Fire This Time, The (1994): Docu about 1992 Civil Unrest in Los Angeles

Sundance Film Fest 1994–A searing documentary about the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles, the aptly titled The Fire This Time has the added bonus of being the first work to place the riots in the context of the history of the African-American community in L.A.

Viewed from inside by residents of South-Central, and containing invaluable interviews with Betty Shabazz (Malcolm X’s widow) and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, this important and timely documentary should be seen in movietheaters, before being shown on public TV, and other venues.

It’s both ironic and prophetic that the 1992 L.A. riots occurred precisely 25 years after the commission appointed by Lyndon Johnson came up with its 25-year Master Plan to restore the city. As one resident comments, strangely enough African-American were missing from the Plan, and the report itself has “disappeared” from the archives.

The Fire This Time examines the 1992 riots from a historical perspective, beginning with the very arrival of the first blacks in California in 1850, the evolution of the inner city ghetto, the l965 Watts riots, the rise and fall of the Black Panthers, and finally the emergence of violent street gangs in the l970s and l980s.

The failure to address the community’s persistent problems–poverty, unemployment, lack of financial resources for education, increasing interracial tensions–almost conditioned, even guaranteed as some residents claim, the eruption of the 1992 riots, which destroyed the little semblance of community South Central had.

What comes across most powerfully is the consistent break-up of what used to be a lively community, through the sabotage of the Watts Writers workshop, the decimation of the Black Panthers, the harassment of the community’s black leadership by the F.B.I. and the Los Angeles Police Department. Mrs. Nola Carter, mother of Bunchy Carter, who established the L.A. chapter of the Panthers, recalls how her son was killed at UCLA.

The most illuminating and heartbreaking insights come from residents of the community. A young mother reveals how day after day, she puts her children to bed hoping for a peaceful night, yet in every night there are gunshots. “You’re never protected,” she says, “you never feel safe, even our dog is scared.” And children complain that “there’s nothing to do,” because there are no cultural, educational or recreational centers.

The blame for this rootless, anomic life is put on the authority institutions of white society, which created and perpetuated the racial segregation, seeing that there won’t be a cohesive black leadership–the FBI once apologized for its surveillance of a students organizations.

Unfortunately, director Randy Holland neglects to discuss the functions–and disastrous effects–of street gangs in terrorizing their own community. And he doesn’t provide an examination of the interracial strife between the black and other ethnic minorities.

If The Fire This Time is ultimately less emotionally exciting or stirring than its explosive subject matter warrants, it’s due to its conventional style and even tempo. The excessive, often dull narration by Brooke Adams creates an unnecessary distance between the viewers and the screen, lending the documentary the aura of a clinical survey.

Though technical credits are accomplished and the footage used is most satisfying, at times Walther’s camera wanders around, instead of highlighting and focusing on the personal experiences shared by the residents. Docu would also benefit from tightening up through, by cutting 10 or 15 minutes of its running time.

That said, in its fastidious attention to historical background, The Fire This Time is still a provocative documentary, a wake-up call and a warning that the 1992 L.A. riots can happen again–and in other inner city ghettos as well.