare-ups by people who don’t have control over their emotions. When you put humans in a cage and turn up the heat, sparks will eventually spread beyond the shadows of said box. The next thing you know, we are ALL screaming fire! Some of us will be screaming “Burn, Motherfucker, Burn!”
(“Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn” premieres on Showtime April 21 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. “The Lost Tapes: LA Riots” premieres on Smithsonian Channel April 23 at 8 p.m. ET/PT. “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” opens in theaters April 21 and airs on ABC April 28 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.)