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LA Riot Documentaries Show Dehumanizing Black People Enables Abuses in Policing


Next Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. The widespread and violent uprising erupted after four police officers were acquitted in the beating of a black motorist named Rodney King. The assault was captured in a widely shown video. The riots lasted six days and resulted in more than 50 deaths and more than a billion dollars of destruction.

Now there are several new TV documentaries to mark the anniversary. We asked NPR TV critic Eric Deggans to take a look at five of them, and I should warn you there's some strong and explicit language in this piece.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Considering how viral videos have ignited police brutality protests in recent years, I really wanted to see how these five new documentaries told the story of the first time that happened. But the first riot viewers see in National Geographic's documentary "LA 92" isn't the one from the film's title.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thirty-two persons were killed, all but five of them negroes.

DEGGANS: It's Watson 1965. Riots rage when allegations of police brutality spread after white officers arrested a black man for drunk driving. TV newscasters at the time reported on the violence and the casual racism of police officials.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Police Chief Parker described Los Angeles negro rioters as monkeys in a zoo, and negro leaders have more than once called for his removal.

DEGGANS: Violence described back then sounds similar to what happened in 1992 when rioting, looting and violence caused an estimated $1 billion in damage and 55 deaths. Turns out, several of these documentaries look back to show how America's long history of dehumanizing poor black people enables abuses in policing which produces an explosion of community anger.


UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Rapping) Six in the morning police at my door fresh...

DEGGANS: Showtime's pop culture-filled film "Burn [expletive], Burn" adds the voices of performers and artists like Cypress Hill rapper B-Real. They describe long-simmering tensions between police and young nonwhite people just before the riots.


B-REAL: We were definitely talking about the corruption and the brutality. We just thought we had to, you know, take the stance. It was important to us because, I mean, you know, we were the ones getting harassed every other day.

DEGGANS: Eventually, the film's story returns to Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl killed by Korean grocery store clerk Soon Ja Du after a fight in the store. Du got five years probation for the shooting months after the Rodney King beating. Director Sacha Jenkins shows tensions rose between black residents and Korean convenience store owners by playing a little bit of Ice Cube's "Black Korea."


ICE CUBE: (Rapping) Thinking every brother in the world's out to take, so they watch...

DEGGANS: Then author Jeff Chang explains how it affected him.


JEFF CHANG: And a lot of my friends were like we're boycotting Ice Cube, but what gave Soon Ja Du the right to take Latasha Harlins' life? And who are we actually defending here?

DEGGANS: The Smithsonian Channel's documentary "The Lost Tapes: LA Riots" includes little scenes footage of the unrest taped by police and some radio broadcasts that includes residents calling into local radio station KJLH owned by soul legend Stevie Wonder.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm really angry and really very scared. You know, I just spent the last 10 years of my life in college, but it doesn't really matter because even with a briefcase in my hand and a suit on my back, I'm still just another [expletive] to the cops out there.

DEGGANS: But the most nuanced and surprising documentary comes from director John Ridley. In "Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982 To 1992," Ridley often presents one take on an issue only to flip the script later. For example, within a documentary that details violence and racism by the LAPD, he also shows a courageous officer. Lisa Phillips was on duty during the riots as she and her partner answered an emergency call violating orders to stay out of the area. Phillips had a request.


LISA PHILLIPS: I said, partner, look, I'm gay. You probably figured it out, but I'm coming out to you. I've got a lover. Will you call her if something happens to me? And he said don't worry. He's a partner. I got your back.

DEGGANS: Director John Singleton was in Simi Valley for the 1992 acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King. News clips of him predicting riots back then pop up in several documentaries. Now he's executive producer of A&E's comprehensive film "LA Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later." Singleton talks about the riots as an uprising. After showing white truck driver Reginald Denny pulled from his vehicle beaten and robbed while trying to drive through the riot, "LA Burning" show South-Central residents who call the four black men that attacked him heroes.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: If you ask anybody around here what you think they did was wrong, they will say what they done to that man was wrong, but I think it was time for that. That's what's to come. We don't change the way we interact with the police and they interact with us, y'all might as well just welcome the next riot.

DEGGANS: Taken together, these films show the power of the medium to expose painful truths about race, policing and American society. The question now is what do we do now that we've seen them? I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.