Saturday, 6 June 2020

Movie review: LA 92, dir Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin (2017)

This Netflix documentary looks at police misconduct in the context of racism in Los Angeles, so is (obviously) topical due to the Minnesota death of a young black man this year. In the film, a young black man was brutally beaten by police on account of a traffic violation, an event captured on video – on 3 April 1991 – as a man in an apartment nearby used a video camera he owned.

That the footage was made was serendipitous (unlike today, where the ubiquity of video cameras in mobile phones makes everyone a filmmaker) and other differences separate the two cases. For a start, even though in Rodney King’s case the video was aired on TV almost immediately, the ‘92 riots didn’t happen until the year following the event, while in the case, this year, of Minnesota man George Floyd the riots happened almost immediately.

This is because another thing is different between then and now: the speed of communication due to the absence, in 1991, of social media. Nowadays everyone is a publisher, whereas then the (mainly white) media sat as gatekeeper. The ‘92 riots – which were circumscribed by geography, and only happened in one city – happened only after the trial, in a local court, of the four police officers involved. The events in that case eerily similar to events that took place in 1965 in Watts, also in LA, and the filmmakers underscore this point by emphasising a view – expressed by some people alive in 1965 – that more such violence was inevitable given relations between authorities and the city’s black community.

The ‘92 trial was a travesty: in order to ensure a favourable verdict the venue for trial was not in LA but rather in a small, mainly white community nearby. Compounding the insult in the eyes of African Americans was an additional factor – another trial held at about the same time for which similar elements were in play. Rioting, looting and arson occurred over several days and the state governor called in soldiers. Korean Americans armed themselves, defending their businesses. Appearing on TV to talk about the riots, Bill Clinton capitalised on the president’s predicament.

To make this film, a wide variety of first-hand footage was sourced and edited in the studio so as to form a seamless narrative. It’s astonishing how much material was available. The soundtrack is excellent and mainly comprises orchestral pieces including (I guess) extracts of recordings of music from earlier eras (e.g. the 19th century). I was very impressed by this aspect of the film, though the subtitling in English was very poor – words spoken by people shown on the screen are sometimes displayed against the wrong parts, and lie on top of name straps, so even if they are timed correctly sometimes you can’t read either. In the end, I watched without subtitles.

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