LA 92 (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A raw, vivid, and riveting presentation of the 1992 LA riots

Documentary film “LA 92” is a raw, vivid, and riveting presentation of the 1992 LA riots. While entirely consisting of a series of various archival footage clips, the documentary delves deep into the social and historical background of this shocking and devastating incident, the big picture emerging from its numerous visceral moments resonates with not only the past but also the present and future of the American society.

After the opening part mainly focusing on the 1965 Watts Riots in LA, which are regarded as a sort of prelude to the 1992 LA riots, the documentary promptly moves onto that infamous case of police brutality which occurred at the night of March 3rd, 1991, and we accordingly behold that shocking video clip showing a young African American ex-con named Rodney King being savagely beaten by four officers of the LA Police Department. Once it was shown on TV around the whole country, this video clip surely shocked lots of American people out there, and it particularly angered and infuriated millions of African American citizens, most of whom had suffered racial injustices caused by the racist aspects of the American legal system for many decades.

Many African American people in LA and their local community leaders strongly demanded the justice for the Rodney King case, but they were reminded again of how things remained same as before despite the social shocks from the Watts Riots. Although the 1973 election of Tom Bradley as the first African American mayor in LA seemed to promise them considerable changes, there was not much progress for African American citizens in LA during next 18 years, and their distrust and resentment toward LAPD and the local legal system consequently got accumulated more and more during that period.

Above all, LAPD, which had been under Commissioner Daryl Gates since 1978, was not willing to be changed at all even after its ugly sides were fully exposed to the whole world due to the Rodney King case. While Mayor Bradley and many other local politicians demanded the considerable changes inside LAPD, Commissioner Gates impertinently kept emphasizing why LAPD was still necessary for maintaining law and order as usual, and he even threw a hostile comment at a local Asian American councilman who forthrightly pointed out Gates’ veiled political threat in the middle of a public hearing.

And the situation got tense more and more in LA during next several months. On March 15th, a 15-year-old African American schoolgirl named Latasha Harlins happened to be murdered by a 51-year-old Korean American convenient store owner just because of a small dispute on whether she stole a carton of orange juice or not, and this tragic incident led to more racial tension in the city. Although it was inarguable that that middle-age Korean American woman responsible for the incident was guilty as charged, she was eventually slapped only with a very lenient punishment, and that naturally led to more anger and frustration for African American people out there.

The breaking point for many of them came on April 29th, 1992, when those four officers responsible for the Rodney King case were almost completely acquitted of the criminal charges brought onto them. Considering that the case was already moved to the courthouse of a suburban area outside LA and the jury mainly consisted of Caucasian citizens, that outcome might not look that surprising at that time, but, as shown from several video clips, many African Americans were quite upset to see another case of racial injustice unfolded right before their eyes, and the mood accordingly became quite more agitated in the city as some of them start to let out their seething anger and frustration on streets.

Although local African American community leaders tried to ventilate their and their people’s anger and frustration in non-violent ways, the situation had already been out of control in the neighborhoods of South Central, and a number of archival footage clips show us how quickly things got quite worse on that notorious day. At first, it was just a bunch of African American dudes harassing Caucasian drivers at the crossroads of their neighborhoods, but their level of violence was subsequently elevated, and the documentary strikes us really hard with several chilling visual records of violence.

During next six days, LA was thrown into sheer chaos while no one seemed to be able to stop this. California governor Pete Wilson declared a state of emergency, but he and other local officials were disastrously slow in the following responses to this emergency, and the damages in the city kept increasing hour by hour. Lots of shops and stores in the city were looted and burned by rioters and bystanders, and the Koreatown area of the city was particularly damaged a lot during this very violent time.

Except when they give us a bit of background knowledge and explanation, directors/co-editors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, who previously won an Oscar for “Undefeated” (2011), step aside for letting their palpable collage of archival footage clips show and tell us all on the main subject of their documentary, and their storytelling approach is effective thanks to the skillful editing by them and their co-editor Scott Stevenson. It may feel a little blatant when the video clips from the Watts riots and the 1992 LA riots are juxtaposed together around the end of the documentary, but the message is pretty clear and powerful to say the least, and it feels all the more timeless considering the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement at present.

On the whole, “LA 92” is pretty tough to watch from time to time for good reasons, but it is one of the recent important documentary films on the racial injustices in the American society, and its memorable moments resonate a lot with what I observed from the American society during recent years. Yes, there have been some significant progresses during last 55 years, but the system is still quite unfair to many non-Caucasian American citizens out there, and, in my trivial opinion, it really needs some fundamental changes – especially now.

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