Such is the case with the L.A. Riots of 1992: you either believe it was a turning point in the ever-evolving civil rights movement or merely a dark spot in American history where the opportunistic underclass exercised some “aggressive shopping.” You can argue either way because you can cherry pick flash points to illuminate your point. The truth is, to view it either way would be simplistic at best because it indeed had elements of both.
Conservative radio host and right-wing firebrand Rush Limbaugh bluntly said that “the Los Angeles riots were not caused by the Rodney King verdict. The Los Angeles riots were caused by rioters,” thereby removing any possible justification for the senseless acts. While many called the riots a means of “fighting back” against an oppressive system, how much was motivated by the actual Rodney King verdict? How much was motivated by chaos and opportunism? How much has changed since?
There are mixed answers to these questions, and Mark Ford’s incendiary new VHI documentary film Uprising: Hip-Hop and the LA riots merely flirts with them.
This Snoop Dogg executive produced and narrated piece gains early traction with a cold open from the man who is arguably the central character of the riots: Rodney King. The man who was chased, while under the influence, by the LAPD and assaulted brutally by four police officers.
He was struck with 56 baton hits and suffered some serious, almost life-threatening injuries. This was not uncommon practice by the LAPD, only this time it was caught on tape and broadcast to the world. The then-chief of police for the LAPD, Darryl Gates, tried to defend and even justify their actions. The four police officers involved were handed a not guilty verdict, which led to widespread anger and disbelief, and ultimately led to the riots.
The rioting itself is built up quite well with sufficient context to explain the palpable anger that had been brewing. The verdict reestablished to any doubters that it was two-tiered system. Race was still an issue and justice was simply not for all. However, I felt Ford should have provided an important layer that could have explained the issue a little more – the economic factor. Race was not the true issue in L.A., but was a helpful indicator of economic background. The disparity between the ailing proletariat and the wasteful post–Reagan excesses of the bourgeoisie was so wide that it could only lead to brewing anger and injustices.
The first day of the riots on Apr. 29, 1992, was built up and shown for its spontaneous nature and almost true sense of fighting back. A true sense of an underclass that had had enough and fought back to a point where it became senseless. The baying mobs launched attacks, brutally and graphically portrayed in the film, on anyone who didn’t share their skin tone. For this was war. Us against them. The stage was set for battle, and for once the underclass finally felt a sense of self-determination.
This, of course, came at a cost, as was unfortunately discovered by truck driver Reginald Denny.
Denny was driving his truck through the mob-filled area of south central L.A. and was dragged out and beaten to a pulp by the now infamous “L.A. Four” for the crime of simply being during the riots. So callous was their violence that it truly shocked the nation. The shoe was now, in the eyes of the black community, on the other foot. The random violence inflicted upon Denny was but an example of what many black men experienced on a daily basis.
However, the following two days changed in tone quite considerably. It moved from Rodney King’s verdict to a looting spree. Now, Mexicans, Blacks and other minorities joined the party. The original cause was forgotten. It was time to cop a new TV.
Eventually, the military stepped in and stopped the riots.
Rodney King is presented, for the most part, as a sympathetic character. Ford needs us to be on King’s side to ultimately make his point and hence shows us the full extent and gore of his injuries. The various talking heads, who are mainly rappers, all agreed that this was significant because the world saw what the black community already knew about the corrupt LAPD.
The black community didn’t have any real outlets to express itself, except for one emerging voice: rap music. Rappers in the late ’80s and early ’90s were moving on from abstract notions of “black power” as perepetuated by acts like Public Enemy and fully embracing the more relatable (and dare I say realistic) voice of acts like NWA. Eazy-E and company spoke with blunt outrage that connected very well with the first generation of post-civil rights era youth. Seminal songs like “Straight Outta Compton” and, more significantly, “Fuck the Police” spoke directly to their daily pain and struggles. NWA were more than just musicians, they were the voice the black community didn’t have in the Cosby- and Fresh Prince-coddled mainstream.
