Riot in the Streets Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

"CHP [California Highway Patrol] advises their officers are in pursuit of a vehicle failing to yield southbound Paxton- Foothill....Vehicle is white Hyundai, license 2KFM102, now approaching Glenoaks....Vehicle is now southbound Glenoaks- passing Sylmar....Vehicle is now northbound Van Nuys-Bordon....Foothill RTO [radio-telephone operator] is taking over the broadcasting of the pursuit [car] 16A23 [Powell and Wind] is the primary unit....Now eastbound Van Nuys at Fulton...stopped at a light southbound Van Nuys at Foothill...two male black occupants...Vehicle still refusing to yield now eastbound Foothill at Osborne..."

LAPD emergency board transmission, March 3/91, 12:47am

Riot in the Streets box art

In the early morning hours of March 3rd of 1991, Rodney King was stopped for speeding by Officer Lawrence M. Powell, Officer Timothy Wind, and Sgt. Stacy C. Koon, of the Los Angeles Police Department. After subduing the 25-year old parolee with a 50,000-volt Taser electric dart gun, the officers attacked the helpless King with their batons. Despite the presence of twenty-seven uniformed officers at the scene, the beating continued until 56 blows had been landed on King, resulting in multiple bone fractures-- eleven of them in the base of his skull. In the Use of Force reports filled out by the officers at the scene, the brutality of the attack was downplayed, citing that King had attacked the arresting officers, and continued to offer resistance despite their efforts to subdue him. This incident might have been buried and forgotten, along with King's name, had it not been for the infamous videotape that captured the entire beating. Shot by a private citizen that was testing out his new video camera, and of exceptionally high quality due to lighting provided by a circling police helicopter, this tape became central to the case against the arresting officers, who were charged with assault with a deadly weapon, unnecessarily beating a suspect under color of authority, and the filing of false police reports.

Down here, whether you're Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, you ain't nothin' but a Buddha-head, straight up! We're the enemy down here, you got that?!

One year later, the 35-day long criminal trial against the four officers (Koon, Powell, Wind, and Briseno) came to a close in Simi Valley, a predominantly-white Los Angeles suburb. The officers were found "Not guilty" on all charges, which became a flashpoint for a series of violent civil uprisings across North America, going as far north as Toronto, Canada. Within the boundaries of the city of Los Angeles, the civil unrest left a trail of carnage-- 60 deaths, 2383 injuries, 3000 fires, 7455 arrests, and $735,000,000 in damages. "Riot in the Streets", which was first aired as a made-for-TV movie on Showtime before being released on video, puts a human face on the Los Angeles riot from four perspectives-- Asian, Hispanic, White, and Black, through the use of four inter-related vignettes.

Take what you need... don't burn our store.

"Gold Mountain", written and directed by Galen Yuen, is the first installment of RITS, providing an Asian perspective on events. Jeffrey Lee (Dante Brasco) is a rebellious Chinese teenager, whose parents (Mako and Kieu Chinh) own a Los Angeles convenience store. The relationship between father and son is strained, a product of their different upbringings. Dante is a very angry young man, seeing the American Dream that his parents cling to so tightly as more of a nightmare, living in a land where they are afforded no respect by both blacks and whites. The immigrant's nightmare soon hits home hard when an angry mob begins looting the convenience store, mere hours after the Rodney King verdict.

What about cops?
What cops? There ain't no fucking cops!

"Caught Up in the Fever", written by Joe Vasquez and directed by Alex Munoz, has a Hispanic teenager, Manuel (Douglas Spain), who gets caught up in the looting, along with his girlfriend and his best friend, thinking only of how many things he can get for his impoverished family. However, he does not think of the consequences of his actions, which are brutally made clear to him.

Don't you realize what has happened? What this has done to the department? All it took to bring down the LAPD was a drunken asshole doing over one hundred in a thirty-five zone. What's happened to this country? How did we go from Martin Luther King to Rodney King?

"Empty" follows a white cop, Boomer (Luke Perry, last seen in "The Fifth Element"), who is on patrol during the riot. Though he associates with his fellow officers and tolerates their racist remarks, deep down, he believes that the Rodney King beating was the fault of the officers. As the riot gains momentum around him, he finds himself surrounded by an angry mob that doesn't have too much love for an officer of the LAPD.

Why do you wanna burn down your own neighborhood?

Finally, David C. Johnson wrote and directed the black perspective of RITS, entitled "Homecoming Day". Turner (Mario Van Peebles) is rushing home to his old neighborhood in South Central L.A. to tell his mother Maggie (Cicely Tyson) of his wife's pregnancy. However, before any celebrations can be had, several local businesses come under attack, including the liquor store that was once owned by Turner's late father, and now being run by a friend, Vernon (Melvin Van Peebles). For Maggie, the riot brings back poignant memories of the Watt's Riots of 1965-- the day her husband was killed by looters.

Stand by my side... we are about to lose everything.

Blending dramatic footage and actual news footage, RITS captures the confusion and emotional turmoil of the 1992 riot. Through the intertextuality of the vignettes, the film aims to show the invisible connections between individuals of the same community, and how the consequences of one's actions are not always predictable. In fact, the interweaving of the storylines is so clever and so surprising, that you'll have to watch it a second time just to see how all the pieces fit together.

Director Alex Munoz once said, "We are so focused on the future, that we don't pause to take a look at our recent past." "Riot in the Streets" is a powerful film that provides that pause, presenting an unflinching look at an ugly chapter of recent history. It can only be hoped that the mistakes of the Los Angeles Riot of 1992 are not made in the future.

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