Douglas Burrows / Getty Images

‘We Wanted You To Have To Grapple With This On Your Own’

A bold new documentary on the L.A. riots seeks deeper truth by discarding talking heads

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.

Though documentaries about justice and injustice in America have been plenty and plenty good over the last few years, the new National Geographic documentary LA 92, about the riots that followed the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who were filmed beating Rodney King, finds a new way to tell an age-old story. Here, as in most filmed retrospective accounts of the riots, are the video images that defined them — the brutal tape of Rodney King’s beating and the surveillance video of the murder of teenager Latasha Harlins by grocery store owner Soon Ja Du. But directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin go deeper, reconstructing the events of April 1992 using only archival materials. The film's portrait of the riots is contemporary, not retrospective. There are no talking heads, there is no voice-over, and the only interviews included in the movie come from reports taped during the riots themselves.

In the film's lead-up to the violence, we watch a community witness the legal system demonstrate that justice is blind to video evidence; during the riots and their aftermath, we watch as rapacious news coverage fans the flames of a city’s unprocessed anger. LA 92 forces us to witness the riots in real time alongside those who witnessed the events live in 1992. By dropping us into the riots without the cooling effect of interviews offered in hindsight, Lindsay and Martin recreate the confounding emotions that accompanied the confounding events of that year — and they don’t shy from the clashes in perspective that defined the time. For every righteous image of protesters surrounding a police precinct, there are images like Reginald Denny beaten senseless, his open wounds sprayed with black paint. Sometimes the best way to make sense of the past is to acknowledge that the past is chaos.

One day before LA 92 premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, MTV News spoke to directors Lindsay and Martin about the task of reconstructing the L.A. riots, the long and ongoing history of police brutality, and the media’s responsibility when it comes to provocative imagery.

mtv news
L.A. : 25
25 years after the riots, how much has changed?

Though this is a movie about the events of 1992, it begins and ends with a news report from the 1965 Watts riots. Why was this clip so significant?

Dan Lindsay: We came upon several news documentaries that were made after the Watts riots, and there was just something striking about that journalist saying that we could put a man on the moon — and by the way, this happens in 1965, so we haven’t yet been on the moon, it’s just the assumption that we will be able to — but yet we can’t cure the sickness in our cities. What does that say about us as a country? That was a really powerful statement to us. Just in doing the initial research it was clear that many of the issues that prompted Watts had never been addressed, and 25 years later, they boiled up again. We felt it was important to frame the story in that way. These are always relevant issues and they’re things that our country seems to have a hard time talking about and grappling with.

T.J. Martin: The only thing I would add is that from the beginning, we knew that we wanted to do something that emulated a vérité approach. We wanted to make something that wasn’t didactic, we didn’t want to have talking heads explaining things to you — instead we wanted to recreate an immersive experience only using archival footage. So right from the beginning, we quickly knew that the cyclical nature of these events [was] going to be a major thematic thread throughout the film and that’s what led to using things like the Bill Stout report. It wasn’t like we were digging through archives, telling ourselves, “Oh man, we’ve gotta use that Stout CBS report!” It was more like we had in the ballpark of 1,700 hours of footage, and in combing through that footage, we had to figure out what material was speaking to the themes that we wanted to explore.

In doing your archive crawl, was there any kind of material that you tried not to include?

Lindsay: There was stuff that we found compelling that we weren’t able to incorporate. One specifically was an interview with one of the jury members who voted to find the officers not guilty. Ultimately, because of licensing issues, we couldn’t figure out how to include it so that it flowed without disrupting the film. That was a shame, I wish we could have found a way to make that work.

Martin: I don’t think there was anything that we specifically tried not to include. What I will say is that with footage like the John Singleton quote from the rally outside the courthouse — “They’ve lit the fuse to a bomb” — we’ve seen that clip a million times. Stuff like that — it wasn’t that we were trying to avoid it, but we were trying to bring fresh eyes and a fresh approach to it, so you’re not kind of recycling the same iconic moments. We wanted to shuffle things around a bit and give you a new perspective. I’d say the only thing that we really wish we could have included, besides the jury member, is more of the point of view of the Latino community. They were an integral part of the second day [of the riots] in terms of how they were affected by the unrest, but they weren’t an integral part to the larger story line. It was also really hard to find archival material outside of Radio Bilingüe, which was one of the only places we were able to find discussions happening within the community. Outside of that, a lot of places didn’t keep their archives, so we didn’t have archives from Telemundo or Univision or any of those places. That was one of the more disheartening things.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film was the way you used sound design. There are lots of times in the movie when we can hear a radio broadcast, or audio of people processing events, that might not be not connected to what we see onscreen. How did you decide what to include as audio clips and how did you try to relate those excerpts to what you were seeing on video?

