Some documentaries have to defend themselves more. Undefeated, the Academy Award-winning documentary by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, doesn’t have to defend its choice to watch a team of high school football players get inspired by tough-hearted coaches. Focusing its gaze on three of the kids and two of the coaches as identifiable heroes, Undefeated is conventional storytelling with a lovable tale to tell. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is in the high 90s. But Lindsay and Martin’s latest feature, LA 92, is something else entirely: an expansive patchwork narrative of the events leading up to, and including, the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Assembled entirely from news footage, radio reports, police files and personal home videos, LA 92 feels like it’s made with a certain studied remove from its subject matter. The filmmakers’ notion of history is that it can tell itself.
Made in advance of the 25th anniversary of the events, aka “the Rodney King riots,” LA 92 manages to immediately distance itself from recent competing fare. “Films like Ezra [Edelman]’s O.J.: Made in America and Ava DuVernay’s 13th are living more in a journalistic space. And we wanted to do the opposite of that,” Martin told The Hollywood Reporter last month, and it becomes hard not to (per our Daniel Walber) describe the movie as what it isn’t. No talking heads, no expensive-looking graphics. The footage is cut both chronologically and cleverly, eliciting drama in the wait for court verdicts and the watching of a flame slowly lick around a building. The feeling is total immersion: in LA 92, we watch the Rodney King tape as if we’re just seeing it on TV, like millions did then.
In deliberately not occupying “journalistic space,” Lindsay and Martin instead create an aesthetic experience out of history artifacts. The scenes of the riot itself — particularly, the extended series of shots of storefronts on fire — convey the visual catchiness that disaster footage has on an American audiences when playing with everyday American imagery. Call it the Independence Day effect but with its attention turned on the retail plaza in flames or the corner grocery store being looted. Footage like this, repeated over and over with different stores and different fires, occupies much of LA 92’s second hour, but it does not cease to catch the eye. The connection to Undefeated can be made here: both are movies less interested in unpacking a complicated issue, be it poverty in Memphis or racial politics in LA, than experiencing its surface as a visual and emotional canvas.
The shabbiness of the handheld camera and the warp of the old TV broadcast also have their own appeals: we are left to our own devices to connect the dots between 1992 and 2017 — though the movie’s Shakespearian tagline, “The past is prologue,” suggests otherwise. The arguments that LA 92 makes help us out, of course. Martin and Lindsay begin, for instance, with radio reports from the Watts riots of 1965. Those interested in the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman case will find LA 92’s extensive interest in the 1991 Soon Ja Du case equally riveting. LA 92 put together the details from the abundant local news coverage the story received: the death of a 15 year old, Latasha Harlins, at the hands of Du, a shopkeeper from South Korea who believed, wrongly, that Harlins was attempting to steal a bottle of orange juice. Adding to these tensions was the decision of Joyce Karlin, a Superior Court judge at the time, to reject the jury’s recommended maximum sentence in place of community service and a $500 fine because, in Karlin’s opinion, it was unlikely Du would ever commit that crime again.
The triangle here, between a black victim, a Korean perpetrator and a white judge is covered extensively in LA 92, Martin and Lindsay unravel the news footage slowly, and certain quotes will cause some viewers to shake their heads. Later, LA 92 utilizes extensive home videos taken by Korean storekeepers of their burnt convenience stores and robbed groceries. Their livelihood destroyed, they shout insults at (mostly black) looters and bystanders alike and the movie is interested in the event as a tragedy with particularly defined victims. Like in Spike Lee’s When the Levee Broke, there is the occasional ironic shot of the unaffected white neighborhood.
Elsewhere, Martin and Lindsay less convincingly ping the electoral downfall of President George H.W. Bush on the riots. The doc brings us into ‘92 with shots of Bush enjoying the popularity that accompanied the televised victories of the first Gulf War and by the end show us an ascendant Bill Clinton adding a mention of the events into his campaign stump speech. The point, I assume, is to show us the larger significance of the events without, say, dragging Jelani Cobb out to explain it to us. But in Martin and Lindsay’s hands, the device feels uncomfortably reductive. Where’s a real discussion of Decision ’92 without Ross Perot and his little charts?
The power of the events depicted in LA 92 don’t come from their importance socially or politically, because Martin and Lindsay are, fundamentally, not incredibly interested in using the riots to explore the expansive social fabric of racial politics in the early ‘90s. Which is good on them: O.J.: Made in America already used the O.J. Simpson case to do exactly that. Instead, watching LA 92 is something like a two-hour museum trip into a certain place and a certain time, like one of those Holocaust Centers in DC or London that enjoy the creative potential of dim lighting. The sheer aesthetic assault of LA 92 is what justifies its existence: there’s a reason why so much of it is sourced from TV coverage of the events. We like to watch.