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Doc Corner: 'LA 92' and 'Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992' 

by Glenn Dunks

It’s not surprising that the spectre of the Los Angeles riots of 1992 has loomed large over documentary filmmaking this year. Emerging out from shadow of O.J. Simpson, whose story was everywhere in 2016, the 25th anniversary of this monumental moment in American history has been the focus of not just (by my count) five feature documentaries, but has also felt like an integral part of more contemporary films like Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ Whose Streets, Yance Ford’s Strong Island, and Peter Nicks’ The Force.

It would make sense then that these films, which largely pull from many of the same archival footage sources, might be in danger of working against one another. Dampening their urgency and their power simply by being too numerous.

However, at least in the case of Dan Lindsay and TJ Miller’s LA 92 and John Ridley’s Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, that is certainly not what has occurred...

These two documentaries, each of them urgently edited and vital in their impact, use two very different structural forms to tell the story of a city at breaking point. LA 92 takes the form of a patchwork. An assemblage of news reports and video from the time, only briefly placed into context by a prologue that sets the scene of how Los Angeles got to where it was. Let It Fall, however, is more traditional in its form, yet no less powerful. Utilising home video, news reporting, and talking heads, it obviously (as suggested by the title) paints a broader picture of the city and how the anger in people’s living rooms and workplaces overflowed into the streets of South Central for the world to watch on the television sets.

I know some take a certain viewpoint that the more classical non-fiction tropes utilised in Let It Fall are antiquated relics of doc filmmaking – especially when compared to the more overtly flashy work of LA 92 – but the matter-of-fact way that Ridley allows witnesses to the riots detail their personal stories allowed for his film to reach something somewhere in the middle between catharsis and devastation. Similar to Oklahoma City from earlier in the year (one of the very best of the year in part for what it achieves by sticking to that same classic doc formula), Let it Fall doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, but by offering first-hand, eye-witness accounts, the audience is able to learn so much from both the macro and the micro. In this regard, the documentary feels at one with Ridley’s American Crime series, which had a similarly explosive atmosphere amid an ensemble of stories all refracting off of a single tragedy.

It’s an altogether different reaction to LA 92, which occasionally feels like a sledgehammer for the way it so dramatically inserts the viewer into the world of 1992 as many watched in horror at unfolding racism and violence. Certainly, it’s hard to deny its Emmy win (beating the aforementioned Oklahoma City as well as Oscar winners O.J.: Made in America and The White Helmets), and it makes for a more a natural Oscar contender, directed as it is by the Oscar-winning filmmakers of Undefeated.

Having seen Undefeated, I wasn’t quite prepared for the palpable sense of dread that Lindsay and Miller were able to achieve here. Gripping, but eschewing the personal touch of Let if Fall in favour of recreating the visceral impact of the riots on the city at large. LA 92 works best as a guttural scream of release that has no doubt been informed by the recent #blacklivesmatter protest movement across America as much as it has the other 25 years of injustice.

Both films recycle much of the same footage. Footage that we’ve all seen countless times from other sources. But one of the biggest take-aways from that is realizing how often we can see this stuff – whether that be Rodney King being assaulted on the street by police officers with metal sticks, Latasha Harlins being shot in the head for a misunderstanding about orange juice, or Korean shopkeepers firing rifles and guns on the streets like they’re in a western standoff – and yet have it remain undiluted by time and repetition. The King assault appears in both films upwards of ten times, probably more. And so it should. It’s shocking and appalling and should be remembered as such.

Of course, there is a stomach-churning inevitability at play in both films. We all know how this story played out and seeing how society appears to have only moved backwards only makes it all the more tragic. It’s not at all a stretch to imagine we’ll be here in 25 years watching documentaries about contemporary miscarriages of justice, the seed partly laid by the events shown here. There is obviously a lot to take from both LA 92 and Let it Fall, but the saddest of all might just be the downtrodden signs of resignation on the faces after the "not guilty" verdicts of those featured in the archival footage. They knew it was a tragedy then and 25 years later, all the wrong lessons appear to have been learned.

Release: LA 92 unfortunately no longer appears to be streaming on National Geographic, but can be viewed on iTunes/Vudu/Fandango/Microsoft/PlayStation. Let It Fall can be streamed on Netflix.

Oscar Chances: Both are eligible, but I wonder if last year's trio of race-themed docs might mean they forgoe these and other similar titles that aren't Strong Island. I'd say LA 92 has the better odds (also because they're out there selling it), but how strange would it be for a film to be Oscar nominated after winning an Emmy (rather than the usual other way around).

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Reader Comments (3)

LA 92 is the best documentary I have seen this year. I was in high school during the King beating, verdict and riots - when the news did not move as quickly as it does now, and brutality seemed rarer than it does now - and the film did a great job what it was like to watch the shock and horror of those events in the moment. I do hope that it gets an Oscar nod, as it seems to have fallen off the radar for many people (again, things move so quickly now compared to the early '90s).

I am looking forward to watching John Ridley's film.

December 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Let it Fall was one of the most thorough Docs I've seen. Was more than just "talking heads." Was intimate narratives of people who lived through the riots. LA '92 gave them no voice, and no context, like they didn't deserve the opportunity to comment on their own history. Just haven't seen a more urgent Doc this year than Let it Fall. Believe it's back in theaters now, or screening some places.

December 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Harmon

Suzanne- I couldn’t agree more! I was in high school at the time as well and that violence shown on network tv felt very voyeuristic, yet terrifying. High schoolers today would scroll on past that same coverage now.

December 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoel

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