"Burn Motherfucker, Burn!" Director Sacha Jenkins Reflects on the LA Riots, 25 Years Later - Culture | MERRY JANE
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"Burn Motherfucker, Burn!" Director Sacha Jenkins Reflects on the LA Riots, 25 Years Later

“It’s a story that’s long overdue," says the documentarian about his nuanced look at Rodney King and the explosion of violence that rocked LA a quarter-century ago.

by Gabriel Alvarez

by Gabriel Alvarez

All photos courtesy of Sacha Jenkins and Showtime.

It’s been 25 years since a jury acquitted the police officers who savagely beat black motorist Rodney King after a high speed chase, an incident that was caught on videotape and spread throughout the country like wildfire. Protests on the streets soon gave way to six days of chaos, resulting in widespread looting and over a billion dollars in property damage, as well as thousands of injuries and over 50 deaths.

Burn Motherfucker, Burn!, a provocative new documentary on Showtime, explores the 1992 LA Riots primarily through the viewpoints of black Americans, underscoring historical precedents like the 1965 Watts Riots to illustrate the various factors that led to the explosive event in the early ‘90s. The doc digs deep (including some rarely-aired TV news footage) to uncover the economic and racial factors that helped spark the uprisings, as well. As we learn, black families migrated from the South to Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1940s in attempt to escape oppressive Jim Crow laws and lead a better life, only to discover the same forces followed them to the West Coast. “The opportunity to express the way African-American people in Los Angeles have felt for generations was the real slice of inspiration for me to make this film,” director Sacha Jenkins told MERRY JANE. “It’s a story that’s long overdue.”

Jenkins, who also helmed the the hip-hop fashion documentary Fresh Dressed (2015), tells the story of the riots from a wide range of subjects, including academics, former police, and everyday folks. And, in a move true to his roots as a music journalist, Jenkins got artists like Perry Farrell (Jane’s Addiction/Porno For Pyros), Norwood Fisher (Fishbone), and LA rappers Kam and Yo-Yo to open up about their personal connections to the police and the riots. The film even opens with 1960s archival footage of a black journalist interviewing an 8th-generation plantation owner in the South, who tells the journalist things have changed but he still views black people akin to “pets.” By incorporating these unexpected voices, we get a broader picture of how racism has been so deeply ingrained in America, all leading up to the fateful day when King was brutalized.

MERRY JANE caught up with Jenkins this week to discuss the doc, and he had a lot to say about the history of police brutality, how “these ruthless police dynasties” let looting and destruction go on for days during the riots, and whether he thinks another eruption of violence and civil unrest might rock Los Angeles in the near future.

MERRY JANE: In the documentary, you explore how slavery informs the way police interact with black people even in the present. Can you tell me more about that?
Sacha Jenkins: Essentially, the police force in many states started out as lynch mobs looking to gather up runaway slaves. Obviously, lots of white folks in power back then saw African-Americans as less than human. [Through time] it went from that to, “How do we keep these former slaves in check?” and that mentality still prevails in many communities. I don’t think black, brown, or poor people look at police as people who work for them. If you’re a taxpayer the police actually work for you. Instead we’ve been programmed to think that these people are patrolling us. They’re like overseers.

In the documentary, rapper Everlast talks about how some white people could admit the Rodney King beating was wrong, but they still wondered what he did to provoke the attack. How do you feel about what he said?
When Everlast talked about being reared as a white person [and how that taught him] to give police the benefit of the doubt, I got chills because I knew that’s the kind of thing that people think but never really articulate. I appreciate that he made that statement. But it’s true. When you are white you do get the sense that the cops are there to protect your community and to make sure that you’re OK. [Black people] don’t have that same feeling.

In the film, you contrast the 1991 video of Rodney King with the 2015 cellphone footage of cops killing a homeless man, Charly Leundeu Keunang, in Skid Row. This depicted how police violence has arguably gotten worse, but were you also trying to articulate that we’ve become desensitized by seeing videos of police brutality all the time?
A hundred percent. We saw Rodney King get beat and look what happened in ’92 — people stood up. Now people, particularly young people, are used to seeing folks being beheaded or murdered on camera and nothing happens. We obviously got Black Lives Matter and people are protesting, but [police brutality] is only getting worse.

There’s this notion that only poor people of color loot, but your doc includes people like Perry Farrell from Jane’s Addiction, who admits that he got all the furniture for his new house during the riots.
I wanted to show that it’s just not black and brown people who were out there taking advantage of what was going on. White people were out there [during the riots] too. And I wanted people to understand that the media had a very impactful role in how the story was told. Like there was this one journalist who was talking to these young Korean guys, and he’s basically like, “Does it make you scared when people of another color come to your neighborhood?” The way that he set up the question, it’s just like [he’s] sensationalizing the situation. This is clickbait before there was clickbait.

I also wanted to speak to a broad cross section of people. I knew that the musicians from various genres out of LA would have interesting stories. I mean, if you really pay attention to their lyrics, Fishbone have got plenty of songs about the police, about the ‘hood, about their experiences, so I figured Norwood Fisher would be interesting to speak with. Perry Ferrell got the name for Porno For Pyros because when the uprising was happening, he was watching it on TV and he described it like it was porn. I didn’t want to rely on what everyone would expect you to do, which is to use only rap [as a direct parallel to the riots]. Whether it’s Porno For Pyros or Fishbone or Ice Cube, they were all Angelenos and they were all commenting on what was going on [during the uprising].

What was going through your mind when you interviewed LAPD Chief Charlie Beck?
I mean, it was intimidating. It was scary. I was in their lair. And I told him, “Listen, never in my life have I had like a real eye-to-eye conversation with a police officer that didn’t involve stress or me being questioned.” And from what I gather, he seems like a nice enough guy. But he’s from a different time and he’s trying to change and adapt with the times. But I just let him talk. And I think that it’s not about these conversations being perfect or me agreeing with him. It’s about him having the opportunity to say what he feels and me having the opportunity to share my experiences with him.

The Los Angeles Times recently published a poll detailing that the public believes another riot could happen in the near future. How do you feel about that?
Well, they learned a lot from both uprisings. In ’65, Chief Parker [of the LAPD] basically let it happen. In ’92, Chief Gates pretty much let it happen. The cops could have found a way to contain that situation, but they didn’t. They just escalated it by leaving and letting it happen. The difference between now and then is I don’t think Chief Beck would let it happen. I think that based on all the lives and money that get lost, it doesn’t make sense. Where we are right now in this military state, I think that if something was going to pop off law enforcement would hop right on it.

How do you feel about having to eventually give your son “the talk” on how to deal with cops?
I’ve definitely thought about it. My son, who just turned five, has this natural inclination, as most kids do, to believe that cops are good and sometimes he talks about how he wants to fight crime. I certainly don’t want to tell him that all cops are bad because I don’t believe that all cops are bad. But he’s not at an age to fully understand all the subtle nuances and differences. It makes me sad that parents of color have to explain to their kids [that cops might kill them]. Every so-called American — not just black people, not just brown people — should be outraged. Our kids should feel like the police are there to protect them.

You can watch 'Burn Motherfucker, Burn!' on Showtime On Demand any time. For more information visit Showtime's website here.


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Gabriel Alvarez

Gabriel Alvarez has written about rap music and movies for over 20 years. He’s from Los Angeles.



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