It’s Been 20 Years: The L.A. Riots…This Revolution WAS Televised.

Today is the 20th Anniversary of the L.A. Riots. 20 years ago I was sitting in a classroom, wearing a Catholic school uniform.

In my personal life, I was listening to Guns’n’Roses, Metallica, Queensryche and Nelson, about to be 14 years old (my birthday is in May), and things were…well, as good as they can be when you are an adolescent girl with a heavy metal-loving and high culture obsessed personality. That is to say, I was a normal kid with abnormal interests and thus…miserable.

But that day I was just like everyone else. I was an Angeleno, and I was terrified, angry, confused and hurting. At that age I had no ability to break apart the confusion of the news footage. And when I say “confusion” of the news footage, I mean CONFUSION. When the verdict was announced, and Los Angeles blew the hell up, these white, privileged reporters had no clue how to handle it. As a certified media scholar and media archivist in-training, I am beyond grateful that they went nuts on live-camera. We now know WHAT NOT TO DO and who not to hire in a city as diverse as the one that I have been born and raised in. Did I consider this at the time? Not a stitch. I was just scared. I had a baby brother. I had a family that I loved (still have both those things, although the “baby” brother is WAY taller than me now, so…maybe not so “baby” anymore). I had a city that I revered and…It had just erupted into pure, unadulterated chaos, and….THAT was NOT supposed to happen. Only was supposed to have that happen. I was the one with the adolescent whacked-out hormonal shit going on. My city was supposed to be my ROCK. What was going on?

The interesting thing is that as the 1992 “Civil Unrest” (and as an aside- I’ve never understood that term- who came up with it? It was not civil in any way, shape or form. Sure, it was unrest, but…these were RIOTS. Pure and simple. Is it more politically correct to candy-coat them? Is “civil unrest” an academic term for what occurred?) is one of the best examples of the term “this revolution will be televised.” Every breath taken, every person pulled out of a car, every store looted, every shop owner who fought back…was displayed in full color on our screens at home, at work, at university, where ever we might have been, 20 years ago today.

Even more fascinating, in looking back on this event, the footage I wanted to find for this, I was unable to find. I could not find any footage from news reporters from that first day and the initial announcement, when everything went crazy and they didn’t know what to do. When they were “off the script” as they say, and things were not exactly going according to plan. I’ve seen that footage twice- once live, when it was happening and then again when I took a class on television studies, and we discussed the racial make-up and transitions of newscasting in Los Angeles post-April 29, 1992.

If you weren’t watching or didn’t see it, it took on a beyond ridiculous architecture. Some people could argue that people in the middle of an emergency simply handle situation poorly and say things that they, perhaps, do not actually mean. However, it soon became ragingly clear that the sheer WHITENESS and economic disparity of the televisual news medium was ultra-present and to have that be the link to what was happening in South Central Los Angeles? Wow. The individuals and authority figures who had been chosen to give The People the information about an emergency situation were, quite obviously, so far removed from anything like this or, quite frankly, from Los Angeles herself, that it was a media disaster. No wonder I couldn’t find any of the footage when I was looking for it today.

It changed soon after, but that was the revolution of this situation on television. After this happened, we saw more reporters of color, we saw more documentation of different economic situations and we saw a different news-reporting engagement. While the ethnic situation still reflects this, news has gone back to fluff and fodder, but for a minute, we had some real “news” events. Now, not everyone reflected this. Certain reporters have always managed to be reasonable. But the vast majority of Los Angeles news reporting collapsed in upon itself and had a crisis, some of which can be reflected in this video here:

Or this one. This reporter’s discussion of her relationship to the Watts Riots really underscores the huge distance that these individuals have from the communities that they are reporting on. While the act of looting is, indeed, illegal, is it not of interest to her that quite a few of the folks they were just looking at were carrying out diapers?

Anyone who was in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992 remembers the smell, the sights, what they were doing, everything about it. Everyone from Los Angeles remembers what they were doing as well, even if they weren’t here. I can’t speak to the rest of y’all. I was in my science classroom with my teacher Ms. Michaels and the rest of the girls. Ms. Michaels had a crazy buzz-type haircut with a rat-tail and spikey-ness in the front. She was pretty cool. She wheeled out the TV, and we sat there, totally silent as things unfolded and we waited for our parents to come and get us.

