LOS ANGELES -- As a 22-year-old white kid from New Jersey fresh out of college, Mark Ford encountered the Los Angeles riots of April 1992 the way most Americans did -- through journalist Bob Turr's striking helicopter footage of the violence at Florence and Normandie avenues.
Turr's impromptu narration as a white outsider literally looking down on South Central Los Angeles ("Terrible, terrible pictures!" and "Nobody's helping him!") shaped how many Americans initially viewed the searing images: A group of angry black residents pulled white truck driver Reginald Denny from his cab and beat him severely. Earlier that day, four white Los Angeles Police Department officers had been acquitted of all charges in the brutal 1991 beating of black motorist Rodney King.
"I remember being kind of confounded by the riots," Ford said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "I understood theoretically why people felt an injustice was done, but I couldn't quite put together why someone would go and lash out against others."
Almost 20 years later, Ford has had the chance to answer that question in a new documentary he directed, "Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots." Narrated by rapper Snoop Dogg, the film premiering on VH1 on May 1 shows that hip-hop music in the 1980s had been sounding the alarm about poverty and police violence in South Central Los Angeles long before mainstream media outlets began taking notice.
During the riots, national news reports depicted Los Angeles as a war zone, but Ford's film documents violence in the community as far back as the 1950s. Ford described to HuffPost a 1980s drug raid in the community: "[The police] had a battering ram and a military tank pushing into, bursting through doors and literally tearing down homes." Footage from that era incorporated into the film shows black men, rounded up, handcuffed and kneeling by curbs amid rough treatment by police.
The documentary weaves in rare scenes of the 1992 riots filmed by South Central resident Matty McDaniel. Ford accompanies these images with N.W.A.'s 1988 hit, "Fuck Tha Police," a song that was controversial because it seemed to look favorably on the killing of police officers.
Some clips on YouTube tipped off Ford about Timothy Goldman, another area resident who had stored his footage in a safe deposit box. Ford combed through hours of footage and what he found astounded him. "People were looting and walking up to the camera to say, 'fuck tha police,'" Ford said. "They were spray painting 'Fuck Tha Police' on walls. They were literally driving down burning streets and stopping to play 'Fuck Tha Police.'"
"And if you look at that archival footage for that time," Ford said, "it confirmed our thesis about how powerful music was at that cross section of society and rebellion."
N.W.A.'s song was intimately connected to the riots, Ford found -- not as incitement but as a way to express pent-up resentment about the heavy hand of the law. "It was written by people that lived the story and understood it," he said. "They were just trying to convey ... a shout out to the world. There's abuse going on here; there's oppression and we're not going to stand for it."
In Ford's follow-up interviews with Angelenos who took part in the looting and destruction, almost no one voices regret over their role during those days of mayhem. Instead, people demonstrate a palpable sense of pride in being part of something so historic.
"No one is happy that people were hurt or killed," Ford said. (More than 50 people died during the riots.) "Of course stores were being looted; people's businesses were being ruined. A lot of bad things happened." But as a filmmaker, he said, one of his tasks was to "just accept what they're saying and not try to make them act regretful for the sake of resolution or story."
In perhaps one of the documentary's most provocative moments, Ford speaks with Henry Watson, one of the men who was sentenced to prison for Denny's beating. Time magazine reported that Denny's skull had been bashed by another assailant with a cinder block "fracturing it in 91 places and causing severe brain damage."
Watson looks visibly uncomfortable as Ford asks pointed questions about his involvement in that assault and if he felt any regret. Back at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues, Watson defends himself and the community. "There's no way that 400 years of the white folks' bullshit is going to be justified by this one ass whooping," said Watson. "Please, you think I'm ... a guilt trip after that shit? Get the fuck out of here."
Younger viewers might be amused to see the documentary's presentation of aging hip-hop stars (now in family film roles, headlining alternative-rock festivals and starring in reality shows), as they talked and walked during their more revolutionary days. The film also includes footage of late rapper Tupac Shakur boasting about shooting up Chinese takeout spots.
On a more serious note, the film details reforms in the community over the past decade and makes the case that the LAPD has changed for the better.
