The name Latasha Harlins, Esq. might be etched on a law firm window today if tragedy had not ended the life, and the dreams, of one African-American girl in South Central Los Angeles years ago.
In March 1991, 15-year-old Harlins, a straight-A student at Westchester High School, entered a corner store to buy orange juice for her family. Soon Ja Du, the store owner, falsely accused her of trying to steal the drink, and after a struggle, as Harlins’ back was turned, Du shot her in the back of the head with a pistol. The $2 to pay for the orange juice was gripped in Harlins’ hand.
Today, the shocking incident and the lenient sentence given to Du for voluntary manslaughter is remembered as one of the triggers of the 1992 L.A. uprising. What has been forgotten, or more likely never received attention, was the humanity of the young victim. The Oscar-nominated Netflix short documentary A Love Song for Latasha changes that.
“I always look at this as a rebirth, we’re re-birthing this memory of who she was,” explains director Sophia Nahli Allison. “She just deserved to be remembered because she was a young Black girl that had aspirations, that had desires, that had goals, that had dreams.”
For decades the images that defined Harlins came from the chilling and impersonal black-and-white security camera video of her violent death. But Allison restores her identity through poetic visuals, animation, and representations of the girl she was.
“I did not want the only visual reference people had to be that surveillance footage,” Allison insists. “I wanted them to have a fuller picture.”
The director spoke with two people who knew Latasha best, her cousin Shinese Harlins and her best friend, Ty O’Bard.
“There are many stories that they’ve shared with me that just show a young girl that understood the complexities of life at such a young age,” Allison notes. “She understood the environment that she was existing in.”
When Harlins was just nine years old, her mother was murdered. She and her younger brother and sister were taken in by their grandmother, and Latasha helped raised her siblings. Despite such early trauma, she remained dedicated to her studies.
“She wanted to be a lawyer because she wanted someone like her mom to get justice,” Allison observes. “Her mother was also killed by gun violence and she wanted justice for her mom’s death.”
In the film, Shinese Harlins reads from an essay her cousin wrote about herself for school.
“The most important thing to me is that my family is always protected by a shield,” Latasha wrote, “so they won’t be torn by dangerous, ruthless, uncaring people.”
The words were written a month before her death.
“What I think about that poem—it’s her,” Shinese says. “She was a loving person.”
The director believes there is something essential to bear in mind about Harlins.
“She was a young girl, she was a child. She was not a woman. She was not anyone that should have been seen as threatening. She was a kid,” she insists. “To me, 15 is a baby.”
Allison has studied academic work that investigates a damaging cultural trope, “the unjust adultification of Black girls.”
“So many young Black girls are seen as adults, that people don’t allow them to be innocent children. They don’t allow them to be seen in the same way that we see other children,” Allison comments. “I really wanted the image of a Black girl to be seen throughout all of A Love Song for Latasha, that no matter the story we’re listening to, we’re always seeing a young Black girl on the screen, we’re always remembering a young Black girl is who we are discussing. It’s never a woman.”
The documentary can be seen as implicitly responding to another cultural issue—the evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Three Black queer women founded Black Lives Matter, but there was a moment in time where people tried to erase that and make it seem like it was a movement focused just on Black men,” she notes, “rather than the core reason for Black Lives Matter was for Black woman, for Black queer folks, Black trans folks, and understanding that liberation will not exist until everyone, that the whole spectrum, gender included, is incorporated within this talk of Black liberation.”
Allison salutes the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and colleagues at the African American Policy Forum who launched the #SayHerName movement in 2014 to bring “awareness to the often invisible names and stories of Black women and girls who have been victimized by racist police violence,” as the AAPF website puts it.
“They were identifying where Black women and Black girls were being erased from this narrative,” says Allison, “where we were not holding Black women and Black girls in the same regard that we were holding Black men who were victims of anti-Blackness, police brutality, criminalization.”
Allison is an acclaimed photographer as well as a filmmaker, with documentary credits that include Portrait of My Mother (2016), Black Girl Magic (2016), and Untangling: The Politics of Black Hair (2017). A Love Song for Latasha won Best Short Documentary at the New Orleans Film Festival and the Black Star Film Festival, as well as recognition at AFI Fest and the Camden International Film Festival, before it claimed the Academy Award nomination.
Allison considers her work experimental, and recalls moments when some didn’t “get” A Love Song for Latasha.
“There were many times where people didn’t understand what the film was trying to do…But I am just really grateful for the people I had around me that did believe in the vision, that helped keep me going,” she tells Deadline. “That was another beautiful thing, having it recognized by the Academy, understanding that it is very unconventional. It is not your traditional documentary.”
She plans to attend the Academy Awards, along with Oscar-nominated producer Janice Duncan and two very special “plus ones.”
“I actually will be taking Shinese as my lovely guest and then Janice, my creative producer…she will be bringing Ty as her guest,” she says. “So we will celebrate that moment with Ty and Shinese and that’s all I’ve ever wanted was for Ty and Shinese to see how their story has impacted so many people, how it has moved so many people, how we will never allow Latasha to be forgotten or to be erased from history.”
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