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?”