A still from LA 92. Photograph: Steve Grayson/WireImage
Film-makers, including Spike Lee, John Ridley and John Singleton, have created work that remembers the disturbances from different angles
The Lost Tapes: LA Riots
The Smithsonian’s look at the events of April 1992 forgoes the use of talking heads and instead uses archival footage, like that taken by Tim Goldman. It’s shocking stuff 25 years later as a home video camera captures the moments after the verdict where an arrest in South-Central flares up to the point where police have to flee the area. Tense and unflinching, the documentary slowly unfolds with crowds attacking Korean-owned stores and dragging motorists out of their cars. It’s in-the-moment stuff that doesn’t get more vivid than a recording of KJLH, the Compton-based radio station owned by Stevie Wonder, which takes live calls from viewers describing the violence.
Available online now
LA Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later
John Singleton, a director who is possibly the most synonymous with LA in the 90s, features in archival footage of nearly all the documentaries on this list. His prescient warning, after the not-guilty verdicts were given to the LA police officers, that the jury had ignited a bomb serves as a soundbite that stands up. Here Singleton joins the dots between the events of the early 90s in LA to the recent police shootings involving unarmed black men and teenagers. People who were there at the time discuss the shock of the verdict and how they thought, as many still do, that a video apparently showing police officers committing brutality should be enough to see them convicted.
Aired on 18 April, A&E
Burn, Motherfucker, Burn!
Hip-hop journalist turned documentarian Sacha Jenkins was Showtime’s choice to helm their LA Riots project. In it, Jenkins uses talking heads and experts on race relations in the US, including author Jeff Chang, rappers Everlast and B-Real, as well as civil rights activist and lawyer Connie Rice. Jenkins takes the long view here, charting the rise of racial tensions in the city from the great migration to gangs created – in part – to serve as a form of protection from the city’s police. He goes back to the Watts riots to show how lessons were not learned and, most chillingly, how perhaps they still haven’t been.
21 April, Showtime
Rather than going for traditional documentary route he applied with 4 Little Girls and When The Levee Broke to mark the anniversary of the LA Riots, this time Spike Lee filmed a performance of his longtime collaborator Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show on the life and death of Rodney King. It’s more Smith’s show than Lee’s with the actor embodying King from his life in Altadena to the beating and subsequent trial that would make him a symbol around the world. Smith has specialized in one-man shows charting the life of great black figures, from Frederick Douglass to Bob Marley, and here his theatrical chops and bravura performance make it essential, if difficult viewing.
28 April, Netflix
Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992
From the overtly aggressive policing doled out during Operation Hammer under LA police chief Daryl Gates to officers’ controversial use of the chokehold and the rise of street gangs and crack cocaine, John Ridley’s take on the riots is just as much about the various causes as the events of April 1992 themselves. That context and the decades of mistrust and tension between police and various communities in the city is at the core of nearly every film on this list, and here people who were there at the time give a human voice to it.
28 April, ABC
National Geographic’s offering is being shown at the Tribeca film festival and sees Oscar-winning documentary pairing Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin use footage and radio reports to tell the story rather than any conventional talking heads. It’s immersive in a different way from their Undefeated documentary that charted a season with an inner-city American football team. Instead of the fly-on-the-wall treatment, it’s closer to Brett Morgen’s OJ Simpson documentary, June 17th, 1994, which similarly stitched archival footage together to make a tapestry of unrest.
30 April, National Geographic
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