Lindsay: We have some idea when we start a project of what the story will be, but we try to let the footage tell us what it’s trying to say. So part of it is listening to those hundreds of hours of radio broadcast audio and finding the little bits that speak to those themes that we’re exploring. Where and how we incorporate them is more complicated.

Martin: I would say though that it kind of goes back to the shifting of perspective. The way the film is designed, you’re constantly getting a new point of view. The moment you think you’ve heard or seen every single point of view, or you yourself have become resigned to what you think is good or bad, all of a sudden you get someone else weighing in. You hear a new voice giving you a perspective that challenges what you just saw two minutes earlier that you may have agreed with or disagreed with, and now you're left to wrestle with what this new idea is. Part of the decision-making was that we wanted to constantly be challenging the audience's perception of things. So we asked ourselves, how can we continue, with the audio, to bring in new ideas over the course of the entire 112-minute journey, so that it keeps you unsettled and on your toes and thinking about the material and emotionally relating to the material? There's a lot going on!

Lindsay: Going into making the film, T.J. and I talked a lot about the contradictions of America. When we started putting material together, early on we saw this kind of natural cognitive dissonance that the film made you go through. So you would see something and you would feel sympathetic when you’re watching one moment, and then on the turn of a dime something happens and you’re like, Well, I don’t know if that’s right. So when we were piecing together the film, we wanted to simulate a kind of constant cognitive dissonance, because for us that’s a lot of the experience of America: The idea that we hold these certain values but yet we don’t live up to them. Or we seem to make great progress, yet we can point to all these things where it seems we’re falling back. There’s a clear and specific parallel that we put in after Watts, with the election of Tom Bradley, the first person of color to be the mayor of a large city like that, that’s echoing the election of Barack Obama. There’s a naive idea that these problems are going to be solved, but those moments still represent actual progress. You can’t totally say that they don’t. We wanted our audience to have to wrestle with these ideas in real time. And again, that’s why we didn’t want talking heads. We wanted you to have to grapple with this on your own.

The L.A. riots are often described as a tragedy, but in the movie and in life, we watch people experience a more complex range of emotions. There's grief and anger, but also a sense of pride and release. Were you consciously trying to move past labels like “tragedy” in your approach to the film?

Lindsay: This is part of [why] we didn’t want to parade out a bunch of experts. We think it’s too complex to try to put labels on these events, and it’s definitely too complex to try to sum everything up in 90 minutes. In our minds it would have been irresponsible. I can remember my own youth growing up in the Midwest — I was 14 years old at the time this happened, and being told what was happening in L.A. was a race riot. What does that even mean? When we were discussing the film, I think the term we returned to was “civil unrest,” because whatever value you placed on what was happening, you couldn’t say that there wasn’t unrest. But that rush to categorize things so quickly and so easily is part of the reason we have recurring issues in our country.

One significant difference between then and now is that now we’re bombarded with images of police violence. We’ve seen people killed by police on camera more times than I can count. What difference do you think that proliferation of images has had on how people respond to the continuation of this crisis?

Lindsay: My sense is that we don’t know how to talk about it. As a filmmaker that’s how I look at it, because when we look at powerful images, we’re always trying to deliver the right context and we’re thinking about how to be responsible with things that are extremely provocative, because there’s an immense responsibility in that power. I think the democratization of having cameras has positives, but the negative is that there’s no context, no filter, no ability to consume and talk about things beyond saying, “Holy shit, look at this provocative fucking image.” It’s absurd to me that you can watch someone be brutalized on camera by a police officer, by someone in a position of power, and I could predictably tell you the reaction that people are going to have based on their political affiliation. That’s absurd to me. I personally feel very worried for our country that we can’t have conversations about things that are very complicated and instead we seem to immediately choose sides because we have a hard time talking about things.

Martin: Dan, you’ve got me thinking about how having what some people would call hard evidence — which was a common point of view when the Rodney King tape came out — just gives other people excuses to look at the same tape in a different light. So they say they police said this, and they didn’t do that, or we didn’t see the first 15 seconds of the video. It does boil down to what Dan is saying, which is that we don’t have the tools to talk about it. I’m pretty big on media literacy, and media dissemination, and media literacy is something that is so void in our basic education. We aren’t taught how to register and consume images, [how to realize] what they’re doing to you. And I think with the copious amounts of violent images that we see, I don’t think we’re actually understanding what they do to us as people.

Read More: Ten stories about the L.A. riots and the world they made.