Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Quadruple Movie Review: L.A. 92 & L.A Burning & Burn Motherfucker, Burn! & Rodney King

L.A. 92 **** / *****
Directed by: Daniel Lindsay & T.J. Martin.
L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later *** / *****
Directed by: One9 & Erik Parker
Burn Motherfucker, Burn! *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Sacha Jenkins.
Rodney King*** ½ / *****
Directed by: Spike Lee 
Written by: Roger Guenveur Smith 
Starring: Roger Guenveur Smith
It has been 25 years since the riots in Los Angeles broke out, and the city descended into chaos. The catalyst for the rioting was the acquittal of four LAPD officers who were captured on video beating drunk driving suspect Rodney King mercilessly. While that was the spark that started everything, things would not have been so bad – people would not have been so angry – had there not been a long, long history of racism and police brutality in the city. Around the 25th University of this event, there have been 6 movies looking back at the events, and I have seen four (I didn’t watch the Broadcast premiere of John Ridley’s Let It Fall on ABC this past Friday, even though the consensus is that it is the best, because the version aired on TV ran 88 minutes – the version that went to theaters the week before is 144 minutes – cutting out nearly an hour is no way to watch a film by a filmmaker of Ridley’s caliber – I’ll watch it when I can see the full version – as for Smithsonian TV’s The Lost Tapes: L.A. Riots – I don’t think that is available here in Canada at all). All four of the films I did see have their merits, and should be seen – but in a strange way, they work very well together, despite using the similar footage in three of them, but having differing points of view. What happened in L.A. in 1992 is still relevant today, something all of these films know full well, but never beat you over the head with.
Of the docs I did see, I think L.A. 92 (which aired on National Geographic) is the best of the bunch. The film has a brief opening montage retelling the 1965 Watts Riots, then recounts the three large events that happened leading up the riots in 1992 – the 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner, who was convicted of Manslaughter, but sentenced to probation not jail, the beating of Rodney King in March 1991, captured on video (as was the killing of Harlins), and the acquittal of those officers. The film then dives into the days of rioting and looting that happening in the wake of that acquittal. L.A. 92 doesn’t use any talking heads, reflecting back on that time – it is entirely made up of archival footage – most news footage from the time, with a few intertitle cards inserted when context is needed. The effect that directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Miller are going for, and for the most part achieve, is what it must have been like to watch all this unfold from America’s living rooms. Most people don’t live in L.A. – and I don’t think the film really captures what it would have been like to be on the ground in L.A. during that time – but it doesn’t need to. It’s documenting what happening the way most people in America – and around the world – experienced the event at the time. As a result, I don’t think the film offers much in the way of new insight – but again, that’s not its purpose. This was a scary event, in which violence spilled out in the streets, but that violence was the result of justifiable anger. That doesn’t make what happened right – but it does make it more understandable.
L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later (an A&E film) , I think, wants to be the documentary that L.A. 92 is not – as it is mainly talking heads, including producer John Singleton, talking about what happened during those three days. The directors, One9 and Erik Parker, shoot their footage on the modern streets of L.A. where the riots happened – often with those who were there explaining what happened, their actions, and reflecting on it. The film, of course, also uses footage from that time – including the Rodney King tape – but its main attraction is to see what residents and those involved think about what happened now. On that level, I wish the film had pushed the participants just a little bit more than they do – it allows them to tell their story, but doesn’t make them question it – including some of those involved with dragging a white trucker out of truck, beating him mercilessly and spray painting him – one of the most well remembered, and frankly sickening, things that happened. The film comes close to justifying what they did – which it shouldn’t – because it focuses more on their anger, which was justified, over their actions, which weren’t. It is interesting to hear from those involved in their own words – but somehow this film lacks the impact of the other three – I think because it lacks the ambition.
Ambition is one thing that Burn Motherfucker, Burn certainly does not lack – and that’s a little bit to the films detriment. Sacha Jenkins’ doc tries to delve deep into the historical context behind the riots – everything from Watts to the acquittal of those officers. Doing so is vital to understanding that the riots were not an isolated incident, nor that they sprung out of nowhere. However, trying to cram 30 years of racial injustice in L.A. into one, 97 minute package, means that many things get little more than surface level treatment – something, that I think the second part of last year’s best film, O.J. Made in America did better, in roughly the same amount of time. Still, Burn Motherfucker, Burn is the most ambitious of the docs in question, and still delves deeper into the history than the others, and is a fascinating film from beginning to end. I just wish Jenkins had been given O.J: Made in America like time to dive deep – there’s more than enough there to do so.

Spike Lee’s Rodney King is, of course, a completely different animal. It is another of Lee’s concert film – this time documenting his frequent collaborator Roger Guenveur Smith’s one man show, written in the wake of King’s death in 2012, and honed ever since. This is a bold piece of theater by Guenveur Smith, who opens the film with harsh words about King – not his own, those from a rap song from the 1990s, which basically calls King an Uncle Tom. From there, Guenveur Smith, dives deep, alternating between viewpoints on King, from 1992, what it most of been like for him to watch the riots, and his death in his swimming pool – as well as the various reactions to that death, and the current culture we are in. Shot on a stage, that is mainly black – although when it uses lights, it uses them amazingly well – the film is just Guenveur Smith on stage for 52 harrowing minutes, and it is a brilliantly performed show – expertly handled by Lee (mostly in the editing). Sure, sometimes Lee probably goes too far in his stylistic choices (in particular, when he multiplies the images) – but for the most part, he knows to stay out of the way.
Watching these four films in the span of just 3 days was an experience that deepened all four of them. The films have different aims, different purposes, different ambitions – yet they complement each other in an interesting way. What happened in L.A. in 1992 is still being felt in America – and the fact that not everyone can agree of on makes sense, and is up to America to deal with. All four of these films should be seen – and if you can see them close together, all the better.  

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