Uprising: Hip Hop & The L.A. Riots

Uprising: Hip Hop & The L.A. Riots

Late in HBO’s recent documentary, There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane—about Diane Schuler, who killed herself and seven others while intoxicated and speeding in the wrong direction on New York’s Taconic State Parkway in 2009—director Liz Garbus makes the choice to linger on grisly images of a bloated, bloodied Schuler. In the context of that film, it seemed shallow and insensitive, like some kind of morbid payoff after slow-mounting, procedural buildup.  

The intent feels entirely different when Mark Ford, writer/director of Uprising: Hip-Hop & The L.A. Riots, excerpts lengthy footage from April 29, 1992 of a completely battered, profusely bleeding Reginald Denny. Denny, a truck driver, was dragged from his vehicle at Los Angeles’ now-infamous corner of Florence and Normandie by four men as the 1992 Los Angeles Riots started to foment. One man, Henry Watson, held a foot to Denny’s throat while three other men stomped, punched and kicked. The attack ended only after 19-year-old Damian “Football” Williams threw a brick in Denny’s face at close range. 

Watson is interviewed frequently throughout the movie about his role in the incident (Watson and Denny later met and sort-of reconciled on The Phil Donahue Show) and the riots in general, which ensued after Rodney King’s LAPD assailants were found not guilty. Watson acknowledges that what happened to Denny was “extremely unfortunate,” but adds that, “Like they say in rebellions, sacrifices have to be made. There’s gonna be some bloodshed. It’s not gonna always be dialogue.” Or, more succinctly, “There’s no way that 400 years of the white folks’ bullshit is gonna be justified with this one ass-whooping.” 

It’s an unsettling reflection, and one that puts those images of Denny in perspective. Denny wasn’t just at the wrong street corner at the wrong time. His truck happened to stop at the intersection of a historical moment. That afternoon, he wasn’t a human being whose face was so bloody you could hardly make out his eyes. In Watson’s own reflection, he was “nothing.” 

But it’s not just Watson and other riot participants who question where accountability lies for what happened in the wake of Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno’s acquittals. Todd Boyd, a professor at USC’s School of the Cinematic Arts, plainly surmises, “If you perpetrate violence against other people, you need to expect that at some point, like a boomerang, that violence is gonna come back on you,” before conceding, “so I didn’t shed a tear for Reginald Denny.”

The majority of the  testimony in Uprising—courtesy of interviewees including Watson, Boyd, John Singleton, and Nas—is compelling, honest, angry, and incendiary. Those emotions are still on the surface. Were it not for the contrast of so much grainy, archival video from those three days in spring ’92, audiences could easily be persuaded that Uprising was produced 15 years ago. The King verdict triggered an entire community’s inherited fury and lifetime of anxiety, and talking about it 20 years later brings up all that unresolved animosity. 

Ford allows their insight to speak for itself, insinuating footage largely to parallel eyewitness anecdotes (it’s one thing to hear David Joo’s account of a daytime gunfight with black rioters—it’s stunning to hear the Korean store owner’s words over captures of the actual shootout) and giving Snoop Dogg some fairly boilerplate narration copy to move the timeline along. The director’s decision not to editorialize the events or Watson et al.’s remarks will probably sit very uncomfortably with a lot of viewers. It’d be fair to assess that Ford’s just passing the buck of judgment to his audience, but he may well have been striving toward an unflinching journalistic objectivity. Either way, the documentary can be very disturbing and raise incredibly challenging questions, and is definitely recommended for mature eyes and ears. 

In fact, Uprising may have been truly superlative had it expanded its running time and focused completely on the King verdict and riots’ historical DNA and resulting implications on race and justice in America. The film’s weakest structural element is the attempt to integrate that era’s hip-hop movement as a running metaphor and response to what happened that April 29-May 1. Granted, hearing cars blast “Fuck Tha Police” those three days as an almost unofficial theme song to the riots is an incredible time capsule, and illustrates the movie’s recurring intimation that the chaos was more organized than it appeared. And it’s vital to recount how Ice-T and Body Count’s fantasy diatribe “Cop Killer” elicited panic from LAPD and local government while the song’s irony went completely over their heads. On the other hand, Kurupt’s detailing of how second-hand reports of the riots informed Dr. Dre’s production of The Chronic from his Calabasas mansion fail to stir any extra interest in that landmark album. 

Overall, the connection between music and that week’s madness is emphasized only sporadically and isn’t what holds the hour-plus running time together. A combination of potent interviews and confrontational video—starting almost immediately with tape of the horrific King beating—gives Uprising its power and qualifies it as an essential complement to Cle Sloan’s Bastards Of The Party, Stacy Peralta’s Crips And Bloods, and other 21st century attempts to articulate a generation of hostility and violence from a more truthful and less sensational point of view. And with the impending Trayvon Martin trial on everyone’s minds, there’s more than enough raised for discussion in Uprising to avoid being unprepared for the complicated feelings its outcome might arouse.

Stray observations:

  • On a lighter note, was I the only surprised that they chose to use Sublime’s “April 29, 1992,” despite the infamous “April 26” gaffe in the lyrics?
  • Tupac signing his own CDs as people loot them from a record store: I almost can’t believe that really happened.
  • Again, it’s difficult to condone or condemn a lot in this movie, but hearing witnesses and participants describe wanting to loot and riot and be on-scene to be a part of history is provocative stuff. You start to realize that for a lot of people, this was essentially an unapologetically violent Occupying of Los Angeles.
  • I still remember seeing footage of the Denny beating at that time, and it was really helpful to hear about it now from a perspective other than the mainstream media’s, who sound as clueless in Uprising as they did then. But it was and remains very hard to watch, and it’s truly amazing that Denny was capable of not just surviving, but forgiving his attackers and seemingly empathizing with their actions. I wish they could have talked to him for the film.
  • I had no idea the black community basically dismissed King’s pleas to “all get along” at the time, although I totally understand why.
  • I also felt embarrassed watching that footage of Sean Penn and Richard Marx (of all people) rallying for peace in L.A., and remembering I should assume their side of the issue and not explore it further at the time. Then again, I was 13. I had a bar mitzvah to worry about.
  • Seeing the actual video footage that Dre sampled for "The Day the Niggaz Took Over" was far and away the most fascinating part of that whole segment. 
  • There’s a lot to be said after watching Uprising, and I didn’t get to say it all, but I am curious to hear other peoples’ gut reactions, especially if you were too young to really remember the riots or not yet born at the time.
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