Film Review: LA 92

A you-are-there approach elevates this doc above the realm of a dry history lesson.
Specialty Releases

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, six days of protests, looting and arson that broke out in the City of Angels following the acquittal of Rodney King’s four cop assailants in a highly publicized—and controversial—trial. Those six days have become more relevant than ever over the last few years, when an increase in cellphone videos of abuses perpetrated by police against the African-American citizens they’re supposed to protect helped kicked off the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s no surprise, then, that 2017 is replete with a particularly high number of projects about the L.A. riots. John Ridley’s Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 came out last weekend, and Spike Lee’s one-man show about Rodney King, performed by Roger Guenveur Smith, just debuted on Netflix. There’s The Lost Tapes: LA Riots on the Smithsonian Channel, Showtime’s Burn Motherf*cker Burn and A&E’s L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later. National Geographic gets into the mix with LA 92, from directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin. The pair, who won an Oscar for 2011’s Undefeated, aren’t exactly working with untrammelled territory here. On top of all the other L.A. riots docs competing for audience attention, the recent Oscar-winning doc O.J.: Made in America devoted a chunk of its nearly eight-hour running time to how the riots came to be: the LAPD’s systemic racism, the decision to move the King trial out of L.A. proper to a mostly white suburb, and how the shooting of an African-American teen by a Korean-American shop owner—and a white judge subsequently not giving the shop owner any jail time—further soured the already tense relationship between those two minority communities.

If the first third or so of LA 92 doesn’t give much by way of new material to people who saw OJ: Made in America—or, you know, people who know that era of history—the final hour more than makes up for it. Lindsay and Martin eschew talking heads and voiceover, opting for raw archival footage peppered with the odd title card. The result is less a dry history lesson than a visceral moviegoing experience. Footage of a black man tearily confronting rioters with “It’s not right what you y’all doing! It’s not right!” or a Korean woman standing arms outstretched as she attempts to bar looters from her store aren’t particularly enlightening as far as sheer facts are concerned, but damn if they’re not powerful moments.

It’s very much show, not tell. LA 92 might not grab you by the hand and lead you to the conclusion that the L.A. riots are but one part of a very long history of black oppression by law enforcement in the United States, but through masterful footage selection and editing, the story is told all the same. The modern relevance is clear in footage of Maxine Waters—then a relatively new Congresswoman, now an elder stateswoman and high-profile critic of President Trump—speaking out against the King verdict and helping panicked constituents get their mail during the riots. It’s present in the footage that bookends LA 92, which is not of the 1992 L.A. riots but of the Watts riots that occurred nearly 30 years prior. The message is clear: The story wasn’t over then, and it’s not over now.

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