I didn’t feel so tough then.

I remembered my mother telling me about the gas lines as a result of the 1973 Oil Crisis, so I forced her to get a full tank on the way home…just in case we had to leave town. There was a curfew enforced, and the looting and fires didn’t remain contained to South Central. They were a few steps from my front door, in Hollywood.

But that stuff didn’t disturb me. I watched my city burn, sitting atop a ladder in my backyard. I smelled the smoke, I listened to my girlfriends talk about “looting at the Beverly Center” and shook my head.

I was, quite literally, glued to the television. And I didn’t remember that until I sat down to write this. We were watching every little thing. I can’t count the number of store-owners I saw sobbing outside their property on live-television. I can’t fathom all the people I saw discussing how wrong they thought it was that people were burning their own damn neighborhoods. I think if I had a nickel for every time I had heard something about burning Beverly Hills or Simi Valley, I’d have a better chance of paying off my student loans faster!

Realistically, seeing Reginald Denny getting pulled out of a truck at age 13 made my skin crawl and I will never ever know what it’s like NOT to have that feeling and image and experience now. It wasn’t like a horror movie, it was something beyond a horror movie. It was the horrors of the real world. That is something that you will never come back from. The remainder of my time spent watching the television and watching the footage only exacerbated that situation. Like the Vietnam War footage (another salient example of how visual media has revolutionized our eyes, ears, selves and souls), the live Los Angeles Riot media work really created a new realm for many people like me.

My first experiences with action footage, really. I watched people with guns. Many many guns. And not the  police, either. I do like a good action movie. But when action is mixed with reality with injustice? I’ll take that in my fictional media, but not in my real life. Revisiting these instances has been not only difficult but enlightening. This video was a doozy.

The L.A. Riots was an incredible event that centered on the visual and what was being watched. It was catalyzed by a video (the Rodney King tape), followed up by the court case (I have distinct memories of a goodly sum of photographs from the trial decorating every news station and paper in town) and completed by the event itself with the voracious coverage, from every angle possible. Not only were the helicopters filming, people were filming, photographers were snapping pictures constantly and every news channel was rabidly running around every strata of the city to get it all covered.

The media archivist in me loves this. We have footage of a historical event, and tons of it (provided it has been archived and preserved properly).

The Angeleno in me doesn’t give a shit and thinks it’s all exploitation anyway. How many of the reporters even cared? This was our city; these were our people. They were hurting, angry, in pain. Justice was not done and everything went to hell and people were just trying to pass judgement and get a good story. People died, lost their homes, jobs, physical and mental well-being. People were scarred for the rest of their lives because of this and half of our news media was simply there to TMZ-it, pre-TMZ. No one gets on top of their roof with a gun, prepares to shoot people and comes out of the situation in a happy place, mentally. Well, not unless they’re in an action film. And how many of those guys are truly “stable” when you think about it?

The revolution has been televised. It was done so via the televised events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago  , it was done by the broadcasting of hours upon hours of the bloody Vietnam War. This event was no different. What was different was that with certain figures who were involved, they were able to synthesize their situation, both event and media-wise, and reflect it back to those who would listen.

This example has a few pretty interesting pieces in it, and a great deal of discussion about the Riots from the social and internal perspective of people within the community.

However, the best example I found within my research was an interview that was conducted by Ted Koppel with two opposing gang members.

There’s a song by Iggy Pop and Kate Pierson. It’s a duet on Brick by Brick  called “Candy,” and it has a line in it that keeps running through my head, “The big city, geez, it’s been 20 years…” While that song is technically about a lost love, sometimes I feel like my innocent affection for Los Angeles was lost that spring day in April when I climbed to the top of the cafeteria steps at Immaculate Heart, high up on the corner of Franklin and Western; that cafeteria that meets the American Film Institute campus, and watched all the fires start with the rest of the girls I went to school with. It doesn’t mean I no longer love my city (that would be impossible), it simply means that this set of experiences forced my hand a bit. Instead of a gradual development, I had to open my eyes really quickly and see the “big city” (and its media) for what they really were.

