The 25th anniversary of the civil unrest that erupted in Los Angeles prompted the release of four highly-praised documentaries on those devastating events, but only one of them would go on to make the Oscar documentary shortlist this year. That distinction belongs to LA 92 from directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin, the team behind the 2011 Oscar-winning film Undefeated.
“You really can’t predict what films are actually resonating with voters, so we’re pleasantly surprised—also pleasantly surprised by the company that we’re in,” Martin tells Deadline. “It’s exciting.”
As they set to work on LA 92, the pair knew other filmmakers would be tackling the same subject matter. That placed some premium on identifying a distinctive take on the material.
“It was a small variable in making sure we took an approach that allowed ourselves to—not stand out from the crowd, but just do something in a different way,” Martin reveals.
The approach they settled on was to go all archival. Unlike two other documentaries pegged to the anniversary—John Ridley’s Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 and Sacha Jenkins’ Burn Motherf*cker, Burn!—LA 92 contains no interviews with people looking back on the events from present day.
In Lindsay and Martin’s film, the uprising or riots (the appropriate term continues to be a matter of debate) unfold as they happened: anger and protests in the African-American community after the acquittal of four white police officers accused of brutally beating motorist Rodney King; violence at the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Central LA; a misguided response by the LAPD followed by an evacuation of forces from the flashpoint, rapidly escalating unrest, fires and days of mayhem.
“If you had a talking head that was explaining, ‘This happened because of this,’ it just didn’t feel right to us,” Martin recalls. “The issues were too complicated, too nuanced to make definitive statements. We were interested in creating more of an experience [for the audience].”
The filmmakers combed through roughly 2,000 hours of footage—or 83 days’ worth, if you’re doing the math. That included huge amounts of news coverage, satellite backhaul material of reporters preparing to go live and previously unknown footage that had been gathered by the LAPD.
“The city archives had tapes from the police—two [LAPD] videographers that were out shooting during that time partly documenting but also getting license plates of looters,” Lindsay explained at a screening in the fall. “It was just sitting in a box in city archives and the guy had a hand-written ledger of kind of what it was.”
The filmmakers’ immense archival undertaking earned recognition at the IDA Awards on Saturday where Lindsay and Martin won the ABCNews VideoSource Award honoring “the best use of news footage as an integral component in a documentary.”
“We’d like to acknowledge the camera operators. Without their footage we wouldn’t have been able to make this film,” Lindsay said as he accepted the award. “These are men and women whose first instinct was to go out and capture history as it was happening.”
The history explored in LA 92 might be described as ongoing. The film references the 1965 Watts riots in LA and leaves open the question of where we’re heading in the future.
“The thematics and the content that we are dealing with in this film is sadly continuously relevant. So it’s not like, here’s an anniversary and we can look back at this moment in time and be just like, ‘That was then,’” Lindsay tells Deadline. “While you’re watching the story you’re just constantly reminded of how this is still happening in our society currently. We make a pretty explicit point of that at the end of our film where we pose the rhetorical of: How much has really changed? And how are we going to fix the ills in our society if they keep repeating themselves?”
LA 92 aired on the National Geographic Channel after a brief theatrical run in the spring. It is currently available on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon.
Along with Yance Ford’s Strong Island, it is one of two films on the Oscar shortlist that explore the ongoing dilemma of race in America. That follows last year’s Oscar race in which three of the five nominated documentaries addressed race in this country—13th, I Am Not Your Negro and O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman’s film that went on to win the Academy Award.
To Lindsay and Martin there cannot be too many documentaries on such a critical topic.
“It would be a travesty if this was somehow like a fad within Hollywood. You can’t talk about American history without talking about race and class,” Lindsay insists. “This is an omnipresent issue that will always be a part of America.”
“The biggest takeaway I’ve had in terms of not just making the film but seeing reactions to it is that this conversation shouldn’t stop, period,” adds Martin. “That’s the only way things are actually going to get better and we grow collectively as a society.”