Other than the phrase “Rodney King getting beat up by four white cops (for no apparent reason),” I have no recollection of the events leading up to the L.A. Riots. I was only 10 when Rodney was assaulted, and then 11 when the Not Guilty verdict came back. I don’t even remember seeing media coverage about it.
If, like me, you have vague impressions of that grim chapter in modern American history, you need to watch Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s documentary “Wet Sand: Voices from L.A. Ten Years Later.” This film is essentially a follow-up to Kim-Gibson’s 1993 documentary “Sa-I-Gu,” which provided insights on the LA Riots from the perspective of Korean women storeowners.
“Wet Sand” covers a lot more territory, bringing up issues of social injustice, economic inequality, urban decay, and political inaction. The documentary isn’t limited to the Korean-American riot victims as it includes interviews with leaders of civic groups as well as African-American and Latino business owners. “Wet Sand” begins with Jung HuiLee talking about her son Eddie, who was killed. As the documentary continues, it discusses the mayhem surrounding the riots.
The newsreel footage of the vandalized stores and abandoned cars is simultaneously sad and perplexing. The public was outraged that jurors acquitted the four police officers and responded with anger and violence. Since the LAPD was not prepared to and didn’t know how to handle the situation, rioting led to lawlessness. Property losses were estimated at one billion dollars and over 2,000 people were injured. South Central turned into a war zone. Looters were smiling. They were destroying their own neighborhood, but why? The Man is your enemy, not the owner of the liquor store or the dry-cleaning store.
“Wet Sand” raises other “why” questions as well. For instance, a series of voice-over segments and news footage convey that there were hostilities between the Koreans and blacks who lived in the area. The moment I started wondering why there were tensions, I got the answer. Days after Rodney was beaten, a 15 year-old African-American girl named Latasha Harlins was shot and killed by a Korean liquor store owner.
Kim-Gibson’s documentary argues that the media did a very poor job of reporting the news. Instead of showing the entire security camera footage, which would’ve revealed both Latasha and the Korean woman hitting each other across the checkout counter, news stations only broadcasted the shooting. The media also played the Rodney King beating and Latasha’s death back to back. Anyone who sees this sequence would be shocked and appalled.
When “Wet End” is almost over, the words “it doesn’t make any sense” will be at the forefront of your thoughts. It doesn’t make sense why decades of civil rights activism and fighting for acceptance should crumble when people get upset and scared. Reverend James Lawson, one of the interviewees, points out that the chaos is always there. Philosophically speaking (and thermodynamically too), chaos must exist, but we’ve surely come a long enough way to avoid falling into disorder so easily.
Without being too complicated in and of itself, “Wet Sand” manages to reveal how complex human nature is and how quickly we turn into lord-of-the-flies. It’s not just about dispelling racial stereotypes or creating positive relations among different groups of people. Matters of economics and politics are involved. When there’s a conflict of interests between enough people, and no one steps in to mediate or mitigate, all hell breaks loose.
Michael Moore’s documentary “Bowling for Columbine” (2002) addresses nearly everything that would be covered in an Intro to Criminology class. “Wet Sand” does the same thing for what could be an Intro to Social Injustice class. The film presents a lot of content in just fifty-nine minutes. There’s almost a plethora of information, but editors Charles Burnett and Richard Kim do an excellent job of maintaining a smooth and steady pace, never lingering on any one subject too long. Furthermore, Kim-Gibson weaves all the threads together in such a fashion that you leave the documentary more educated, more aware, and moved to take action.
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