Just over twenty years ago, the Los Angeles Riots caused nights to glow orange from thousands of arson fires, and ash to fall from the sky like dirty, gray snowflakes.
I remember it well: I was a scared high school junior in Long Beach, California, where whole city blocks were torched and camouflaged National Guardsman and their armored military vehicles rumbled down civilian streets.
It’s this mood and tone that filmmaker Matt Ford seeks to capture in his retrospective documentary Uprising: Hip Hop and The LA Riots, which aired on May 1 to coincide with the Riots’ 20th anniversary (see it free on VH-1 here).
The one-hour documentary is an uneven treatise that suffers from a weak analysis of the uprising that killed 54 people and caused over $1 billion in damages. Of course, it was made for mainstream cable TV station VH-1 and narrated by my high school schoolmate Snoop Dogg, so it’s not like I expected a nuanced discussion. But still.
The central thesis is this: Black and brown communities had been abused by the LAPD for years. Rappers like Ice-T and groups like NWA documented this abuse in their songs, but no one listened. When the officers were acquitted, it was the spark to the powder keg of an already angry and disenfranchised community.
Rapper Ice Cube in 'Uprising'
Through the course of the documentary, West Coast rap luminaries such as Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Kurupt give us their thoughts and perspectives on the riots. (The interviews with East Coast rappers KRS-One and Nas are unnecessary distant voices and seem more like “Cool People I Know” add-ons).
It’s a who’s-who of the West Coast music scene, but the film could have provided better insight on the big picture causes of the riots. You know you’re struggling when your “experts” are talk show host Arsenio Hall (a strange choice thematically) and USC Professor Todd Boyd (a sensationalist choice due to his shock value statements in the documentary and his self-given nickname, “the Notorious PhD”).
If Ford had a chance to do a longer director’s edition, I’d suggest a convo with MacArthur Award winner Mike Davis, who practically predicted the riots (just like Ice Cube and NWA) in his seminal history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz.
And when Ford discusses the violent history of the LAPD and Chiefs Parker and Gates, he can’t just leave them alone on an island, can he? The police don’t work in a vacuum and it would have taken a simple GIS map of L.A. with income levels and incidents of police violence to illustrate how LAPD’s self-described “Thin Blue Line” created de facto borders between rich and poor, white and non-white across Los Angeles. Additionally, an explanation of how racial covenants legally segregated Los Angeles and the elimination of post-war manufacturing jobs for black workers would have enriched the discussion on inequality and injustice.
There is also little analysis of the role of Latinos during the riots, which is surprising, given the history of Los Angeles and the Zoot Suit Riots. For example, many of the initial victims attacked by mob violence at the infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie were Latino. And according to a 1993 report prepared by the Latinos Futures Research Group, one third to one half of the businesses looted were Latino-owned.
Ford does give some airplay to the Korean American merchants who suffered much of the economic and psychological damage of the riots. However, when he quotes a business leader as saying that Koreatown has recovered to be profitable again, he implies that the Korean American community is monolithic, and severely overlooks the individuals and families who never recovered. (Much of the post-Riot Koreatown recovery came from overseas Korean investors, not Korean Americans).
And when Ford talks with gunstore owner David Joo, infamous for being taped shooting at looters, he ends the interview by asking him if the riots “were good for business?” It’s an unnecessary “gotcha” question if there ever was one, and left me wondering if the Korean American segment was a token effort, or worse, reinforced the scapegoating of Korean Americans. In this segment, I never got the sense the Korean speakers got a fair shake, and certainly were not humanized like the other interviewees.
For Ford to leave out the complex narratives of two such key communities in the diverse racial potpourri of Los Angeles makes him seem intellectually lazy, stuck on a dated black-white racial paradigm, and/or perhaps over-reaching with his hip-hop lens of the Riots.
Despite its shortcomings, Uprising does have many successful moments and crescendos. A killer soundtrack of West Coast gangsta rap and G-funk provides raw energy, and the rare on-the-ground footage of looting, beatings, arson, and mayhem strangely mesmerize.
Rodney King revisits the site of his beating in 'Uprising'
Ford’s interview of Henry Watson, one of the notorious “L.A. 4” who beat white truck driver Reginald Denny, is tense and dramatic, and provides a human dimension to the arc of the film. You can’t help but get chills when Watson is asked whether or not he regrets his actions from twenty years ago. And the closing scene -- with Watson returned to the scene of his crime and Dr. Dre’s “Lil Ghetto Boy” playing -- forces the viewer to not only look at broader social injustices but also ask how does a man go from high school football star to United States Marine to drug dealer to beating an innocent man on live TV?
Twenty years after, I’ve come full circle with my Riot experiences. I teach at a high school in South Central Los Angeles, and when I drive around the neighborhood, there are huge swaths of lots where businesses and furniture stores and markets once stood.
I asked my students if they knew why those lots were empty. Born four to five years after the Riots, hardly any of them did. Then I dimmed the lights and played Uprising. With its infectious beats, brutal imagery, and vast star power, it was a good starting point for them to begin learning.
K-PoP is Hyphen’s newest blog column and it’s short for Ky-Phong on Pop Culture. Ky-Phong Tran is an award-winning writer and teacher based in southern California and he’ll be writing about music, art, literature, Los Angeles, fatherhood, and other musings.
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!