People old enough to remember can recall the utter shock many people felt when a jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of using excessive force in the videotaped beating and arrest of black motorist Rodney King.
It was April 29, 1992 and hours after the verdict, riots, protests and looting broke out in the South Central section of Los Angeles that quickly spread across the city. National Geographic marks the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots with “LA 92,” a documentary that features archival news images and unseen footage from that tumultuous period.
“LA 92” draws parallels between the Los Angeles uprising that erupted following the King verdict in 1992 and the riots that broke out in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965. Both incidents are set against the backdrop of tension between the LAPD and the black community, and police brutality of black motorists at the hands of that same police department.
“Anytime you have marginalized or oppressed groups of people, they’ll eventually be like, ‘You know what, you’re not listening to me, I’m going to listen me,’” explained Dan Lindsay, 38, who directed “LA 92” with T.J. Martin, 37.
The film, which was produced by Simon Chinn and Jonathan Chinn, also addresses the death of Latasha Harlins and the role it played in the riots. Harlins, a 15-year-old black American girl, was shot in the back of the head by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du. Though security cameras recorded the shooting, a judge sentenced Du to probation.
I caught up with Academy Award-wining duo Martin and Lindsay in Chicago at one of six screenings held around the country for “LA 92.” There we chatted about the process of making this film, the Harlins’ case and what they hope viewers take away from the film.
“L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later,” “The L.A. Riots: 25 Years Later” and “Burn Mother…, Burn!” are among the other documentaries marking the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots. You can watch those films along with “LA 92” below.
WATCH: “LA 92”
Why was it important to remind people of what happened in Los Angeles 25 years ago?
T.J. MARTIN: I think as a general rule of thumb anytime we can look back on our own history, you’re going to learn more and more about ourselves in current society. Twenty-five year anniversary or not, I think that it’s an important chapter in American history. But I think for us, we wanted to take a unique approach that would elicit a unique response. And that response is ideally one of empathy and to think about this idea that if we are neighbors, I am better off as a neighbor if I am concerned about what’s happening in your community. That’s why in the film we pop around from different points of view consistently. Whether you’re in the Korean American perspective, the LAPD perspective, the judicial branch perspective, government perspective or in South Central with the African American perspective, you’re consistently interweaving those communities. I think the idea is to say, we are better off as a community if we can actually understand and feel some sense of concern about each other. That would be my hope that people take away from the film.
You have a lot of captivating footage in this film. Why did you decide to include the footage that you did and how did you gather all of it?
MARTIN: From the beginning, one of the things that we wanted to explore with the film is the cyclical nature of these events. For us, it was more important for us to operate kind of in a theme and not take a journalistic approach. If we could filter everything through themes and hopefully that gives the audience a chance to make these connections in their own right. All the bits of material filtered through a notion of speaking to the greater theme of systemic injustice as it relates to America. The film is almost a case study. Think about it as putting a mirror up to ourselves as a country and not just the specificity of Los Angeles in 1992.
The other themes that we filtered through asked the question where does power lie and a big part of it is making sure that we get enough different points of views not just from different communities but even within the communities. So, we’re not saying that one community is monolithic. You are kind of filtering a lot of different ideas through every scene to make sure that you’re not homogenizing a community, you’re telling the story right and you’re setting just enough context just to get to the place of making sure people feel what is happening on the screen. There’s no protocol to how you arrive at the place but that’s the constant conversation that we’re having with ourselves, the constant revising, re-editing and re-watching and doing that again. The process isn’t simple.
DAN LINDSAY: The how was a lot of very hard work by a group of people that not only included reaching out to traditional broadcasting places but actual detective work. Like seeing an old film maybe made in 1994 and looking at the credits to see who the camera operator was, Googling that name and finding a Facebook and maybe sending a note to that name. There was a lot of that and just a lot of lucky breaks. We’d each out to communities and see if anyone had anything. Every once in a while, you’d get a call back and someone would say, “Yeah, I’ve been sitting on these types for 20s years because I always thought I was going to make my own film but now I might now and maybe you guys will have use for it.”
