Not a documentary on the 1992 Los Angeles riots, this is rather a primer for those who just didn't get it over the three days of horrific mayhem and nonstop news coverage that showed too much and said too little. Writer-producer-director Bobby Holland, a freelance journalist and television
writer on series including "Quantum Leap" and "Murder, She Wrote," supplies precisely the historical context that was missing from glib, sensationalistic media readings of America's most violent episode of civil unrest since the 1960s.
Using documents and archival footage, the film recounts the post-slavery migration of African-Americans to industrial centers like LA. Looking for opportunity, they found a de facto system of segregation and discrimination as real and rigid as South Africa's institutionalized apartheid. The
judicial and legislative victories of the civil rights movement brought about a semblance of legal equity during subsequent decades, but did little to redress vast economic inequality between white and black Americans. In Los Angeles, black frustration exploded during the Watts riots of 1965. A
Presidential Commission appointed by Lyndon Johnson issued a prophetic report warning of the growing gaps between the races and classes and the social disintegration that could result. Meanwhile, the rise of new leaders in the black community like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X was met with
official suspicion and harassment, leading in turn to the rise of more radical groups like the Black Panthers. Under the Nixon administration, black radicalism was virtually stamped out--largely through covert government programs of harassment, spying, and possibly assassination--and, with the
rollback of Johnson's Great Society during the Reagan-Bush years, economic gaps became yawning chasms. The film barely mentions the proximate cause of the 1992 riots--the not-guilty verdicts returned against police involved in the Rodney King beating--and the notorious videotape of that event
isn't included. Against Holland's meticulously assembled historical backdrop, it becomes little more than a final spark to a bone-dry powder keg of anger and frustration.
For the post-riot perspective, Holland interviews residents of South-Central Los Angeles and community leaders--social workers, school teachers, hospital administrators, and others, whose testimony, while anecdotal, is articulate, observant, and invariably punctuated by dry, fatalistic gallows
humor. Even those who might be expected to weigh in with fiery rhetoric, like Malcolm X's widow Dr. Betty Shabazz and Bloods co-founder Bobby Lavender, seem sober and levelheaded as they suggest that the lessons of April 1992 haven't yet been learned. "Rebuild L.A.," the consortium of private
companies and government agencies created to encourage investment in the riot area, turned out to be a sham in the service of public relations. South Central LA has yet to be rebuilt; the most visible developments have been yet another freeway construction project and a new county jail.
Holland's historical case is compelling, but the filmmaker unfortunately refrains from any kind of critical intervention when some of his subjects fall back on rumors and half-baked conspiracy theories to explain the riots and their aftermath. Lavender and others allege a deliberate ethnic
cleansing to clear the ghettos of poor black residents for upscale office and retail development, and one man speaks knowingly of valuable oil reserves lying beneath the Watts housing projects. By this point, Holland stops trying to separate fact from rumor or paranoia. When talk turns to
trainloads of weapons and ammunition being mysteriously abandoned in the South Central area, Holland simply keeps his camera running. It's a strangely craven ending to what is otherwise a courageous film. (Adult situations, profanity.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: NR
- Review: Not a documentary on the 1992 Los Angeles riots, this is rather a primer for those who just didn't get it over the three days of horrific mayhem and nonstop news coverage that showed too much and said too little. Writer-producer-director Bobby Holland, a f… (more)