Twenty-five years after Los Angeles rose up, how far have we come as a nation? Ten stories about the L.A. riots and the world they made.
From the first time he bobbed up in the media’s white-water churn, the victim known as Rodney King was a grainy, distorted representation. He symbolized the racial profiling and militarized policing of African-American communities and the urgent need for civil-rights reform of those practices. He embodied the myth of preternatural black lawlessness, dubbed the “Super-Predator” phenomenon in a 1995 article for the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, and invoked by Hillary Clinton in 1996 to show support for her husband’s 1994 crime bill. He was a pawn in the never-ending campaign for a federal (if not eternal) War on Drugs. And perhaps most chillingly, suggests actor/writer Roger Guenveur Smith in the film version of his dizzyingly powerful solo theatrical performance Rodney King, he was our first reality-TV star, cast in a drama that continues even now in reruns.
But Smith’s film — directed by longtime collaborator Spike Lee and premiering April 28 on Netflix — is not interested in King’s symbolism. It sets out to dispel not just myths but the widely accepted folklore of what happened to King on March 3, 1991, and in the years after riots broke out across South Central L.A. A haunting, archly empathetic griot and narrator, Smith repeatedly invokes and interrogates our historical memory, like he’s ripping up and rearranging official documents to create a more truthful collage.
Certainly, after countless airings of the dim, night-vision video (viewable on YouTube), which captured King’s barbaric beating by LAPD officers on the shoulder of Los Angeles’s 210 Freeway, many Americans have asked, “Who is Rodney King?” But in the pre-internet era, the video — shot on a Sony Handycam by 31-year-old plumber George Holliday from the balcony of his apartment building — established an expedient narrative. King, an intoxicated black man, was pulled over for speeding and ferociously resisted arrest. The officers at the scene struck him with their aluminum batons 56 times, kicked him six times, and shot him twice with a Taser.
In Rodney King, Smith methodically chips away at that narrative. For instance, he illuminates the fundamental fact that King’s family and friends never called him “Rodney,” instead using his middle name, Glen. But when police checked King’s driver’s license, “Rodney” went into the police report and onto the news and around the world. Suddenly, Glen, who suffered brain damage from 11 skull fractures, woke up in a hospital bed being called a name to which he’d never answered. “Rodney” would remain his name as alcohol and drug addiction took their toll. He was exploited and ridiculed, eventually washing up on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. After a ghostwritten autobiography, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, and appearances at bookstores around the 20th anniversary of the officers’ 1992 acquittal of all charges, he seemed to be on an upswing. Then, suddenly, at age 47, he drowned in the swimming pool behind his Rialto, California, house, after going into a state of alcohol- and drug-induced delirium. He was found on Father’s Day, the same holiday on which he’d found the body of his father Ronald King, also an alcoholic, drowned in the bathtub years before.
When I spoke with Smith recently by phone from his Los Angeles home, he argued passionately that King deserved more than to be remembered as just “a human piñata.” Smith has previously explored similarly charged, complex historical events and characters in his solo works Juan and John (a reexamination of San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal’s brutal on-field attack of Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro) and A Huey P. Newton Story (an often ecstatic, riveting performance as the charismatically manic Black Panthers leader). He’s also built a respected film and TV career spanning almost 30 years, including perhaps his most memorable performance, in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, as Smiley, a mentally disabled man hawking what’s supposedly the only photo of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. together.
But with this hour-long immersion in the psyche of one of America’s great lingering enigmas, he may have reached a new professional peak.
What are some of the more basic misconceptions about Rodney King?
Roger Guenveur Smith: Well, for example, he wasn’t from South Central Los Angeles. He grew up in a suburb, Altadena, which has a traditional black community — [activist/author] George Jackson was from Altadena. So it does have a very rich black history, but it’s by no stretch of the imagination an “inner-city” environment. He also had these experiences with his father, who taught him how to swim and fish; he also liked to surf and ski. So this is why I find it important to also tell the story of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old girl who was killed in the dispute over the orange juice [by South Korean storeowner Soon Ja Du, just 13 days after Rodney King was beaten]. She was a resident of the South Central community that exploded, and the people who went off were just as outraged, if not more, by the loss of Latasha Harlins. In some ways, her story is even more tragic.
In another parallel, the Harlins shooting was videotaped, just like the King beating.
Smith: Yes, and that complicated the story, because here you have the security-cam footage of Latasha Harlins being shot and killed in a convenience store and, in Los Angeles, that videocam tape became disseminated at least as much as the Rodney King beating. The LAPD made sure it was disseminated, so the pressure was then taken off the LAPD and then the Korean merchants became demonized, so there was a new villain in the community. Then the non-sentencing of Soon Ja Du [convicted of voluntary manslaughter, she was fined $500, sentenced to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and no prison time], the appeal of the non-sentencing and the rejection of the appeal, all this happened in the same year  leading up the trial of officers Koon, Powell, Wind, and Briseno in the Rodney King case. So the appeal of the judge’s non-sentencing [on April 22, 1992] and the non-guilty verdicts of the officers [on April 29, 1992] were interwoven on the calendar for a little more than a year before everything exploded.
