The essence of Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s LA 92 is that many, many wrongs do not make a right. Branching out as a pulsing artery of Ezra Edelman’s monolithic O.J.: Made in America, this bracing but slightly uneven documentary focuses on the catalysts for the Los Angeles riots of April 1992.
Framing events around the brutal Rodney King beating by LAPD officers and convenience store murder of Latasha Harlins by the Korean owner, it is one of a number of films set for release marking the quarter-century milestone since these tragic crimes unleashed a wave of fury. Far from laying the blame exclusively at the feet of the city’s boys in blue, it points a finger of accusation towards a population who further fuelled an already inflamed situation with incendiary wrongdoings of their own. Unlike more conventional interrogative documentaries, LA 92 takes the unusual tack of exhibiting only primary source, archival footage from the time surrounding the events. The effect of this decision by the filmmakers – who eschew any questioning of their own or retrospective, talking-head testimony from those who experienced this uprising first hand – is rather limiting. It’s revelatory, but lacking in terms of clearly linked relevance for a contemporary audience.
An initial onscreen quote, attributed to nineteenth century African-American social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, states: “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.” Opening with this spectral warning from the past, a mission statement of sorts for the film, LA 92 does draw effective connections between its titular focus and the race riots of 1965 with square aspect ratio newscasts from the time bookending the film. However, it proffers little sense of foreboding for modern day America, which feels like a missed opportunity. That said, the superb editing of news footage, the home video recording of the King beating and a dizzying amount of imagery from the heart of darkness during the riots throws us into the unfolding disturbances with minute-by-minute immediacy.
Much like watching a flame run along a fuse towards explosives, the “not guilty” verdicts in the trials for each of the aforementioned crimes lead to a sense of imminent anarchy but a melodic, even contemplative score plays in distinct contrast to the violence of a city burning with injustice and works extremely well. A further point to be applauded is the film’s exploration of the effect of the riots on LA’s considerable Korean community. The city’s cultural melting pot of global cultures contributed to its fractured downfall, but remained the key to its healing and reconstruction. “Can we all just get along,” said Rodney King in a statement at the time. If only it were that simple.