On March 3, 1991, Los Angeles resident Rodney King was brutally beaten by four LAPD officers, an incident that was caught on tape and spread like wildfire. Charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force, three of the four officers were acquitted of all charges, setting off days of outright anarchy in the City of Angels.
Outraged by injustice and continued episodes of racially motivated police brutality, people took to the streets of South Central to express their disillusionment, engaging in widespread rioting, looting and arson. After a dusk-to-dawn curfew was ordered and the National Guard was called in, the 1992 Los Angeles riots eventually were contained—but not before 55 people were killed, more than 2,000 injured and $1 billion in property damage estimated in one of the worst episodes of civil unrest the nation has ever seen.
Speaking with Deadline, LA 92 directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin discuss their Emmy-nominated documentary, a project composed entirely of archival footage that powerfully captures this national tragedy, holding up a mirror to our current society to reveal how much hasn’t changed.
What was the impetus behind LA 92?
T.J. Martin: We’d been looking to do a project with the producers, Simon and Jonathan [Chinn], and they knew that the 25th year anniversary was coming up for the civil unrest. They had already proposed doing a film on it with National Geographic, and they gave them the green light.
Then, they went to search for directors, and we were the first people they approached. In the process of courting us, they had put together a sizzle reel, for lack of a better term. In the clip, they really leaned a lot on the archival, versus having people talking you through the events themselves.
Dan and I weren’t born in that era—we were both in middle school, so it brought back a lot of images that were maybe somewhere in our memory banks. But more than anything, it brought out a lot of emotions, drawing correlations to what’s going on today. There’s a moment in particular that stood out to us, when there’s a gentleman wielding a hammer and saying: “I come from the ghetto, too. This is unfair.”
There is something really raw and emotional about that, and we didn’t want to get in the way of that. We [wanted to] construct a film that allowed for those moments to rise to the top and let that be the dominating factor, not this clinical deconstruction of the events themselves. We thought the best way to achieve that was to just do it through archival, and not have a filter or someone’s hand holding you through the process.
Given that the film is composed entirely of archival footage from different sources, what was the process of piecing this story together?
Daniel Lindsay: It was done somewhat haphazardly, just because of timing. The footage is really just raw material that broadcast and news networks had their cameramen out filming. There was bit of what are called “stringers”—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Nightcrawler. That kind of stuff.
Then, there’s a fair bit of stuff that was just citizens that were out filming. That was another cinematic idea that we found very compelling, with what is currently happening in our society—the idea that everybody has a camera on their phone, and what is being captured because of that. This was a kind of advent of a lot of people having their own video cameras.
The impetus for the events that occur, [after] the beating of Rodney King and the murder of Latasha Harlins [shot by a Korean grocer], was that both are caught on videotape. We just thought, “If we could really lean into video as the only source and not have any modern elements, it would really work to put you in the moment.”
It was a big challenge. We ended up with 1,700 hours of footage, or something like that. It was just endless.
I would watch tapes and cut a little bit, T.J. would watch some stuff and cut, and then Scott [Stevenson], the same way. We had one assistant editor who was helping us manage things, but the hardest part in cutting it was that we needed to lean on our instincts of what we thought would work, and what we thought would be interesting. It’s not like we could really rely on somebody to pull selects for us.
Martin: There was a very loose system. Again, the overall intent of the piece is to use it as case study and hold up a mirror to ourselves. Coming from a verité background, one thing that was a breath of fresh air for us was, we’re not reinventing history. These things happened. There’s a narrative to follow, and while we follow that narrative, it was always really important for us to be hopping around from different POVs.
You have these parameters that we set. When you’re filtering through this footage, you have an idea of how you weave the narrative through a variety of perspectives. For example, the day of—this day of verdicts—you know that what you’re building upon is not just those perspectives, and not just the narrative. You’re also inherently fascinated by watching human reaction.
We spent like 45 minutes just building up through the course of the first day, through the first night. A big part of that fascination is looking at it from an ethnographic lens. If we know that that’s the greater goal, that gives us a little bit more of a guidepost, in terms of how to cut it. Everything else is kind of just a style thing—how do you keep it engaging and active.
It’s fascinating to look at the history of this intersection between media and human conflict. When cameras were suddenly widely accessible and could be used to document injustice, the world changed.
Lindsay: Yeah. In our minds, we’re walking a pretty fine line in making this film. You go off of one end and it starts to become exploitative. For us, it was really important that we provide enough context, but we were still tied to whatever existed at the time—what people were able to capture.
