‘LA 92’: Doc Commemorates 25th Anniversary of Uprisings

Los Angeles Riots 10th Anniversary

Looters and a burning vehicle at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues on April 29, 1992 amidst the Los Angeles riots (Photo by Steve Grayson/WireImage).

Documentary filmmakers Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin anticipate one day doing less and less interviews about their work. The chatty cinematic pair would much rather concentrate on acknowledging how their films inspire people or mobilize them to make effective change.

The Academy Award-winning duo’s latest feature-length project, LA 92, revisits one of America’s most devastating period of civil unrest in history. LA 92 begins with the videotaped graphic beating of African-American motorist Rodney King by four white Los Angeles Police Department officers. The footage was novel then, unlike viral videos of the same types of video readily available now. Video of King’s beating at the hands of the officers was followed by the murder of overachieving black high school student, Latasha Harlins. Harlins, who was 15-years-old, was shot in the back of the head after an argument over orange juice with Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du, also in Los Angeles.

The acquittal of all four police officers by an all-white jury in Simi Valley and Du, who was found guilty but sentenced to probation serving no time in jail for the murder of the 15-year-old, drew a slew of protests from citizens, which evolved into full-on uprisings. The uprisings spiraled into violent attacks on motorists and the looting of various businesses throughout Los Angeles, many of them destroyed by arson. Lindsay and Martin, who were both teens 25 years ago when the uprisings took place, thought LA 92 deserved to be treated as an immersive visual experience.

“The intention was to draw you closer to what the events felt like, not necessarily analyzing the events or shying away from what the reality of the events were like,” Martin says via phone the afternoon following a community screening in Chicago.

LA 92 started when producers/cousins Simon Chinn and Jonathan Chinn acquired the rights to the story, immediately going after Martin and Lindsay to direct it.

The directors responsible for the 2011 football-themed documentary Undefeated sifted through more than 1,000 hours of never-before-seen footage and photographs to weave together 114 minutes of complex voices and perspectives from the courtrooms to the streets, articulating the despair and trauma permeating Los Angeles at that time.

The camera angles tremble periodically. The raw footage, coupled with accenting, lush string arrangements, appears extremely grainy and distorted. Beneath gushes of smoke and fog, there isn’t any narration or voiceovers to drive the story.

“It’s the consistent shifting of points of view that keep the moment going and the audience interested,” Martin insists, referring to LA 92 as a “symphony in movements.”

It was extremely important to Lindsay and Martin, who met in 2007, to tell a captivating story without overwhelming the viewer with a myriad of montages filled with devastating imagery. Neither filmmaker had any formal training or ever enrolled in film school. “We were cognizant to make sure we were only including things we felt we could provide the right emotional context for,” shares Lindsay, an alumnus of University of Missouri.

It was a hard decision regarding what sequences to include and remove. Lindsay mentioned one archived interview conducted by an ABC affiliate with a juror couldn’t be licensed by the network. Another frustrating setback for LA 92, Martin says, were the lack of major news organizations and broadcasters providing insight into the responses of Latino and Hispanic communities.

Despite what Lindsay and Martin couldn’t include in the film, LA 92 premiered at Tribeca Film Festival this year. The admittedly nervous creative partners eagerly anticipated seeing how the audience responded to the subject matter, especially in the Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles markets.

It’s surprising to Lindsay and Martin that their content resonated with millennials. Making it a point to stay after all screenings to chat and take selfies with the crowd, a biracial Martin, the first black American to earn an Oscar for “Best Feature Documentary,” commented on the post-screening Q&A in Atlanta.

“People were excited to talk, not afraid to feel or express themselves. That’s a win-win,” declares Martin, who studied American Cultural Studies at Fairhaven College and Western Washington University.

In retrospect, Lindsay and Martin appreciate how making documentaries and a slew of consumer brand commercials have strengthened their creative partnership. Both men agree they’re impressed with each other’s talents and abilities to make bold statements with visuals. Martin says what keeps them inseparable with work is trust.

“If you want to do good work, you have to be in a vulnerable position,” Martin proclaims, “and you have to share ideas, emotions and lots of facets of yourself. You have to open up to a certain degree.”

Lindsay and Martin never tire from having ongoing conversations with various people about filmmaking. Frequenting diverse communities is what actually fuels their storytelling. Those reactions, they believe, set the tone for the type of work they produce, especially LA 92.

“This is a tool to start asking questions more than to find solutions,” Martin confirms. “The moment we stop having these conversations is when it really gets dangerous.”

LA 92 premieres Sunday, Apr. 30 at 9 p.m. EST on the National Geographic Channel. Check local listings for channel availability.

This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also visiting faculty in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.

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