Some of the documentary's closing interviews of South Central residents, however, raise questions that might unsettle viewers: Has South Central Los Angeles really changed all that much? Does the still-high unemployment rate and lack of economic opportunities create another powder keg?
"The story is not tied up in a pretty bow, and it's not necessarily a happy ending," Ford warned. "It's important that people take a hard look at things that could be done to impact the community and change some fundamental realities."
Director Mark Ford will appear at an April 27 screening of the film during the Beverly Hills Film Festival at 6 p.m. Find out more details here.
Performers like the group N.W.A., including Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Yella and MC Ren, were calling attention to the destruction happening in South Central Los Angeles long before a home video camera caught four white police officers beating a black man to a pulp in 1991. N.W.A.'s 1988 album Straight Outta Compton contained songs that vividly described everyday violence in the neighborhood and rage at excessive policing. One song from that album, "Fuck Tha Police," would later become almost an anthem for the 1992 L.A. riots, says director Mark Ford. At the time of the song's release, authorities condemned the song for promoting violence and rebellion against cops.
Ice-T and his band Body Count performed the song "Cop Killer" in 1991. A recorded version, released in 1992, referenced Rodney King and then Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates. Body Count was the first hardcore punk band to give a voice to inner-city problems, according to Pop Matters.
"I remember writing about the Reginald Denny beating and looking at it from very far away," Ford says. Fresh out of college, Ford worked at CNN as a journalist and news segment producer. As a white kid who had grown up in the suburbs of New Jersey, Ford had trouble understanding the violent rage. (A production still of "Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots," courtesy of VH1.)
Despite having covered the Gulf war, Ford never forgot the scenes from Reginald Denny's beating and the riots that engulfed Los Angeles. "The violence of that imagery [in] American streets was very difficult to reconcile," Ford says. "So it always sort of stuck with me." Here, an unidentified man is bloody after an attack at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues in Los Angeles. (A photo still from "Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots," courtesy of VH1.)
Almost 20 years after the riots, Ford had a conversation about the upcoming anniversary of the events with Brad Abramson, a former colleague from CNN. Abramson is now vice president of production and development at VH1. This turned into a discussion about making a film that would make sense for VH1's audience -- the riots from the point of view of hip hop. An unidentified motorist is pulled from a car and beaten by a crowd at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues. (Photo still from "Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots," courtesy of VH1.)
His work on previous hip-hop documentaries had put Ford in touch with Matty McDaniel, a filmmaker from South Central Los Angeles who videotaped the riots day and night. Some clips on YouTube tipped off Ford about Timothy Goldman, another South Central resident who had stored footage in a safe deposit box. As a result, Ford had thousands of hours of footage to comb through -- and what he found astounded him. Here, a scene from amateur video shows the initial standoff between police and South Central residents protesting the decision in the Rodney King verdict. (A production still from "Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A.Riots," courtesy of VH1.)
"People were looting and walking up to the camera to say, 'fuck tha police,'" Ford says about what he found in reviewing the footage. "They were spray painting 'Fuck Tha Police' on walls. They were literally driving down burning streets and stopping to play 'Fuck Tha Police.'" N.W.A.'s song was intimately connected to the riots, Ford discovered -- not as incitement but as a way for people to express resentment about the heavy hand of the law. (A production still from "Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots," courtesy of VH1.)
Photographer Bart Bartholomew, seated in the car, becomes one of the first victims of mob violence at Florence and Normandie avenues. (A photo still from "Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots," courtesy of VH1.)
At the beginning of the film, Rodney King returns to the scene of his beating and re-enacts it. Later on, some people shown in the film mock King's plea, after the riots began, for everyone to "get along." "Rodney saying those words helped create a tenor for peace and helped calmed things down," Ford says. "He could have said a lot of different things that would have had a lot of different impacts." "But you couldn't deny that the people .... had suffered under the LAPD for years and weren't quite ready to let go of their anger at that point." (A photo still from "Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots," courtesy of VH1.)
"Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots" premieres May 1 on VH1 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Director Mark Ford will also appear at a screening of the film at the Beverly Hills Film Festival on April 27 at 6 p.m. (A movie poster of "Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots," courtesy of VH1.)