From director Ezra Edelman’s captivating documentary O.J.: Made in America to the harsh reality that Netflix actually made Fuller House happen, it’s been well-established that nostalgia sells in Hollywood. And this is particularly true when it comes to the 1990s, an era of news and pop culture that shaped the majority of 30- and 40-year-olds who are now in middle and upper management media gigs. But once we sift through the clickbait—does anyone besides Mike Myers really need to acknowledge that Austin Powers is celebrating its China anniversary?—we can use this trend as a means of reflection beyond cheap celebration.
This isn’t exactly a revolutionary thought. And, coupled with voraciousness that we all devoured and lauded Edelman for Made in America and Ryan Murphy and the troupe of players associated with the FX miniseries The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story last year, it’s most likely the reason why so many documentaries, performances and think pieces have been devoted to the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.
“When George Holliday filmed the Rodney King beating with his camcorder [from his nearby apartment], the world had not seen that kind of violence caught-on-tape,” says Tom Jennings, producer of Smithsonian Channel’s The Lost Tapes: The L.A. Riots, which premiered on April 23. “Now, unfortunately, it’s all too common. When viewers see modern videos of confrontations with police, I believe there is something in our subconscious that triggers back to the King video, whether we’re aware of it or not. And by making a comparison in our minds of the King video to ones from today, people are most likely asking themselves, ‘Has anything really changed?’"
Even if you were too young to truly understand the King video, that footage is hard to escape after its 1991 recording. According to Holliday’s website, it’s been licensed to everyone from ESPN to Universal Pictures for the film Straight Outta Compton.
Jennings’ Smithsonian Channel project is in the company of other recent documentaries like Los Angeles native John Singleton’s A&E special, L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later (which premiered April 18), John Ridley’s ABC special Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 (premiering April 28) and National Geographic’s cinema verite-style LA 92 from Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin (premiering April 30)—not to mention performances like Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show, Rodney King, (out April 28 on Netflix and directed by Smith’s longtime collaborator, Spike Lee).
There’s no arguing that historical events of any kind signal ca-chinging cash machines for anyone in the business of commemorating history (I once saw a thick “magazine” on a newsstand that recounted the supposed Britney-Christina feud of the early 2000s). But none of the directors or producers interviewed for this piece set out to diminish the significance of those infamous five days of looting, shooting and burning that turned the City of Angeles into a smoldering Hades.
“To see a man beaten the way he was so brutally, it was shocking,” says journalist and director Sacha Jenkins, whose documentary Burn Motherfucker Burn! premiered April 21 on Showtime and is now available on demand. He goes on to reiterate what Karen Bass, a Los Angeles native and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives tells him during their interview for his film: “we cheered when we saw the [King footage]—not because we were happy that he got beaten; we knew this was happening every day in the inner city of Los Angeles. [But] finally there was proof and there was so hope attached to the proof. There was so much hope associated with the notion of being an American and the American system of justice dolling out the proper punishment. It didn’t happen.”
Because, of course, the 1992 riots were onto this theme of checking our history way before today’s audiences. Although they’re most associated with the response to the acquittal of the police officers involved in King’s beating and to the ridiculously lax sentence given just a few days prior to a Korean shop owner for the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, these are issues that “stem back to the founding of our country,” says LA 92’s Lindsay, whose film is bookended by footage of the city’s similarly motivated Watts riots of August 1965.
“That alone makes it different than this weird thing that happened in history,” Lindsay adds. “It’s more of a repetitious event that happens in our history that we refuse to acknowledge and address.”
And, judging by the amount of race-related beatings, deaths and riots that have made news in recent years—some of which have resulted in their own documentaries and films, as well as grassroots activist campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter—perhaps this anniversary couldn’t come a moment too soon.
“A lot of the scenes we look at in the decade leading up to and in the days and weeks right before that uprising, a lot of those themes are themes we still struggle with in this country today,” says Jeanmarie Condon, a veteran ABC News producer who also produced Ridley’s Let it Fall. “It’s abundantly clear that we do in the past couple years, given events like Ferguson, Baltimore, the Trayvon Martin case and even what happened in Dallas with the police being shot. There is still a lot of unfinished business when it comes to the American story of race and class. It’s the great American experiment, is what it is: People of different backgrounds living together and trying to treat each other with equal justice and see one another as people we can relate to. Those themes are still very much alive right now.”
“I remember when this happened and I remember thinking that this is going to be a big wake-up call in America,” adds Condon. “And now, 25 years later, we’re still struggling to understand because, in some ways, those issues that led to that uprising have not been dealt with.”
So should the amount Rodney King-related documentaries be considered excessive and trivializing? No. All of these documentaries show that, when done right, commemorating an event in the nation’s history—even a relatively recent one—doesn’t cheapen it; it enriches it. “It’s a cautionary tale … reminding ourselves where we’ve been is really important,” Condon says, adding that her work is about “making sure that when we remember where we’ve been; we don’t mythologize what happened with the passing of years. We take a really close and hard look and we excavate what can happen and why.”