Film Review: LA 92 (2017)

2017 marked twenty-five years since one of the most prolific and costly civil disturbances in this country erupted in Los Angeles, CA in response to overt, brutal racism and a total miscarrying of justice. No less than five documentaries were produced to recall the events of that fateful week in 1992, predominately showcasing much of the well-known video footage captured by mainstream media outlets taking their first steps towards a 24/7 news cycle. 

At first glance LA 92, the latest documentary by co-directors/co-editors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, seems to be nothing more than a 2-hour demo reel of found footage. In stark contrast to contemporary expectations and rules of form in documentary filmmaking, Lindsay and Martin assembled the film without the use of voiceover narration or talking-head interviews, using only a minimal amount of title screens to provide additional context not gleaned from the raw footage itself.

In many ways this style of narrative critique can be off-putting for audiences familiar with works that have explicit meanings and/or easily guide the viewer—it is no surprise that a common reaction to the film has been to state that it lacks purpose and/or intent, especially in comparison to the other documentaries released on this matter which are more upfront and carry a more traditional style of filmmaking.

However, if we observe these films with an understanding of history closer to that of Walter Benjamin rather than merely a didactic statement of facts and recollections, LA 92 becomes a powerful weapon against white supremacy in The United States and its critique is all the more powerful precisely because of the style of its assemblages.

Beyond the fact that it has been twenty-five years since these events occurred, there can be found an alternative purpose for LA 92 recalling events surrounding the first mass distributed videotape of police brutality against black people in this country. Today, #BlackLivesMatter mobilizations are rapidly (and more frequently) incited by the ubiquity of smartphones and the instantaneity of information sharing via social media, much to the shock and bewilderment of a culture purporting to be at its pinnacle of progress, human rights, and democracy.

To borrow from Benjamin, "[t]he astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the [21st] century are 'still' possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable." History, as it has been aptly said, is always written by the victors and this 'astonishment' can only arise from a linear, progressivist conception of history that is nothing more and nothing less than a "tool of the ruling classes." From this perspective, LA 92 can be viewed as a radical attempt to resurrect a cultural memory—not for the sake of telling and preserving history but as instrument for overturning it.

"To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject." 

On the Concept of History, Walter Benjamin (1940)

The film begins with a black screen while audio from a Los Angeles police radio starts to play—but this isn't a verbal exchange having to do with the March 1991 "arrest" and beating of Rodney King (presumably the films subject). It is instead a recording of a police officer reporting to the dispatcher that there is a 1952 white Chevrolet "containing four male niggers with a sawed off shotgun" in the Watts area of Los Angeles. We then see the start of a film reel as the racist verbal exchange continues; the classical score fades in with a ominous presence and suddenly we see a black man in a chokehold being dragged by police: this is the 1965 Watts Rebellion.

The significance of this five minute introduction should not be overlooked or easily dismissed. While the imagery of the 1965 rebellion mirrors most of the footage we are about to see from the 1992 'Battle of Los Angeles,' its purpose moves beyond visual comparison. It at once provides an audio/visual vocabulary for the film and remarkably denotes an historical past, present and future. 

Given that for nearly two hours the audience is fully enmeshed in found footage from 1991-1992 without any narrator voiceover or cutaway interview (i.e. as if we are watching this all unfold live), we may interpret this as the films 'present.' Therefore, the five minutes of footage from the 1965 Watts Rebellion emerges as the films historical past and, perhaps most provocatively, the memory of the audience serves as its future. By accepting these temporal realities we "explode the continuum of history," as Benjamin would describe it, distancing ourselves from an "eternal" or static picture of the past, instead depicting an experience with it.

Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin never have to show or allude to the future themselves—it is incredibly difficult as a viewer situated within the 21st century not to immediately identify these historical scenes with their contemporary iterations. As one watches the "arrest" and beating of Rodney King, one might simultaneously recall the 2014 "arrest" and murder of Eric Garner or might imagine what could have happened in that police transport van in 2015 that led to the death of Freddie Gray whose spine was 80% severed at his neck. The acts of rebellion which followed these 'future' events also mirror their historical predecessors in striking ways: incited by empty-handed investigations, charge dismissals and acquittals, communities turned to the streets in rage and committed grandiose acts of arson, looting and fighting.

Perhaps one of the most striking memories that collides with the footage in the film deals with the police and State response (or lack thereof) to these outbursts in the street. Just as the unrest begins to swirl around Florence and Normandie, Lindsay and Martin make use of the police radio audio in which officers are told numerous times to vacate the area and to not respond. The way in which the LAPD (and later the National Guard) took to their posts outside the vicinity and failed to intervene in any meaningful capacity reminds one of the (in)action of the United States military after the invasion of Iraq & the fall of Saddam: the intention to allow the community to destroy itself, inside out.

The form of LA 92 allows the filmmakers to delicately lay out over an hour of videos taken during the unrest without explicitly condoning or condemning the actions on the screen. It allows us to watch events unfold without ritualistically being thrown into the tired morality "debates" that inevitably rush out when these events occur—this is a common tactic used as a means of distracting from the root issues.

In fact, the media, for their part, comes out as a larger problem than all the violent acts they capture—one can't help but notice the tenacity at which they make sure every TV in America is showing the worst images imaginable during the street unrest but had, in their initial reports, a complete lack of enthusiasm for showing the beating of Rodney King (nor could they talk about his injuries without at the same time justifying the use of force with the same thin defenses which helped acquit the officers involved). 

LA 92 can certainly be watched passively (i.e. as just an assemblage of video clips and sound bites; as riot porn) but its Truth lies in its ability to become the guillotine to our notions of history and progress. The immediate collision of these temporal realities serves as the prominent means by which Lindsay and Martin are able (without preaching) to not only offer a significant critique of white supremacy in America (its past, present, and its future) but are also able to indict the audience. 

History books, philosophers, media and celebrity personalities, friends and acquaintances have all talked and remembered the "Battle of Los Angeles" in 1992 in largely the same way. We have been conditioned to remember specific images of the Event: the "riots," the looting, the "violence"—all predominately taken from above, from the outside (the most iconic images were shot from helicopters)—and are led to believe that their historical sparsity is a de facto marker of progress. LA 92 resoundingly rejects this notion by refusing to conform to a bulleted mass of facts that renders the here-and-now as an impenetrable empty time; its explosion of the continuum of history provides for an experience of black America that maintains its political urgency, its revolutionary consciousness, and its imperative for liberation.