As it stands today, I look at what everyone else is remembering, and it’s fascinating. I look at what I am remembering and I think that is interesting too.

How far we have come in 20 years and yet…we have not come very far at all. Many of the places that were destroyed during that time are still vacant lots. The dead are still dead and…Rodney King? Well, he is still unimportant. He was only the masthead to the boat. Let it fall, and the larger vessel remains. What will never disappear is the power of the media to change everything and as technology progresses so will the power of the media. A film like KICK ASS (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) used the same Rodney King-DIY-video-principle only constructed it via the internet, having a video made on a cellphone go viral within an extremely short span of time. This is the world we exist in now.

Not much different from the video camera of yesteryear. Just different formats and tools. As we move forward, perhaps we can remember this and try to keep that in our thoughts as we deconstruct both our media and the tools that we use to create it. The more it changes, the more it (and we) stay the same. If we did not take the time to fix ourselves and the problems that we had 20 years ago, how do we expect to move forward with proper and responsible media now? Do we? Can we realistically expect to have a diverse and representative media world if we were unable to rebuild the Los Angeles that broke itself apart almost a quarter of a century ago? Or do we continue to ignore the empty lots?

Los Angeles is a place where you can walk down the street and hear a multiplicity of languages, taste a variety of foods, see a gutload of moving images in different languages. This is a beautiful thing. But awareness is a key feature of any intelligent person and if you think that things have changed much in the last 20 years, you’re dead wrong. The interview that Koppel took with the gang members could’ve been done yesterday. The L.A. Riots changed the landscape of our fair city, but did they solve the problem? Not quite.

To me, the idea that the role of the responsible news media is slowly dying out scares me more than anything else. It means that not only are they no longer being demanded but they are no longer wanted.  When something like this occurs, we are that much closer to Los Angeles Civil Unrest 2: Electric Boogaloo, once more with feeling. Let’s try not to go that direction. I don’t have an answer for what to do, I only know that the first step is awareness and y’know, maybe that’s enough for now.

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Smiles, Hugs, and Power: Jamaa Fanaka, You Will Be Missed

When I met Jamaa Fanaka, I was just discovering the term “Grindhouse.”  I had just gotten myself this film-collector-projectionist boyfriend, and he knew everything about 42nd St and the cinema culture of that area. I have him to thank for my appreciation for the world of exploitation and, really, for my further exploration of film archiving which is now my career, but…I digress.
At any rate, we attended one of the showings of the Penitentiary films at the New Beverly Cinema and all I knew was that Mr. T was a featured performer. That was where my familiarity began and ended with Jamaa upon entrance to the theater. Leaving the theater that first time it was more. So very much more.

Penitentiary 2 (1982) had Mr. T within the cast. By the end of the evening, The A-Team was the LAST thing on my mind.



Not only had I been introduced to the world of Too Sweet and the madness of Fanaka’s prison outlook, but I had also been inducted into the Fanaka-verse. No small feat, my friend!
He talked. And he talked. And he talked. This was no Q&A. It was simply an A. But for a newbie like me? And a Grindhouse audience like that? Back in the day when folks had had a bit to drink or were still sipping their adult beverages surreptitiously in the back of the theater? It kinda worked.
Ladies and gentlemen, the man had SOUL. The man had ENERGY. He had that certain thing that few people on this earth have: storytelling ability.

Yep, his stories were sometimes batshit insane. Did he know that? Yeah, I think so. But he knew *exactly* how to provoke a response.
After all, isn’t that what he DID for a living and as an artist?? To an extent, isn’t that what all artists are? Provocateurs? It is just to what extent they manage to proke you. Ozu may illicit soft and calm responses from you as a viewer, while Fanaka…not so much.
Many people find his films problematic, and that’s fine. But he was pretty successful. He is still the only filmmaker to have written, produced and distributed three feature films while still enrolled in UCLA film school, and Penitentiary (1979) is the single most financially successful piece of the all the L.A. Rebellion films.
Fanaka himself could also be difficult on a professional level. Stories abound, and some former peers approach him tentatively in certain situations. I will readily admit that Jamaa Fanaka was not your standard filmmaker and he was not your standard personality. He was what my mother and my grandmother called “a character.” Jamaa was Jamaa. But on a personal level, Jamaa Fanaka may have been one of the most passionate and endearing men I have ever met in my life.
The night I met him at the New Beverly, he hugged me and called me “darlin’.” I remember the hug. It was so great. He was a big, great man! Much taller than me.

