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.
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