I purposely went in blind steering clear of IMDB, Roger Ebert and other reviewers. Produced from the good folks at National Geographic was this going to be another 113 mins of talking heads? At least from the opening credits (or lack thereof) I knew it wasn’t going to be funded mouthpiece from The Pew Institute.
We begin in 1960’s America where the tale of black persecution first hit the television networks. The deep discrimination (as we are all acutely aware) has been going on for 400 years or so prior to the rise of The Suburbs and cable television. This film does not linger in Jim Crow’s America for those looking for more on that era check out….I Am Not Your Negro (2016), 13th (2016) and Broken on All Sides.
So into the City of Angels we plunge. Reflecting 28 years later what is the first word that comes to mind when we think on LA is it Hollywood?- the silver screen? and Rodeo Drive or is rioting. It is not the first and won’t be the last city to be forever tied to shocking events- take Oklahoma after the destruction wrought by Tim and Terry.
The initial act lays the stage for the chaos to come. We meet a smirking George Bush senior. The apple never falls far from the tree and it is hard to miss the parallels of the House of Bush’s 2003 misadventures in Iraq. 60 or so seconds of a brutal firefight during Desert Storm foreshadows the deployment of the National Guard onto the LA streets. The exhausted servicemen (fire, police and army) one of which explains to the camera ‘ at least in the Gulf we could shoot- ‘we just have to sit here and take it…’
Latasha Harlins a schoolgirl who was gunned down in cold blood while on a shopping trip ratchets up the tension further. The injustice of the subsequent trial of Soon Ja Du again primes the viewer for what is to come. There are broader themes that run through- the role of the media, the growing surveillance state are all eluded to. Sometimes a crime is so shocking that even grainy black and footage can haunt the viewer.
The ‘90’s were a time of the roll-out of many home video cameras –‘let me get the shot’ an onlooker announces as looters pillage another ‘try and save’ store. There were of course no – 20 mega-pixel camera iPhones on the streets. Could we cope with every rubbernecker recording live on TikTck. How would our reaction to 9/11 differ if everyone in the towers could live-stream their last moments?
A powerful score moves the action along and the outpouring of emotion post King’s trial is visceral. In one memorable scene on verdict day- a Koon, Powell, Wind and Briseno supporter bring the policemen’s favourite snack donuts. A brief exchange on a bench outside the courthouse follows- ‘those guys are keeping back the jungle’ Remember this is the early 90’s not 1965 nor is it the south. Nooses are tightened across all states.
Protests quickly escalate into riots which beget looting spreading like the fires which gut entire city blocks. The violence erupts initially in South Central LA and Compton before reaching pockets of ‘well to do’ areas- even Hollywood is not immune. In Korea Town, the lifeblood of much the city’s economy witness their business which took years if not generations to build- destroyed in just a few night of flames.
Throughout phrases echo-
A Korean shop owner repeats the mantra ‘This is America’ appalled that this could be happening in a supposed first world country. Another lady hysterical cries ‘this is not fair..this is not fair!’. Others do not have a voice and lie beaten in the street bleeding out awaiting ambulances that will not come. Their crime? Being white at the wrong stoplight. These scenes turn even the strongest stomach and will leave you truly appalled. Younger plays of Rockstar’s massively popular Grand Theft Auto V will see the Korean shop owners armed with automatic weapons as a poignant example of life imitating art.
So do I recommend the film? Absolutely!
For those in their For those born after 92 and those like me who were only in diapers it is a crucial history lesson- begging the questions why did we not watch this in school? The film leaves as many questions hanging- there are no clear sides or righteous high ground to take. We recoil in despair at the looters but how many of us can truly say we wouldn’t take advantage and pilfer some houseplants! Across the pond, we have had our own (thankfully small) taste of the looting horror- through the 2011 riots sparked by the killing of Mark Duggan.
Hollywood and the media in general likes to paint a simple picture of dark vs light see- Star Wars and recently Game of Thrones. These narratives are straightforward for the audience to digest and go some way to shaping the zeitgeist. For a more nuanced take- check out David Simon’s The Wire. (I’m still amazed at how many have not watched this slow-burning masterpiece). In many ways, LA 92 poses more questions than it does answers- the stakes of which have only been heightened by recent events.
Thus the veneer of society is thin- we would be wise to remember Lenin’s words ‘every society is three meals away from chaos.
The final scene returns full circle to a statement that rang out at the start of the film.
”What shall it avail our nation if we can place a man on the moon, but cannot cure the sickness in our cities?”
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