His talk had gone on for way longer than it should have and Brian (the moderator) tried to cut in politely but…that was just Fanaka at the New Bev. Kinda like Sinatra at The Sands: they just worked together; they were macaroni and cheese, pie and ice cream, etc. Jamaa and his parents (!!!) and whole set up left after the films, and my boyfriend and I were cleaning up around our seats (we liked to do that- it’s nice to do at movie theaters!) and we saw that Jamaa had left a few Penitentiary shirts on the seat. WAY too big for either of us. They were XXXXL. But we looked at them, looked at each other, and Fanaka had left so…I now have a Penitentiary nightgown.
Yes, I wear it. With pride.
A few years later, I find myself back in school after a long absence. Another master’s program, same theme, different struggle. Still film, only now I’m gonna be an archivist, not an academic.
I saw this great class called L.A. Rebellion taught by Allyson Field in conjunction with a film series to match. Looked pretty cool, so I enrolled. IT WAS AMAZING. As the class progressed, I looked at the syllabus, and there was my friend’s name, in glowing letters, for multiple films: JAMAA FANAKA.
I was beyond pleased. The night that I took one of my girlfriends to see Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975) which had a great Q&A with him, I ran into him in the parking lot under the Hammer before the show.
“Remember me?” I asked him, “I’ve come to see you a few times at the New Beverly. You’re great. I love your stuff.”
“Ohhh yeahh!!” He enthusiastically said, smiling wide and hugging me tight, “How are you doing??? Great to see you!!”
I doubt he remembered me, but that hug was the greatest thing ever. Just a big bear hug from this guy who loved to tell stories about his life and other people’s lives and give it all *meaning.* It had meaning to me.  

I wrote about that film in our L.A. Rebellion blog. I did so because I enjoy the film, but much of it was because of what he revealed in that Q&A. Welcome Home, Brother Charles may seem to be a ridiculous film to a great many people, but Fanaka’s intentions have never been ridiculous. His love for the medium, passion for filmic history and his respect for everything entailed within is almost intoxicating. You could feel it sitting there in the theater. He may have seemed silly to some people when he got off-topic sometimes, but a man who sits up there and states, quite simply, “If you have the cure for cancer, but no one hears you or listens, what good is that? Film is by nature a mass audience medium…” knows what he is doing with a film camera. He’s trying to reach others; he has a message. I find hope in Jamaa Fanaka, and I find joy in his big beautiful grin.
Losing Jamaa Fanaka is a really sad thing and it is a loss for a number of reasons. He was a filmmaker who, regardless of how you felt about Penitentiary 3 (1987) or Welcome Home, Brother Charles, really made something of himself and showed young filmmakers (especially filmmakers of color) that they can actually *do* it. He had some of the most amazing passion and drive of anyone I have ever met and that, to me, is what makes you a success. It isn’t a number #1 blockbuster, it isn’t $1,000,000. Those things are nice, but if you can achieve things based upon your own love-for-the-work? That is more than all the money in the world.
When I saw Jamaa speak at the L.A. Rebellion series, not only did I see a look on his face that said “Hell yes, I’ve made it!” But I also saw a look that said “Hell yes, I’ve made it to a place where people *respect* me.” These are two different things. When you deal in the kind of genre works that Fanaka has been known to work in, it is sometimes difficult to garner that kind of respect. Yet he was sitting up on that stage discussing classic cinema from the 1940’s and 1950’s in the Q&A about Welcome Home, Brother Charles and people were finally listening. Or, if they had listened before, it seemed to this viewer that Fanaka was registering that they were hearing his educated perspective. Fanaka was not a man to be underestimated. Sadly, I feel that sometimes much of his fanbase did.
I am heartbroken that we have lost our fountain of strange, creative energy that was Jamaa Fanaka. But I think if we were to do so, it was best that it was after he was able to experience what he did with L.A. Rebellion. I wish you all could’ve been there to see his face. I wish I had known it was going to be the last time I would. I would’ve asked for one last hug.