The political climate has never been tenser with emotions incredibly high as we battle the same concerns that plagued America 25 years ago. Upon the historic anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, we are reminded of the activities that occurred in 1992 when a camera captured Rodney King being brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers.
What was considered a regular occurrence between the city’s Black residents and LAPD shifted dramatically due to the quick thinking of a witness with a video camera. The 1991 film footage of Rodney King, beat and assaulted by local law enforcement who were cleared of charges, struck a nerve so deep it rocked the world into a frenzy of racial discord.
National Geographic Documentary Films premiered “LA 92” on April 30 on the network’s channel. The film, produced by two-time Oscar winner Simon Chinn (“Man on Wire”) and directed by Academy award-winning directors Dan Lindsay and T.J Martin (“Undefeated”), reveals various footage of the events leading up to the unrest.
The Chicago Defender talked with directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin about the historic series of events that occurred during a time when both filmmakers were still in their teens.
Why did you feel this documentary and the subject was the next project for you both to produce?
That’s a question that we get a lot and surprisingly we struggle to answer it because I think the 25th Anniversary of the civil unrest was the motivation for the project to happen. Why TJ and I wanted to direct it? It gave us an opportunity to revisit a moment in our history that we remembered but knew we didn’t know. We knew we would be exploring themes and issues that many of the projects we’ve worked on tend to explore. I think we wanted to look at this from an emotional viewpoint and look at what it says about us—collectively as Americans and just as human beings.
TJ Martin: We weren’t naive that [given that it’s the 25th anniversary] there were going to be a lot of conversation about the civil unrest in ‘92 and probably other films and projects, but we kind of saw this as an opportunity to take a unique approach. [We try to] create an experimental and a victual experience for the audience using raw archival media and reconstructing that way. The hope is if [we] take a unique approach, maybe it’ll lead to unique thoughts and dialogue afterwards.
Knowing that it feels like the dominate theme and these events are cyclical, how do we create a new perspective on it to inspire new thoughts to arriving to solutions so that we don’t repeat ourselves.
Do the events spark an emotion that you can recall in that moment during that time that it brought so many emotions to the surface—not only in LA but around the country? As filmmakers, does that emotion help to bring a different kind of narrative so the next generation can understand?
I think the current events that have happened in the last two years around police brutality and the number of videos have surfaced, you can’t help but connect that to what happened in 1992. We were cognizant of the beating of Rodney King which was the first such video that really gave national attention. I think we understood that the audience would have all the thoughts of the current events in your mind while watching this. The hope while exploring this in the past, there might be some insight in gaining how we go forward in the future.
That was very intentional on our end, if the film can be one of emotion and not one of ‘let me deconstruct these events’ then it seems like you’re essentially saying, ‘that was that chapter of American history now we’ve moved on from here.’ If we can create a space where the audience goes through a very victual experience then hopefully they take that out of the theatre and wrestle with it emotionally and cognitively as you take that back to your own life.
We’ve noticed that there’s a real connection to the material for people who are 30 and under. There’s one thing to read or study about it to see these statistics, there’s another thing to have the amount of visual evidence to show that people’s lives were impacted forever because of these events. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how emotional it’s been for people of a younger generation to connect themselves to the events.
It was an intention on our part to reframe some of the events that we did remember. I was a teenager when this happened. I feel that by the time I was 20, Rodney King’s speech became almost a pop culture joke— ‘can we all get along?’. When we watched the raw footage of it, it was heartbreaking. Heartbreaking to know that this 25-year old man was thrust in this position and having the weight of a city burning down around him in his name—not being a trained public speaker.
How many hours of raw footage did you sort through and how did you decide what stayed in the film?
It was just pure madness. We sorted out of 1,500 hours of footage if not more. The process was difficult because we were mining for gems. We would acquire the footage from traditional broadcast news—ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN. As well as from people who whipped out their home video camera and filmed stuff. On top of that, English language, Korean and Latino radio programs. It wasn’t about what not to include but about to create a narrative while speaking to the themes that were most interesting to us.
When you see the film, there was a moment outside of the courthouse before the verdict was read—there was a heated exchange between two gentlemen which for us it summed up the entire problem in our country.
From a creative standpoint, knowing that it wasn’t going to be a first-person narrative, we decide to structure the film like a symphony so that it operated in movements. We wanted to create a space where the viewer was an integral part of the conversation with the film as the film goes along. To do that, we wanted to shift perspectives consistently. The moment that you think you’re arriving to a conclusion, we shift and challenge it every two to three minutes. Whether it’s jumping to the Korean American narrative or giving a different point of view on what the looting meant to society—where one person says, ‘this is just opportunism’ and one person says, ‘what do you expect?’
How we drew those conclusions is what is allowing us to still get a variety of ‘point of views’ across but still being respectful to all the different communities that were affected by the events itself.