MARTIN: Everyone thought that they were going to make their own film.
WATCH: “L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later”
Why was it important to include Latasha Harlins’ story in this film? How does her case fit in all of this?
LINDSAY: I think it was important because if you talk to people who lived through it they would tell you that she was important to what happened. I think it helps give some complex and explains that one of the reasons why there was some animosity — and I’m always hesitant to talk about communities — between the African-American community in South Central and Korean American shop owners. It gave some insight and content as to why there they may have been targeted but it’s even more complicated than that. I think beyond it, if you talk to people who lived through it, they say that it was a story that not a lot of people knew that was as important as the four officers being found not guilty [in the Rodney King case]. Going through the footage and just constantly hearing her name invoked over and over again just made it clear to us that we had to paint that picture for people who wouldn’t have heard of or known about it.
MARTIN: I think the other thing about it is that there’s a mention from an ACLU representative who says, “We get 500 calls a week but the difference this time is that we have a video” in relation to the King case. People look back in retrospect and say that that’s the first bit of citizen journalism. I think by nature of its time and proximity to the King case, the fact that there was another video — hard evidence — with Latasha Harlins, it was actually sparking a conversation locally and regionally that maybe the nation didn’t know of. [The Harlins case] clearly was allowing people to feel that there was no sense of value to the community when the judge goes against the jury’s recommendation. So to have the hard evidence and for the judge to go on her own accord and for that to be repeated with the King case, I think it is without a doubt a facet that allowed for a community to be on the same page.
WATCH: “The L.A. Riots: 25 Years Later”
How long did this process take from inception to completion?
MARTIN: I think ideally we would’ve loved two years to make it. That would’ve been appropriate. I think we had about a year. We were finishing up another project so there was a lot of overlap. So it wasn’t until we were fully on it. We essentially collapsed research and pre-production into post-production. The last three months was definitely start working at 7 or 8 a.m. until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning every single day, including weekends. We worked straight through.
LINDSAY: We basically waved goodbye to our families and families last June and said we’ll see you in March. We jammed a lot of work into a very short period of time. We got stuff that’s in the film two weeks before we locked picture. These are things that we’d be searching for and it would finally come in at the last minute. There were things that we’d hope to get that never came up and we had to remove that sequence from the film. We locked picture on Feb. 27.
WATCH: “Burn Mother…, Burn!”
Is there anything that you learned from this process that you didn’t know going in?
LINDSAY: I didn’t know the name Latasha Harlins until we started researching this. For me the more profound things that I learned is how my viewpoint of the world changes. It’s one thing to learn things and it’s another thing to actually grow as a person as a result of the work that you do. I feel like I’m constantly recalibrating my view of the world based on the work that we do.
MARTIN: Again, I don’t want to homogenize a community, but the big one for me is the trajectory of the journey of the Korean American community. I thought it was pretty remarkable for a recent immigrant community, in the hardest way possible, learned where they sit in the social stratification of America. And feeling, when, for lack of a better term, sh-t hits the fan, they felt completely abandoned by government and authority by police. As a result, they did some inner-searching and communicating within the community to the point in which they marched 100,000 deep — was the only community to march 100,000 deep — and decided as a community that they need to stand up to injustice wherever it occurs. They even say and that’s captured in the film. I thought that was just remarkable and I had no idea about it. From what I gathered, the experience gave them a greater since of what the African-American community goes through. Whereas before it was kind of like, “I’m a business owner, I don’t understand why you’re mad. It’s just cultural differences,” and then to actually understand a bit of it and feel abandoned by police.
What do you want people to take away from the documentary?
LINDSAY: I don’t know that I have a specific thing that I want someone to take away. We constructed the film in a way so that the experience of watching it would stick with you. So that feeling wouldn’t immediately be released from you the moment that you stop watching it. We wanted these ideas to travel with you so and become infused in your conversations so that people would actually talk about them. But talk about them from the place of still feeling what they saw. When I watch something and I feel it and I’m connecting the ideas and drawing the parallels, then my conversation with somebody afterwards becomes much different for me than just trying to regurgitate some facts that I heard.