To mark the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of the four L.A. police officers charged with beating Rodney King, National Geographic Documentary Films is presenting a new look at those charged events that reverberated throughout the city.
Directed by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin - Oscar winners for the 2011 doc Undefeated, about a high school football team - LA 92 is set to premiere at New York's Tribeca Film Festival on April 21. It will then have a limited theatrical release in N.Y. and Los Angeles on April 28 before making its television broadcast debut on National Geographic on April 30.
National Geographic has also set LA 92 to air in 171 countries and 45 languages and has partnered with Picture Motion to provide free screenings to colleges and universities nationwide.
The film is produced by Lightbox's Simon and Jonathan Chinn, who first proposed the idea for the doc to Lindsay and Martin. "Our goal with LA 92 is to reframe the story of this tragedy for a modern audience, and we hope it will encourage reflection and debate as we wrestle with these very real conflicts that continue to plague America's cities," the two producers said in a statement.
When they first approached Lindsay and Martin, the producers had cut together some preliminary footage as a proof of concept. "I was shocked by how much emotional, raw imagery had been captured unfiltered on camera," Martin says. "They were deeply interested in the story because the 25th anniversary was coming up. It brought the events all back, and we were able to draw parallels to what's happening now with police abuse being captured on tape, on cellphones, being streamed on Facebook."
The two filmmakers, in turn, proposed that if they were to take on the project, they wanted to present the events as they unfolded, using original footage, without any kind of filter. That meant no talking-head interviews or narration.
"That was one of the limitations we put on ourselves going into it," Lindsay says. "We were surprised pretty early on how we were able to give the proper amount of context to events and to what you're watching, to allow the audience to wrestle with the issues being presenting to them. We wanted to create something that would live in the space of cognitive dissonance for the audience. You are seeing things that may challenge your perception of right and wrong. You might find yourself feeling empathy in one moment and feeling shock in the next."
They assembled the film from broadcast news footage, radio reports, police files and personal home videos - some of which have never been broadcast. The film features never-before-seen and rarely used footage from the Los Angeles First AME Church, which supported many victims of the violence; materials from the Los Angeles police and fire departments; and video from contemporaneous news broadcasts from L.A.-based Korean-language television stations.
As they were working on their film, Ezra Edelman's Oscar-winning O.J. Made in America arrived in theaters and on ESPN. And since that doc also explores the reaction to the Rodney King case as a way of explaining how African-Americans in Los Angeles viewed the police and the justice department, the LA 92 filmmakers couldn't help but take notice.
"Films like Ezra's O.J.: Made in America and Ava DuVernay's 13th are living more in a journalistic space. And we wanted to do the opposite of that," Martin says. "We wanted to make it a form of the cinematic arts. We set the appropriate context, but the overall experience should be one of emotion. Our film is more like a symphony, it operates in movements. It's not, 'Here's a thesis, and then we're going to support a thesis all the way through.'"
To further that end, they eschewed any period music and instead commissioned an original score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. Says Lindsay, "They literally created a modern symphony. It's the glue that holds everything together."