Looking Back on the L.A. Riots Through Five Documentaries

The glut of new films, marking the 25th anniversary of the unrest, are imperfect but panoramic portrayals of the events that shook the city and the nation.

A car burns at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues, which is considered the flashpoint of the L.A. Riots in 1992.
A car burns at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues, which is considered the flashpoint of the L.A. Riots in 1992. (Steve Grayson / WireImage / National Geogrphic)

It’s not even properly a documentary at all, but one of the most insightful moments of cultural reflection on the L.A. Riots came just months after the fires in South Central and Koreatown ceased burning. In the September Season 6 premiere of A Different World, protagonists Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) and Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) explore Los Angeles the day a jury handed down not-guilty verdicts for the four officers involved in the infamous Rodney King beating, which helped spark the unrest that became one of the most indelible race riots in American history. The two-part episode is ambitious, a rare on-location retelling that blends ample newsreel footage, radio snippets, and provocative performance art with a sitcom’s serial lesson-telling and a black family show’s moral framework. The episode is all the more remarkable because of the fabled role A Different World’s parent show The Cosby Show, which aired its series finale during the riots, supposedly had in helping to end the city-wide violence.

Much has changed in the decades since the riots, which started 25 years ago on April 29, 1992. Today’s fires have come in the forms of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte, and with the recognition that history can inform America’s stubborn race problems often comes a call for probing the past for answers. And although the actual events of the L.A. Riots remain the same, they carry new ways of understanding the country today.

Perhaps that’s why there are so many documentaries out now on the riots to commemorate their 25th anniversary.

At least five documentaries released this week seek to accomplish their own versions of what that A Different World episode attempted two-and-half decades ago: to outline a theory of causality for and final implications of the L.A. Riots. National Geographic’s full-length documentary LA 92, directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, premiered on April 21 at the Tribeca Film Festival. The Smithsonian Channel’s Lost Tapes episode on the L.A. Riots is currently streaming online and airing regularly on the channel. Fresh off controversy over the perceived erasure of black women activists in his Guerrilla miniseries, the director John Ridley’s Let it Fall, produced in conjunction with ABC, is out both in a theatrical run and on the network. A&E’s L.A. Burning, directed by Erik Parker and One9 and executive-produced by John Singleton, and Showtime’s Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn!, directed by Sacha Jenkins, both round out the list and are available via streaming and on television.

The documentaries, running somewhere close to nine hours combined, are almost certainly the definition of oversaturation. The basic chronology and the major moments—Rodney King’s savage beating by police on March 3, 1992, Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du’s fatal shooting of the black teen Latasha Harlins two weeks later, the King trial and acquittals, the early disturbances at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, the spread of violence in the streets, the military mobilization, and the calls for peace—are basically the same. And although each director brings forward a trove of novel clips and interviews, the bulk of the newsreel footage is the same, and many of the same people are interviewed from film to film. For any viewer simply coming to the documentaries for a surface education or who doesn’t want to see Rodney King’s beating a half-dozen times, just about any will do, and the Smithsonian Channel’s Lost Tapes episode is the shortest and the most straightforward.

Still, a meta-analysis of all of the films makes for an almost 360-degree view of the ways in which the violent riots were both children of a deeper American sickness and the progenitors of its modern form. LA 92 is probably the best way to perceive the riots as Americans across the country saw it unfold on the news, interspersed as it is with speeches from politicians like then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, President George H.W. Bush, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Lost Tapes, which relies more heavily on uncovered footage from internal LAPD documentarians and home videos from residents, gives the inverse—a more intimate and tangible view of the violence and destruction from the riots across all of the city’s different ethnic enclaves and the conflicting emotions that resulted. A&E’s L.A. Burning walks a tightrope between introspective interviews and kinetic pieces of archival footage, but its main value comes in the narration at points by Cecil Murray, who during his tenure at the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles (FAME) was a moral center for the city. The most powerful bit comes from his truncation of the famous Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred? ... Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? ... Or does it explode?”

Ridley’s Let It Fall and Jenkins’s Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn! are the most interesting of the films, for different reasons. The latter has the longest historical tail and the most direct parallels to the present, and it is the most concerned with historical contextualizing in the vein of Ava DuVernay’s recent documentary 13th, which explored the deep roots of mass incarceration in the United States. Although all of the documentaries connect the 1992 L.A. Riots to the 1965 Watts Riots in some way, Jenkins’s telling is the most deliberate. He begins the film on a South Carolina cotton plantation, of all places, auguring the Great Migration of black Americans away from the tyranny of Jim Crow and towards the growing militant tyranny of the LAPD. The final burning the film shows is a montage of black deaths and police brutality in the post-Black Lives Matter era. “Everyone knew years ago that the nigger would have to be given equality,” the narration in the film begins. But the subtext at the end is that the moment has never come.

Let It Fall is easily the best documentary of the bunch, and Ridley’s incredibly sourced work transmutes a simple retelling into a commentary on the cyclicality of violence, the infallibility of man, and the lives of the people at the center of the riots. Ridley manages to create—through nothing more than interviews about the riots—a plot about the motivations, fate, and redemption (or recalcitrance) of the “L.A. Four,” who were charged in the savage beating of the truck driver Reginald Denny. The film details the dysfunction and impetus for the riots first, then presents multiple angles of the gory Denny incident, and then reveals that the interviewees are the men who attacked him. It’s a powerful device, and one that seems to ask the real question about any kind of riot: How do personal responsibility and culpability play out against the machinery of systemic racism and its near-inevitable violent ends?

Rioters near the LAPD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles (Ted Soqui / Corbis / Getty)

As a whole, the five documentaries work almost as one body, presenting multiple lenses with which to dissect the same problems. There is one missing piece that is amplified by the glut of material and mirrors Ridley’s latest controversy. The creators involved are men, and while the men at the center of the riots are thoroughly examined, the role of black women and the ways the violence affected them—as activists, rioters, heads of households with missing men, and, as with Harlins, victims themselves—take a backseat. It is perhaps made more striking by the prominent role of women activists in the modern movements that serve as the impetus for commemoration. Although the repetition between the films works for emphasis, perhaps one of them could have unfurled a unique narrative by focusing on this deficiency.

Even so, if the purpose of watching these documentaries is, at least in part, to grapple with today’s demons, there’s a lot to take away. They provide something of a foundational history for everything from segregation and white flight to gentrification and the militarization of police, the kinds of elements that stack up into the unstable, continued racial hierarchy in America. What the documentaries do powerfully is to show how that grander narrative is hyper-distilled into the single incidents of violence—by the state and by private citizens—that become flint to kindling.

This week there’s now more available documentary footage available of the 1992 L.A. Riots than has probably ever existed, but that wealth of information doesn’t change the necessity of retelling. Nor does it mean the reasons for the retelling are all wrapped up and considered. Although the riots now look different in some ways to Ridley or Jenkins as they did during Dwayne and Whitley’s Los Angeles sojourn, questions are still more prevalent than the answers, and will be so until the fires are no more.