We Haven't Seen It All

On April 29, the second anniversary of the civil unrest here in L.A., my film "The Fire This Time," a documentary chronicling the history of this event, opened. The day before, Calendar ran a front-page article about the movie. A companion article was headlined "Networks Steering Clear of TV Projects on the L.A. Riots." This is true in the case of my film, which has been shunned by PBS and other networks, despite critical acclaim and national awards.

In an effort to explain network mentality, David Link's Counterpunch ("Why Dramatize When We Were All Eyewitnesses?," Calendar, June 6) would have us believe "we have already seen the most dramatic events the riots had to offer."

But, in truth, have we? During the monumental TV blitzkrieg of the L.A. unrest, I didn't hear one story about the National Guardsman whom police said they caught on Wilshire Boulevard with the makings of Molotov cocktails in his car.

There was precious little on television about historic events of great import like the Watts uprising of 1965. Nothing about the FBI's destruction of the Black Panthers in the late '60s. I didn't hear one word about the sabotage and burning of the Watts Writers Workshop in the '70s. Nothing about the evisceration of self-empowerment programs that left a vacuum of leadership, producing today's street gangs. All these were contributing elements, and well-documented links in a chain that predestined the '92 rioting. Why do the networks refuse to illuminate this history?

The history of what happened to our city goes back far. Go back to 1850 when fugitive blacks began coming to L.A., back to the 1890s when an embryonic ghetto sprang up on Central Avenue, back to redlining by banks and insurance companies that continues to this day. Take a look at the type of health care urban residents have access to. Take a look at the schools. Take a trip to the Nickerson Gardens housing project. Look at 85% of the people sitting around without jobs, while on a nearby freeway project the government employed people from out of state.


So much history, so much pain, so much sabotage and indifference has gone into creating the firebed of the recent disturbance that it is a monumental denial for Link and others to think they have "seen the most dramatic events the riot has to offer." Trust me, folks, we saw just the horns on the beast. The riot was a tragedy in the most poetic sense--it was horrific and it was heartbreaking. These are the elements of great drama. Link, along with the networks, thinks action is what makes drama compelling. This view is shoved down our throats every day.


In bygone eras, wiser minds like Aristotle and James Joyce believed that terror without pity was hollow, and produced no catharsis. It was the catharsis, they believed--the purging of pain, anger and confusion--that allowed a healing after the event, whether it was the Peloponnesian War or Finnegan's wake.

Unfortunately, we have not yet had our healing here in L.A. And it's an old and festering wound. A gaping rent in our inescapably collective soul that's been bleeding since 1965 and before. We never had a healing after the '65 riots. We had promises and denial. We had the failed "25 Year Plan," the equivalent of present-day "Rebuild L.A.," which seems to be on the same track to nowhere.

Television, in refusing to examine the deep and complex history, and the real issues involved in the riot, is part of this failure. PBS especially is part of this failure. This is why Alec Baldwin will host the "Banned by PBS Film Festival" in the fall, of which "The Fire This Time" will be a part. The city's problems, which are the world's problems, will not just go away--no matter how hard we wish them to. Now is the time we must, collectively, take a very real look at the problems of our city. It has been the role of the media throughout history, whether via quill and ink or video camera, to chronicle tragedy and effect catharsis.

To quote James Baldwin: "If we do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare and achieve our country and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: 'God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, the fire next time!' "

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