One of the things we explicitly wanted to do was show these moments of the press getting ready to report, so an audience would understand that the media is just another façade in America. We present it in a certain way, but there’s a filter going through that.
That theme of façades was something we talked about a lot while cutting the film, this idea that America presents itself as one thing, but it’s reality is something else. Cinematically, that was all on our mind.
You’ve alluded to this, but to put a finer point on it: One of the major achievements of this documentary is its ability to organize chaos. The L.A. riots were so anarchic, they seem to defy any endeavor of this nature.
Martin: That’s why I say, “You have to go a little bit crazy.” This was not something where you clock in and clock out at the end of the day. You carry it with you. For us, there’s inherent interest in not just schematics, but issues engaging race, class, gender, specifically when it comes to American society. It’s something that you don’t really leave.
I think part of the reason that I’m pleasantly pleased at your takeaway is that there’s still a sense of command over what you just went through. Part of that is knowing that we didn’t want to make any strong declarations, other than the fact that it is messy and cyclical, and we, ourselves, are in this ongoing conversation that allows you to continue have that conversation outside of the theater.
The film itself is not saying, “Hey, here are the answers.” We’re saying, “We’re going to jump in this muck and explore it from a variety of vantage points, and hopefully you feel it from those.” More importantly, you build empathy from those different vantage points. Then, you come out recognizing that we’ve been having this conversation for a very long time, and nothing is solved.
What were the most surprising revelations in the making of this film?
Lindsay: The idea of the American experiment was so omnipresent to us as we started watching the footage. I think wrongly, at that time, [the riots] were described in the media as a conflict between black and white. I think really, it’s more of a microcosm for U.S. history and the American experiment.
When that started to speak so loudly in the footage that we saw, we made sure to constantly bring that back up so that it wasn’t just a portrait of Los Angeles at a particular time. It’s also a portrait of America throughout history.
Martin: If there were any revelations, it was as we dove deeper into the research of it, because what’s written in text and what’s captured on video are two different worlds, and you the have to adapt that to your space.
We’re talking about cyclical themes, and then we see this insane specificity of what sparked the Watts rebellion, to what set off the ’92 civil unrest, knowing that in both times, those tensions are always kind of present. But it was kind of a surprise to find that those specific moments were so similar that put these things into motion.
Then also, the audacity of some of the statements—like, Joyce Karlin, the judge [in the Korean grocer trial]—had the audacity to say, “I know a criminal when I see one.” There’s a long history of trying to share with the public that there is systemic racism, and to see it in such a blatant form—[the fact that] it was so blinding to her is so emblematic of all the things we’re exploring when it comes to a system that’s in the hands of people.
As we all know, the world is still quite tumultuous—the issue of racial prejudice as not gone away. How do we move forward?
Lindsay: That’s a huge question. I’m very hesitant to make any statement—we make films because we want to explore ideas, not because we necessarily have the answers. That said, when you spend the amount of time that we have with these things, you’re bound to think about stuff.
I’m not a person that should be quoted in terms of “all-knowing,” but my own feeling is that our society has to evolve to begin to live in a place where we are comfortable with cognitive dissonance at all times. I think we really want easy answers, and we want things to be—no pun intended—”black and white,” “the good guys and the bad guys.” I think that kind of binary way of thinking is part of what really hurts us.
I think that we need to understand that we make progress, and we digress. We can all believe that our country stands for something while we see it not standing for that. Knowing that there can’t be progress if we don’t hold ourselves up to ideals, while at the same time knowing that we can probably never really reach those ideals, but you can’t make progress without those ideals to strive for.
I find that we think less of each other as a community and tend to speak from very valid personal points of view, but it seems like we have a hard time having empathy and being able to put ourselves in the shoes of somebody else, and being able to have complex ideas existing in our heads at the same time.
There’s cognitive dissonance in our contemporary notion of L.A.—as this bastion of diversity and liberalism—and the city we see in your doc.
Lindsay: UCLA came out with this study about 3½ months ago of broader South L.A., and they actually found that, economically speaking, a lot of those communities are actually worse off than in ’92.
It’s hard to say that L.A. is leading the charge. I think the rhetoric is here, but I also think the rhetoric is national, in terms of how we usurp these ideas of celebrating diversity. I don’t think people really understand what that is. I think they’ve been talking points and not a true understanding, for example, of what the African-American experience is.
There are times to just sit and listen, and try to have a better understanding of where your fellow man is coming from, because your experiences are not going to be the same—and you have to learn to respect and understand those.