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Riot act

by David Lamble

Reinforcing an old adage that truth is both stranger and more compelling than fiction, the riveting new documentary "LA 92" arrives Friday in Bay Area theaters. It features archival film footage that spans a quarter-century of racial unrest - the product, the filmmakers argue, of decades of brutal treatment of minority citizens by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin's strategy is to let meticulously edited TV news footage walk us through 25 years of escalating violence inflicted by a mostly white police force on the predominantly African American residents of LA's sprawling South Central district.

The real power of "LA 92" results from the filmmakers allowing its real-life cast to tell their own stories. This includes the city's first black mayor (and former LAPD officer) Tom Bradley; the verbally abusive, bullying white police chief Daryl Gates; soft-spoken victim Rodney King; two misguided LA judges; a sitting US president; a charismatic young candidate; an outraged black Congresswoman; and LAPD officers Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell. They all tell their versions of the story of what is still considered America's largest and most egregious civil unrest, from its mid-1960s origins through the six mind-numbing days of chaos and bloodshed, vividly depicted in the film's 114-minute running time.

For filmgoers largely unfamiliar with daily life beneath the iconic Hollywood sign, the documentary's first hour provides a cook's tour of what the guidebooks mostly ignore. The filmmakers follow a strict chronology, with CBS reporter Bill Stout's 1965 documentary on that year's Watts riot bookending a compendium of hard-to-watch footage gathered from the collective archive of the city's TV newscasts.

Warning: "LA 92" contains images of violent unrest, from mobs looting Korean American stores to several viewings of the infamous 1991 home video of the beating King received from four officers, to video of dead riot victims, to a heartbreaking scene of an elderly black South Central shop owner pleading with mostly young African American rioters to spare his business. The film powerfully connects the dots on the source of the unrest by detailing a little-remembered incident in which a black 15-year-old girl was shot to death by a Korean American convenience-store owner, an event which produced an emotional trial whose verdict was later vacated by a seemingly naive judge.

"LA 92" joins a short list of films that unflinchingly depict the racial scars that still prevent any real understanding and comity across decades of truly disturbing urban history.

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