KAFFLA Review: Clash of Colors: The LA Riots of 1992


[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.]

It’s astounding to think that the LA riots happened 20 years ago. We’ve hit that nice, round, reflective number at a time when the veneer has tarnished on those naive declarations that our age is a post-racial one. So much has changed in South Central and Koreatown, let alone America. Maybe now we can look at the LA riots with a greater sense of understanding.

In Clash of Colors: The LA Riots of 1992, director David D. Kim does just that, looking at the racial, socioeconomic, political, cultural, and historical factors that led to the LA riots. It’s accomplished through blending narration with news footage, archival footage, and talking heads. This may be dry or old-fashioned to some, but for me, Clash of Colors was a solid collection of facts, opinions, and analysis that reveal the complexity at the heart of the matter, with important focus given to the Korean-American experience at the time.

Clash of Colors: The LA Riots of 1992
Director: David D. Kim
Rating: NR
Release Date: TBD

There are a couple of enduring images I saw on TV as a child that I’d only come to understand later in life, like the tank man of Tiananmen Square and the falling of the Berlin Wall. The images that I understood immediately (or at least that registered with my young mind) were the tragic and violent ones: the explosion of the Challenger, the night vision footage of Operation Desert Storm, the beating of Rodney King, the ensuing riot seen from the safety of news helicopters. But an image alone or video alone doesn’t convey the whole story. There are plenty of circumstances outside frame or omitted from the image, but the neatness of a single image is sometimes sufficient for people when assessing an event.

It seems like Clash of Colors aims at the periphery of the popular narrative about the LA riots in order to get a more complete image of what happened. This is history as a process, or history as a web of cause and effect relationships. It starts socioeconomically, looking at the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs and how the recession of the early 90s crippled the middle class and lower middle class. There’s talk of escalating tensions between the police and the people of South Central well before the King beating. There are political failures for the community and judicial screw-ups that turned situations from bad to worse. There’s also a look at the death of Latasha Harlins, shot in the back of the head by a Korean store owner who thought she was shoplifting (she wasn’t).

The media comes under scrutiny as well for stirring conflict, pushing isolated incidents as if they’re part of a larger narrative of racial tension, and showing videos without the full context to serve said narrative. We’re shown bits of the full King beating, images rarely shown on the news (if ever), that might have caused the jury to acquit the officers. We also see the tense lead up to Harlin’s death. While I don’t think these crucial seconds of video omitted from the media narrative justify acquittal or murder, I do think they’re important to see. It’s hard to have a good opinion about something if you’re only given partial facts. Incomplete facts lend themselves to oversimplification.

Clash of Colors singles out the Los Angeles Times in particular of exacerbating a racial conflict between Koreans and blacks. In the Harlins case, the LA Times mentioned that the shooter was Korean and the victim black even though the newspaper’s style guide suggests that race only needs to be mentioned if it’s pertinent to the report. The question: “Was mentioning race pertinent?” If so, was it pertinent because it played into the established media narrative? Is that media narrative necessarily real? Are people, by reading the narrative, acting as if that narrative was true? (That last rhetorical question reminds me of the feedback loop of acting out a narrative that Douglar Rushkoff mentioned in the 2001 Frontline doc The Merchants of Cool.)

When we come to the riot itself, the film looks at it from the Korean-American point of view. Around $1 billion of damage was suffered during the LA riots, and roughly $400 million of that damage was against the Korean-American community. They were scapegoated and treated as surrogates for the police and the jury in the King case; the Harlins case didn’t help matter either. Maybe most shocking is how the police and first responders abandoned South Central and Koreatown. I was mildly thrown off toward the end by a possible bit of hyperbole when one of the film’s interviewees compares the targeting of Korean-owned businesses during the riots to a pogrom. It seems like a misapplication of the word “pogrom” since it’s not violence carried out by the government or law enforcement, though I may be using the word too narrowly.

As a child sitting in front of the TV, I’d seen images of Korean-Americans with rifles on the roofs of their businesses. Back then I never understood why they didn’t just leave. Since then, I’ve come to understand a little bit more about the nature of being a hold out, of defending things that you believe in, and how desperation drives people to extremes. Clash of Colors builds out that naive understanding I had by talking about the Korean immigrant experience. It also shows the way that breakdowns in social order led to new ways for Koreans in Los Angeles to mobilize and remain updated about the situation in their own city. Kim himself appears as an interview subject a number times during this section of the film. There’s probably a great documentary or narrative feature waiting to be made about this aspect of the riots.

By looking at the various circumstances related to the LA riots and the aftermath, Kim and his interviewees seem like they’re in the process of diagnosis. Many of the people brought to the film are sociopolitical commentators, academics, politicians, and community leaders. All of them are interested in finding out how to avoid another riot in the future. There’s a possibility of it happening again, they all believe, but maybe it’s avoidable. There are plenty of indications that the severity of the LA riots could have been mitigated, or that the whole thing could have been avoided entirely, so perhaps we can prevent something so destructive from happening in the future.

There are some differences in diagnosis and treatment, but they help add to the complexity of the viewpoints in the film. For instance, liberal-turned-conservative David Horowitz isn’t going to see eye to eye with Rev. Cecil Murray, but I’m glad they’re both in Clash of Colors. Since I’ve only passed through K-town and know very little about what LA is like today, it makes me wonder if there really is underlying tension and resentment waiting for some unfortunate flame to set everything off again. We’ve come a long way in the last two decades (or at least it seems like a long way), but the LA riots had multiple, interlaced fuses rather than just one.

Maybe the reason people want to believe we live in a post-racial America is that they want to get beyond the possibility of racial tension. They cling to the utopian idea because it’d be nice if it were reality. But it’s hard to root out racism entirely, and even today, the specter of Rodney King and the LA riots pops up again and again: think of the Trayvon Martin shooting, or even the false arrest of Henry Louis Gates. A post-racial America would make life easier. The world’s never so simple.

[Clash of Colors: The LA Riots of 1992 will be playing at the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles at 4:00 PM on Saturday, August 11th. It is part of the KAFFLA’s centerpiece program, LA Riots 2012. This includes the shorts 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. Following the centerpiece presentation, there will be a Q&A with all the filmmakers.]

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