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They documented the ’92 L.A. uprising. Here’s how the George Floyd movement compares

Residents of the West Adams district protest the 1992 acquittal of Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King.
Residents of West Adams protest the 1992 acquittal of Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Is history repeating itself?

The brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, which has sparked both peaceful protests and horrific violence around the country, has brought renewed focus to the 1992 Los Angeles uprising set off by the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers in the beating of African American motorist Rodney King.

The 25th anniversary of the uprising in 2017 was marked by a flurry of documentaries on broadcast and cable TV that probed the events from varying perspectives, including ABC’s “Let It Fall: L.A. 1982-1992,” Showtime’s “Burn M—, Burn!” and National Geographic’s “L.A. 92.” The directors of those films are now speaking out as their projects receive a timely revival.

“Let It Fall,” from Oscar winner John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), will re-air Tuesday on ABC. “Burn M—, ... Burn,” from Sacha Jenkins (“Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men”), is available on Showtime and streaming for free on YouTube and sho.com. “L.A. 92,” from Oscar winners Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin (“Undefeated”), has been repeated on National Geographic and is available for free on YouTube.

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The filmmakers are pointing out parallels and differences between the explosions in 1992 and the determined outrage playing out now on streets all over America. They agree that Floyd’s death is another example of the country’s history of racial injustice and strife characterized by police abuse and the killing of unarmed Black people by white police officers.

“It’s tough to be involved in a project like ‘Let It Fall’ and realize that it continues to be relevant,” Ridley said last week in a phone interview. “I don’t think history repeats itself. It sort of rhymes. What happened in Minneapolis is not exactly what happened in 1992, or in other killings. We can’t directly compare tragedies. But what you see is people being pushed to the brink. There is systemic bias, and that’s a reality.”

In a furious, unfunny 27-minute set posted to the Netflix Is a Joke YouTube page, Dave Chappelle traces a path from slavery to the death of George Floyd.

Unidentified man raises his fist in support of Rodney King in archival image from the Showtime documentary "Burn M—, Burn!"
An unidentified man raises his fist in support of Rodney King in an archival image from the Showtime documentary “Burn M—, Burn!”
(KABC-TV / Showtime)

Jenkins pointed out how his film also referenced the Watts riots of 1965.

“I made a film a few years ago about events that happened 25 and 50 years ago, and it’s the same story over and over again — police abuse,” he said. “We saw Rodney King on camera. We saw Eric Garner on camera. [Garner died in 2014 in a filmed confrontation with a New York police officer who placed in him in a chokehold.] But we see George Floyd and the callous action that took him off this planet — the man with his hand in his pockets and other policemen subduing him — and that has struck a nerve in a way that other things haven’t.”

In a separate interview, Martin added, “The thesis of our film was that these events are cyclical in American history. Until we start addressing the realities of our history with truth and reconciliation, we can’t really move forward.”

Ridley teamed up with ABC News’ Lincoln Square Productions for “Let It Fall,” examining not only the uproar in 1992 but also violent incidents in the decade preceding the riots and the aftermath in the ensuing years. At the core of the film were new interviews from those directly and indirectly involved, including family members of victims, attorneys and police officers, who offered more perspective on the civil unrest.

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“The value of ‘Let It Fall’ was understanding how we got to those tipping points, and talking to people who lived through it,” said Ridley, who recently called in a Times op-ed for the removal of “Gone With the Wind” from HBO Max, saying that it romanticizes the horrors of slavery. (The film has since been pulled from the streaming service, with plans to return it eventually with additional materials providing more historical context.)

He added, “Yes, there’s been progress, but at what cost? And how many people are paying that cost with their lives and we don’t know about it because there wasn’t video? Unfortunately the one throughline in all of this is that video matters.”

Tying his film to current headlines, Ridley said, “The biggest difference is the massive display of empathy from white Americans and the whole world at large. That doesn’t mean a month from now, a year from now, that racial incidents are going away. But you see the pace of change every day, whether it’s monuments coming down, the NFL saying it should have handled the kneeling-during-the-national anthem issue better or NASCAR removing Confederate flags. It starts to make a difference.”

Jenkins also noted the participation of whites in the current protest, which was not as prominent in the Los Angeles riots: “There have been plenty of white people who have reached out to me to apologize.”

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In addition to looking back at the Watts riots, Jenkins‘ “Burn M—, ... Burn!” linked the roots of the Los Angeles uprising to the 1962 ransacking of a Nation of Islam mosque and the rise of street gangs during the 1970s and ‘80s.

From ‘Law & Order’ to ‘Cops,’ we’re at a moment of reckoning for the depiction of police on TV. But change will require us to stop lionizing rogues and scamps.

An image from John Ridley's "Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992," re-airing Tuesday on ABC.
(ABC)

Today’s protests are the result of “the perfect storm for civil unrest,” Jenkins said. “So many people are out of work who have no idea what the future is going to bring, how they will be able to feed their families. They’re in this situation because their government failed to take the proper precautions.

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“Then you see an African American being murdered technically by the system. A so-called president who says he wants to make America great again, but where is he in that process? America is in the worst possible position it’s been in modern history.”

As director Dan Lindsay said of his “L.A 92" project and the current protests, “There is something right now that seems broader in terms of the people in the streets and where it seems to be reaching. It’s more of a national conversation. Time will be the true judge of the actual results.”

“L.A. 92" also used archival news footage of pre-1992 controversies, including the Watts riot, as reference points. The film won an Emmy for exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking.

And while impressed by the emotion of the current protests, Lindsay and codirector Martin said they are less than optimistic about the future.

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“As of now, I can’t help but be tripped up by the optics of things,” Martin said. “We have the average person who goes to a protest and throws up a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign. But does that alleviate them from understanding the root of Black pain? On the other end there’s the NFL saying they were wrong and throwing money at the problem. Does that alleviate them of any responsibility toward actual social change? The only way we’ll actually know there’s a sea change is with time.”


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