The documentary is quick to point out how late America was in understanding the fundamental issues that faced the black community and how ahead the rappers were in pointing out these issues (“Fuck the Police” was released about four years before the riots). You notice the admiration Ford has for his subjects, because, in a way, they were documentarians themselves, albeit in a different medium. Their account was a marker for that moment in history, and it was done immediately, not after 20 years of reflection.
Like all documentaries, Uprising needed a narrative with good guys (rappers, or, in the grander scheme of things, hip-hop itself), bad guys (Darryl Gates) and even ambiguous characters (Henry Watson, one of the L.A. Four).
Henry Watson takes a prominent role in this piece as the unapologetic black man who encapsulated the riots. He is a former Marine who served his country and came back to find that there was no hero’s welcome. He eventually found himself, like a huge chunk of former servicemen, without a lot of prospects. He was betrayed on two levels by the nation he defended bravely: as an ex-Marine and as a black man.
During the riots, he took centre stage in one of its most dramatic aspects — the senseless beating of Reginald Denny. He saw an innocent white man as the face of the system that stepped on him, so he purposely stepped on Denny’s neck as he was beaten. Watson’s lack of contrition was probably even more uncomfortable than some of the truly graphic images here. We like a neatly-wrapped story, and he was not going to give us one.
He was in many ways an analogy to what most black people from that time felt. Yes, the riots were brutal and weren’t entirely about the cause, but we are not prepared to apologise for what occurred. Rightly or wrongly, his face showed nothing but defiance.
The heroes of this story are oddly portrayed as the rappers. People like Dr. Dre and Ice Cube (from stock footage of another documentary by Ford) chime in with strong views about how hip-hop was the catalyst for the uprising. KRS-One (who really does well in music documentaries as a whole, always sounding like the wise old chief) described it rather hyperbolically as “revolutionary but gangsta,” as in it was a distinctly hip-hop-flavoured revolution. 2Pac’s lyrics in the track “I Wonder If Heaven Got A Ghetto” probably described the black community’s views of the riots in the punchiest and simplest terms to date when he rapped:
Ask Rodney, Latasha, and many more/ It’s been goin on for years, there’s plenty more/ When they ask me when will the violence cease?/ When your troops stop shootin niggas down in the streets / Niggas had enough, time to make a difference/ Bear witness on our own business/ Fuck the guard cause it’s hard tryin to make ends meet/ But we couldn’t afford the shit, now everything’s free/ So we loot, please don’t shoot when ya see / I’m takin from them, cause for years they would take from me / Now the tables are turned around / You didn’t listen until the nigga burned it down/ Now Bush can’t stop the hit / I predicted the shit, in 2pacalypse…
Here 2Pac represented hip-hop at its most potent, explosive and not to mention effective.
The main weakness of Uprising lies in its avoidance of tackling the real questions. It flirts with the idea that while there had been some changes in the LAPD, there hadn’t been any meaningful changes in the livelihoods of the inhabitants of South central LA. The cry of injustice was somewhat blunted by the proceedings in terms of violence and looting.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once remarked that “the limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.” It was this very futility that was never truly explored and ultimately where this piece fails.
It instead concludes on this somewhat happy note that the two albums that were direct products of the riots — The Chronic and Doggystyle — helped bookend the violence with some nihilistic fun. This in turn gained hip-hop its first step into major commercial success. This was a tenuous link and I’d rather believe that it was the sonic strength of both Dre-produced albums that ultimately led to their success. Somehow, I rather cynically feel that executive producer and narrator Snoop Dogg may have had a hand in this conclusion to magnify his own cultural impact. [Incidentally, I found the choice of Snoop Dogg as a narrator rather distracting and somewhat inappropriate due to his involvement with this abomination.]
Mark Ford starts bravely with Rodney King and includes Henry Watson but ultimately shies away from the big questions, mainly because it wouldn’t help his narrative. The subject matter is so compelling that it almost papers over those cracks. The riots themselves and how he builds it all up is expertly done but there is a sense of a wasted opportunity to explore a truly momentous event in American history for the sake of a more incidental byproduct of the riots — the commercialisation of the voices of the underclass.