Q&A: Filmmaker John Singleton on L.A.’s fragile progress since the 1992 riots

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Riot, uprising, rebellion — by any name, what happened in Los Angeles 25 years ago scared and scarred the city. First, the acquittals of the LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King — an incident captured on a video that defined “going viral” years before the phrase was born. Then, the reactions to them: all told, 63 people dead, more than a thousand buildings destroyed or damaged, a city profoundly shaken.

The anniversary has grown a crop of documentaries and feature films, among them John Ridley’s “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” and Sacha Jenkins’ passionate “Showtime” documentary, “Burn …, Burn!” The filmmaker John Singleton is executive producer of A&E’s documentary “L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later,” which airs Saturday and Monday. Singleton also appears in the film and brings to it the sensibility of a filmmaker, a South L.A. native and a man who was there as it happened.

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Do you remember what you were doing and where you were when you saw Rodney King beating video for the first time?

I think I was somewhere working on my first movie, “Boyz N the Hood,” because it was in March 1991. And I saw it on television and as I remember being hurt and outraged, but at the same time excited because I had heard about this happening in various places in Los Angeles with black men and the L.A. Police Department. And I thought, OK, they finally caught them on camera. They finally got them on camera.

Then a little more than a year later, the verdicts came down, the acquittal of the officers, and you were on the road near Simi Valley.

Yes, I was on my way to the location of my second feature film, “Poetic Justice,” which was shooting in Simi Valley, and I made a detour and went to the courthouse.

We might have known there would be a lot of documentaries, a lot of coverage of the 25th anniversary. So why undertake it? What is it you think you could bring to the experience, of the city, of the people in it, that would be different from what other people were doing?

Well, I think I came from a very embedded point of view as a resident of South Central Los Angeles and someone who has grown up in the environment in which this incident happened. And so I thought that I would give a different perspective from some people who, even though they may have had some empathy for what happened, they weren’t from the environment.

"L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later" tells the story of the civil unrest that shook the nation from the perspective of those who lived through it.

You appeared in it to bring your perspective to this. Why was that important?

Because these are things that have been on my heart and mind for many, many years, and I thought it was time I really expressed them.

Out of so much that happened at that time, the documentary focuses most of its attention on the people who were part of the events at Florence and Normandie, where people who happened into the intersection who weren’t black were chased, assaulted and even nearly killed.

We just really wanted to find the key emotional characters whose point of view had not been told from their perspective. Regardless of what anybody would think about them as people, we wanted to show what they felt, what was on their hearts, and let the audience decide from there.

Was it hard to get some of these people to talk? Maybe because it was emotional, maybe because they’d never trusted anyone with their viewpoints before?

No, I think it wasn’t that hard because they respect me and they know that we were coming from a place of empathy with what their struggle has been over these past 25 years. We didn’t attempt to objectify them as a lot of people do because they’re not from the environment. And so people are not necessarily totally forthcoming with their stories [when] they don’t feel comfortable.

The documentary brought out the differences of opinion: Virtually everyone thought the King beating was terrible and the acquittals were unjust. Yet in the documentary, you have a lot of older black people, among them pastor Chip Murray and others, who said, we also deplore this violent reaction.

Exactly. You have to give the various points of view and then you have the audience come up with their specific point of view, which can change from person to person with whoever, wherever they’re from, however they’re raised, what’s on their hearts and what’s on their minds.

Maybe they remember 1965. Maybe they remember the Watts riots and thought, we don’t want that kind of devastation again at this price to our community.

I’m sure they do. I’m sure they remember ’65.

In the documentary, you yourself describe the police beating of Rodney King, and the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny by people at Florence and Normandie, as yin and yang.

Rodney King was a citizen who was beaten and almost murdered by officials of the state of California in the city of Los Angeles. But Reginald Denny was beaten and almost murdered by the citizens of South Central Los Angeles. So you have a yin and yang right there.

Let’s take the conception of wrong and right out of the picture. We have a yin and yang, we have two human beings who suffered because of the whole causality of this event. You see what I mean? And it was very, very important for us to show that, and juxtaposing that.

A lot of the documentary, too, is about the unpreparedness of the LAPD in the face of what was going on, that things got out of hand because the people who should have been on the job were not.

We’d always felt that [then-Los Angeles Police Chief] Daryl Gates wanted something to happen because he had his own political aspirations at the time, for mayor or some type of higher state government. And so he was counting on the anarchy of the situation to expose itself so he could come in as a cowboy and a savior and be a hero and it would help him push himself up into some higher electoral office.

Seems like it backfired.

It backfired on him. It ended his career, actually, because he was too smug about it. He had no savoir faire; he was smug about it. And none of the city leaders or anybody in private life in Los Angeles would help him, come to his assistance.

You said in the documentary that what Rodney King had to say as the riots went on [the famous “Can we all get along?” remarks] was the right thing to say. But you also said, … him for saying it.

I said ... him. I said that. In actuality, it was the right thing for him to do. He had that conundrum. It was almost as if he was an abused person, that he probably thought this was all happening because of him; the destruction of the city, and the morale of the people when everything was happening was because of an event that he was intimately involved in.

None of us can say how that will wear on a person’s psyche, on their mind and their soul. That’s all that he could get out as an utterance. In retrospect, I respect him saying what he said, [but] my initial reaction at the time was no, that’s not how we feel right now.

Where is the Wikipedia Rodney King in your mind, in Los Angeles history?

He is an interesting pivotal figure, between what came before and what came after. He’s a face of black men being marginalized by the system.

How do you see Los Angeles and the Police Department, and the relationships with people and the LAPD, having changed since 1992?

I think at least in South Central Los Angeles, an emphasis on being more community-based — you don’t have a bunch of white male police officers with porn ’staches who lived in other communities patrolling South Central Los Angeles. You have much more Hispanic and black police doing their jobs and interfacing with the community. So there are a lot of things that were initiated that have helped a lot.

Is there still a suspicion and a fear that all this could shatter to pieces again at a moment’s notice?

At any one time, yes, at any one time. Because of what’s happening not only in other cities, but still tension, there’s still tension there. Not just because of the other cities. It is what it is in terms of the way that officials of the city and the state act toward the citizen.

What do you hope people will come away from the documentary thinking or understanding, especially people who don’t live in L.A.?

I hope they gain a new perspective on people who did not have a voice, who haven’t been heard, people without a voice. Whether or not they agree with it, I hope they respect the fact that these people have an opinion, to speak out to what’s on their hearts.

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