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'Graphic, Raw, Disturbing': Oscar-Winning Directors Offer New Take on LA Riots

Documentaries mark the anniversary of unrest that exploded after the acquittal of four white LAPD officers charged with brutally beating Rodney King.
Los Angeles Riots 10th Anniversary
A car burns as looters take to the streets at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues, April 29, 1992, This intersection is considered the flashpoint of the Los Angeles riots.WireImage

Leading up to the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, Oscar-winning filmmakers Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin spent months scouring some 1,700 hours of news footage from every angle.

The co-directors compacted the strongest imagery into just under two hours for their film “LA 92,” one of a slew of new documentaries released to mark the anniversary of the civil unrest that exploded on April 29, 1992, after the acquittal of four white LAPD officers charged with brutally beating motorist Rodney King.

“Some of these graphic, raw, disturbing images never got less disturbing to me,” Lindsay recalled.

“LA 92,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is now playing in select theaters, will air on the National Geographic Channel April 30.

The film puts viewers in the middle of events as they unfolded — the announcement of the verdict, then-Mayor Tom Bradley’s shocked reaction, the tinderbox at Florence and Normandie in South Central, the LAPD’s decision to withdraw forces from the intersection, Rodney King’s plea for peace, and the valiant attempts of people like Rep. Maxine Waters, whose district covered South Central, to quell the violence.

“We wanted to put the audience in the experience,” Lindsay explained to NBCBLK. “If you had a talking head that was like, 'This happened because of this,' it just didn't sit right with us.”

1992 LA Riots
Rioters overturn a parking attendant booth at the LAPD Parker Center in downtown Los Angeles during the 1992 riots that swept the city for days after three of four police officers accused of the 1991 beating of Rodney King were cleared of all charges. The fourth officer was charged with use of excessive force. (Photo by Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images)National Geographic Documentary Films

“You can't really argue with the raw footage,” Martin added.

Powerful raw footage is a big part of “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-92” from Oscar-winner John Ridley, another of the documentaries timed to the 25th anniversary. It’s currently in theatrical release and a TV version will air on ABC on Friday, April 28.

Ridley's approach differs from Lindsay and Martin by incorporating fresh interviews with key participants in the events. For instance, Lt. Michael Moulins, the on-scene police commander as violence erupted at Florence and Normandie, defends his fateful decision to withdraw officers from the area.

“If what happened in Los Angeles 25 years ago was something that built up over time, what's building up right now?” — John Ridley

“It's his belief that if his officers had remained that deadly force was going to be used against them or that the police themselves would have to use deadly force,” Ridley told NBCBLK by phone from LA.

Ridley also secured interviews with several men who faced charges in connection with the attack on truck driver Reginald Denny. One of them, Gary Williams, recalls in the film, “I have compassion for anybody… [But] at that time, the compassion line was closed.”

He also interviewed Bobby Green, the African-American man from South Central who saved Denny’s life.

“These memories are incredibly present for a lot of people.For them these aren't events that happened 25 or even 35 years ago. They carry these emotions as though these things happened an hour ago, a day ago,” Ridley said.

His film traces the origins of the riots — Ridley prefers the term “uprising” — to 1982 when the LAPD was forced to abandon the use of chokeholds after the death of several suspects, including James Mincey Jr. Replacing the chokehold, the LAPD adopted a “combat-ready” baton.

89th Annual Academy Awards - Foreign Language Reception
Director John Ridley speaks onstage at the 89th Annual Academy Awards' Foreign Language Reception at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on February 24, 2017.Kevin Winter / Getty Images

“The introduction of the PR-24 — the metal baton — that would obviously be so instrumental with the Rodney King arrest and beating,” Ridley noted.

In “Let It Fall” one former LAPD detective who was present at the arrests of both Mincey and King seems to lament that a chokehold couldn't be applied on King, arguing it would have ended the matter without the ferocious beating.

“LA 92” directors Lindsay and Martin dial their film back to 1965 when riots devastated the Watts section of Los Angeles, fueled by community anger over allegations of police brutality.

“We wanted to explore the notion that these events are cyclical in nature,” Martin said.

LA 92 Movie Poster
The poster for LA 92.National Geographic Documentary Films

Neither “LA 92” nor “Let It Fall” attempt to link the uprising 25 years ago with the current Black Lives Matter movement, which sprang up over the deaths of multiple unarmed African-American men and women at the hands of police in recent years.

But what the LA Riots portends for the future is very much on the minds of all three filmmakers.

“If what happened in Los Angeles 25 years ago was something that built up over time, what's building up right now?” Ridley wondered. “What communities are being left behind? What individuals are not franchised in a way that many of us are franchised? I think those are the questions we have to ask.”

“I think we're constantly sitting on a powder keg,” Martin stated. “‘LA 92’ is not necessarily a warning sign saying, 'This will happen again.' It's just when it does, we shouldn't necessarily be surprised. As long as you have marginal communities that feel like their voice isn't being heard and the opportunities are not there these things will most likely occur again.”

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