KAFFLA Centerpiece: LA Riots 2012


[This week, we will be covering the the First Annual Korean American Film Festival Los Angeles, which will be taking place at the Korean Cultural Center LA from August 9th through the 11th. For all of our coverage, head here.]

The other day I reviewed David D. Kim’s Clash of Colors: The LA Riots of 1992, a documentary that looks at the causes of the riots from various sociopolitical and socioeconomic angles. It’s part of the First Annual Korean American Film Festival’s centerpiece program on the LA riots, which screens tomorrow. In addition to Clash of Colors, there are the short documentaries The LA Riots: Reflections on Our Future and Pokdong, the music video for “I Got My Mind Made Up” by 429, and a preview of the work-in-progress documentary LAR20.

Watching all of these films, I noticed a bit of familiar ground covered in each: shock, outrage, disillusion, resolve, and even uncertainty tinged with fear. But even if there’s some overlap (unavoidable given the immensity of the subject), they present different aspects of the LA riots, with added focus on the Korean experience. It got me thinking about what collective statement there maybe be to these films 20 years after the riots occurred.

One of the things I’ve started doing at museums is examining the placement of artwork relative to each other in a given room. You notice how certain walls have a color scheme to them or thematic links, or how art on opposite walls may be engaging in some kind of subtle conversation of similarity or difference. Each room has the potential of expressing some kind of thesis or, for lack of a better phrase, making a gestalt statement. It’s the same as sequencing a mix tape for someone, or in this case, programming a series of related films. Clash of Colors seems like the hub of the program that the shorter works play off.

Keun Pyo “Root” Park’s The LA Riots: Reflections on Our Future approaches an overview of the riots while also embedding personal stories of people who lived through it. Park’s film is well polished and lean, playing like a television news magazine version of Clash of Colors. While time constraints don’t allow for the same depth of analysis and conjecture, the personal testimony of its interview subjects helps form a larger picture in the centerpiece program. It even ends with a younger voice talking about the possibility of the riots happening again, which sets up a hopeful contrast (naive or not) to the more dire predictions of have-nots and the potential for mass unrest (paranoid or not). Since there’s still a lot to unpack about the riots and what they mean now, the more voices and perspectives in the centerpiece, the better.

As a work in progress, David H. Kim’s LAR20 seems to be shaping into a collection of different voices. Subjects range from young artists and professionals living in the LA area to people who actually lived through the riots. One of the interview subjects is Timothy Goldman, who filmed the beating of Reginald Denny. Yet rather than just talk about what he witnessed in the riots, Goldman brings up the Latasha Harlins murder and how he never recalled any news stories about the 23 Korean store owners who were also killed around the time. (As mentioned in the Clash of Colors review, the Harlins case involved a Korean store owner shooting a black woman in the back of the head. The media narrative surrounding it may have heightened tensions between the Korean and black communities.)

Pokdong (Korean for “riot”) plays differently than its more analytical/reportage-style counterparts. Rather than looking at the riots from a social standpoint, this film by Alex Dongwan Ko is more of a family memoir. It recounts his mother and father’s immigration experience and how they opened their own video store in Los Angeles. That American dream turns into an American berserk with the LA riots, which winds up affecting life at home in its aftermath. While I don’t think that the recreations/restagings of certain events are effective (maybe a personal preference more than anything else), the home video footage and candid interviews with Ko’s parents are pretty remarkable. This provides a much needed personal, grounded, and emotional tether to the other documentaries in the centerpiece.

And then there’s the music video for 429’s “I Got My Mind Made Up.” (The LA riots began on April 29th, hence the name.) It serves as this artifact of its time — the sound of early 90s hip hop, the feel of a racial message movie, the bumping refrain taken from The Beatles’s “Come Together.” Even the fashion and the music video aesthetic are wholly of their period. To have watched it back then might have been remarkable since the trio in 429 consists of two black guys and a Korean guy. It’s the sonic counterpoint to songs Ice Cube’s “We Had to Tear This Motherfucker Up”; it’s the sonic relative to Tom Petty’s “Peace in LA” or Billy Idol’s “Shock to the System.”

While it’s earnest and positive, like so many message songs (i.e., those Petty and Idol songs), “I Got My Mind Made Up” is too on the nose; its urgency undermines its potency. Give “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five or “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy another listen; or that Ice Cube song, even with the laptop line and In Living Color reference. They still hold up. Why that is might be too long to go into in this piece, but I think it’s all about how urgency and potency are two separate things, and enduring music with a social conscience participates in both. But “I Got My Mind Made Up” is valuable regardless. Its inclusion is like looking into a time capsule, or rifling through a box of cassettes and remembering that first listen.

And obviously the dialogue about the LA riots goes beyond the scope of the centerpiece program. For instance, there’s a conversation between all of these films and the work of Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, whose two documentaries on the LA riots, Sa-I-Gu: From Korean Women’s Perspectives (1993) and Wet Sand: Voices from LA (2005), screened at last year’s Korean American Film Festival New York as part of a career retrospective. I have yet to watch both of Kim-Gibson’s documentaries in full, though you can view them via the links provided. When I finally get some time to sit down and watch these Kim-Gibson films, there should be some added perspective, particularly when viewed chronologically. I’m expecting something more raw in Sa-I-Gu than in Wet Sand just given when each was made, and it’d be interesting to think about all of these films in terms of their place in time and the emotional tenor. In Pokdong there’s a line that seems appropriate: “Time is medicine.”

Earlier in the week, news surfaced concerning a narrative film about the LA riots. It was previously attached to Spike Lee and John Ridley, screenwriter of Red Tails, Undercover Brother, and U Turn, which was adapted from his novel Stray Dogs. If you’re a news junkie, you may also recognize Ridley from his media appearances or his non-fiction. Now attached to the project is Justin Lin, one of many high-profile films he’s become involved in lately (e.g., the Lone Wolf and Cub remake). If Lin does wind up doing this LA riots movie, it may be a welcome return to the promise of his debut feature, Better Luck Tomorrow, not to knock his work as an action filmmaker. There’s no word if Lin would use Ridley’s screenplay or if he’d be starting from scratch. It’s a bit surprising that there hasn’t been a major narrative feature about the LA riots yet, but maybe the time’s come even though race remains a prickly issue. It’s getting better, but there’s still a long way to go.

It’s a nice round number now — 20 years. Those landmark decades make people feel extra reflective about the past. This sense of reflection may be especially true these days following the death of Rodney King in June, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and all the naive proclamations of our society being a post-racial one. If we were really post-racial, would we even need to say it? If it were true, would we need to repeat “post-racial” like some mantra every time some tragedy or misunderstanding reveals that the idea is premature at best? Maybe “post-racial” is just an abstract aspiration, or a new manifestation of liberal guilt (and I write all this as an unrepentant liberal).

The best we can do moving forward, and this seems to be the underlying thesis for the KAFFLA centerpiece, is to continue to have this conversation. Maybe we’ll understand each other, maybe we’ll never understand each other, but we should continue to try; this is a conversation that shouldn’t have an end.

[LA Riots 2012 will be playing at the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles at 4:00 PM on Saturday, August 11th. There will be a Q&A with all the filmmakers at the end of the screenings.]

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.