This piece predates even the 20th anniversary of the riots — what was your original idea for it back then?
Smith: Initially, I was going to do this simply as a memorial, a little intimate meditation for that summer of ’92, but the story continued to expand and America continued to get more terrifying as months and years went on. Rodney King became even more iconic to me. As I say in the piece, he was the first person to be treated like a reality-TV star. He was the first cat we consumed as a televised victim in that way.
The “Can we get along?” statement that King gave at his press conference on the third day of the riots was an important foundation for you developing the piece, right?
Smith: I think that was one of the [greatest] American speeches ever delivered. And with constructing this performance, the first thing I knew I wanted to do was perform that speech in its entirety and not just as a sound bite, which is basically what it became after it was first broadcast. I think very few people ever saw the full speech after that. Nobody really wanted to take the time to see a man struggling, digging deep into his humanity, and speaking with the utmost conviction and sincerity.
A lot of people still believe that he was reading someone else’s words.
Smith: He was given a four-page, typewritten statement by his lawyers, the same lawyers who had gagged him during the trial because they didn’t want him to embarrass himself by the way that he spoke. He was given a suit and tie and a bulletproof vest. But he threw the statement away. Now, he may or may not have even been able to read it. I mean, come on, this is a dude who was brain-damaged from the beating, he wasn’t a high school graduate, he was drunk and very disappointed with the not-guilty verdict — which had gone down two days before he gave the speech — and he was traumatized by the loss of life that was carried out in his name as he sat down and watched the riots on TV with everyone else. But I think he had another agenda and he was courageously able to share that with us. And it was a simple gospel, but sometimes the simplest messages are the most successful.
Your performance is very simple in its staging, but you communicate an enormous amount of information and the way you move your body is extremely nuanced and impactful. What were the major theatrical decisions you made in conceiving the piece?
Smith: The first thing I created was the white rectangle that I stand on, which to me represented the cage he was in; it was the swimming pool [in which King drowned]; it was also the glare of the camera, of the LAPD spotlight. But it was that rectangle that we never see him stepping into or stepping out of, because there’s a blackout before and after. In addition, I use a microphone that’s connected to a cord, which I thought was essential as a kind of lifeline. It was also reminiscent of the electrical cord that his father used to beat him. [There’s] also the idea that this is electricity mixing up with blood, mixing up with water, mixing up with saliva. It’s not a good combination, liquid and electricity — it’s a very dangerous combination. So there was that, these rather simple design ideas that communicated a lot.
The sound design by Marc Anthony Thompson, plus the hip-hop that’s playing before and after the performance — including Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” — also contribute to the overall mood. Then the first words of the show are “Fuck Rodney King,” from the song by Willie D of The Geto Boys, which you rap pretty intensely.
Smith: I wanted to do a big chunk of the Willie D rap, because I thought it was an amazing response to the dilemma of Rodney King from someone who felt that Rodney wasn’t living up to his standards of machismo. He felt that Rodney should not be on television in tears, that he should not be forgiving of the people who beat him, that he should not be at all conciliatory. That offended Willie D, and he rapped about it in a very succinct, very powerful, very disturbing way. So that’s what I kick off with and I end with the speech, but in between it’s completely improvised, [when] I’m asking Rodney questions he can’t answer. At one point, I put the microphone up to the sky and say, “Hey, stand up, Rodney! Stand up, Rodney!” which is quoting this cat [comedian Arnez J] from BET’s ComicView. Rodney was in the audience and he stood up and waved [after Arnez J introduced him as the man who “got the greatest ass-whupping of all time”]. He smiled good-naturedly, despite being the butt of more jokes.
You also talk about how King tried to be a part of the South Central community.
Smith: Yeah, somehow he found it within himself to go out trick-or-treating, dressed as Bob Marley, with his daughter in 1991. And then in ’92, on the night of the acquittal, in this totally unbelievable move, he puts on a dreadlocks wig and drives into the middle of the riots, and is surrounded by all these people screaming, “No justice, no peace,” “Fuck the police,” and “This is for you, Rodney King,” while he’s sitting right there in his car, not being recognized. Somehow, he found it within himself to continue living a life, even after the beating and all the subsequent reportage.
What do you think is King’s legacy?
Smith: When Rodney King died, Charlie Beck, who was and still is the chief of police, said that Rodney King changed the culture of policing in Los Angeles. Now, I don’t know if there’s any truth to that, but that’s what he chose as a eulogy for Rodney King. Not that it was a tragedy or a great loss to his family, [even though] he was a father and a grandfather. No, it was simply that Rodney King had changed the culture of policing in Los Angeles, which is really outrageous. It showed that even in death, Rodney King was not accorded the dignity of at least extending condolences. With this show, I try to remind the audiences that there was a man behind the myth, a man worth trying to know.