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Watts riots still mostly off Hollywood's radar after 50 years

Watts riots still mostly off Hollywood's radar after 50 years
Issues that led a few years later to the post-Rodney King beating trial riots are seen in "Straight Outta Compton," about the rap group N.W.A. (Jaimie Trueblood / Universal Pictures)

The last few years have brought a spate of films about the civil rights movement, with the Birmingham campaign in Alabama, the Selma-to-Montgomery marches and some plucky Mississippi maids all taking center stage in Hollywood.

As commemorations for the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots begin Tuesday, however, a hole remains in Hollywood's recent race canon: There is almost no mention in mainstream film of the riots, nor of many of the harder-edged truths that accompanied them.

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"We've seen Martin Luther King and those kinds of stories, but the Watts riots, the Black Panthers and more militant elements have been repressed in popular culture," said Todd Boyd, a professor of race and culture at USC. "These are stories that deal not with moving, charismatic, heartwarming sermons. They deal with issues that can't easily be dismissed."

Movies that focus on clear victimhood and heroism — that can reassure audiences with reasonably happy endings and few negative present-day ramifications — have been gaining in popularity. Those films (they include "The Butler," "Selma" and "The Help") chronicle important chapters in American history, and they certainly mark progress from a previous era that saw few movies of their kind. But the trend also masks a lack of stories with sharper dimensions and less comfortable realities.

History hardly needs Hollywood for validation, and a movie can't alter the trajectory of past events. Still, a film can enshrine struggle in our collective memory and even alter our perceptions. The absence of Watts movie footage suggests that pop culture has yet to fully process the complexities of our racial divisions — and, in turn, could inhibit the process from taking hold in the future.

In August 1965, clashes between police and residents of the South L.A. neighborhood of Watts erupted in the wake of a routine traffic stop, as black discontent over living conditions reached a boiling point. By the time the riots had ended a week later, they had taken 34 lives and caused injuries to more than 1,000 people. The events were a flash point for the city and the civil rights battles of the 1960s — a brutal West Coast counterpoint to the events in the South and, on the part of the L.A. rioters, part of a more aggressive response to inequality than what had largely been underaken there.

Yet for all their significance, the Watts riots have received only passing reference in the country's film culture. Perhaps most famously, images of them were featured in the epochal 1993 movie "Menace II Society" as part of an early setup sequence. More commonly, though, Watts is simply cited in frothier fare as a shorthand for unwanted unrest. In the uplifting 2000 sports drama "Remember the Titans," for instance, a character noted that if matters broke the wrong way, a town could "burn up like Watts."

The absence is especially conspicuous given recent uprisings in cities such as Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., when the echoes of Watts are viscerally on display.

Some of the reluctance, filmmakers say, may be garden-variety Hollywood conservatism.

"The reason I think you don't see stories like Watts is that they're nuanced, and the people behind many movies are afraid of reactions to the nuanced," said Jonathan Herman, a screenwriter of "Straight Outta Compton," the fact-based drama about the rap group N.W.A opening Friday. "Because if as a storyteller you're seen as sympathizing with the rioters, then you're supporting revolution, and if you come out against it, you're potentially being ignorant. And Hollywood is very afraid of being seen as any of those things."

There are narrative and cinematic difficulties as well. Portraying characters from marches and legislative battles falls in a time-honored tradition of villains and saviors that stretches far beyond civil rights pictures, all the way to superhero movies and beyond. Rioters or members of the black power movement, on the other hand, are often possessed of the kind of grievous anger that cannot be solved by the passing of a bill, and they're led by people whose methods make them less relatable.

That confounds the conventions of three-act mainstream cinema.

"These traditional biopics are traditional for a reason," said Stanley Nelson, a noted black filmmaker and the director of a new independent documentary, "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of The Revolution." "They have swelling music and heroes. Making a movie about the Panthers is harder. There are no easy heroes. Sometimes they were heroes and sometimes they were horrible."

Those who've tried to create films about police-citizen clashes, meanwhile, have said that, for all their visual power, capturing these events on-screen is not as easy as it looks.

"I think people are afraid of riots," said Shari Springer Berman, co-writer and co-director of "Ten Thousands Saints," a movie in theaters Friday that's set against the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot in New York, which also centered on police-community relationships. "When a group comes together like that, people lose their sense of individualism," said the filmmaker, who took part in the real-life clashes. "They're frightening both to watch and be caught up in because you can lose your moral center."

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Added Herman: "Riots can have a scolding quality on screen. There can easily become a quality of, 'Look at thugs burning down their city.'"

Still, Universal Pictures' "Straight Outta Compton" does not shy away from the tension that gripped Los Angeles in the years that led up to the Rodney King riots in 1992, highlighting the militarized police force, gang warfare and crack epidemic of the era. Herman's film may be a sign of slightly changing times; it takes the rare subjective vantage point of black residents instead of shifting to the point of view of the police or to a more detached sociological perspective.

"Panthers," which will have a niche release in a few weeks, is another sign that harder-edged truths are coming to the surface. Nelson's movie depicts leaders such as Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver as passionate and idealistic as well as misguided and problematic, an uncommonly deep look at another strand of the fight for racial equality.

For years, "12 Years a Slave" screenwriter John Ridley and Imagine Entertainment have been developing a project called "L.A. Riots," which examines a set of interconnected characters during the 1992 unrest that followed the acquittal of officers in the Rodney King beating trial.

But by and large these remain anomalies. Outliers like Spike Lee have been willing to investigate tough urban race issues — in historical pictures such as "Malcolm X" and fictional tales like "Do the Right Thing" — but mainstream Hollywood has shied away. The surge in 1960s-set films has done little to change that, despite the benefits of distance that period pictures provide.

It's worth noting that it took Nelson more than seven years to get his documentary about the Black Panthers financed, while "Compton" almost certainly wouldn't have been able to sneak in broader issues without the Trojan horse of massively popular music. Even then the film had to be careful: Herman said that part of a larger scene of a riot in Detroit after police stormed the stage during a controversial N.W.A song wasn't included in the finished film because the city's police department threatened legal action over it. (It included a shot of cops setting off explosives in the crowd, which the department contests.)

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Meanwhile, the social dangers from these blind spots remain. Without the on-screen portrayal of Watts, American viewers could be at risk of losing their memories of the events, or worse.

"To represent history only from a certain point of view and not from a broader perspective," Boyd said, "is to forget our past and not understand our present."

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