Title: Clash of Colors: L.A. Riots of 1992
Director: David D. Kim
Twenty years ago this weekend, the not guilty verdicts in the trial of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King sparked rampant looting, violence and arson that would claim 55 lives, leave thousands injured, and result in more than $1 billion in property damage. David D. Kim’s documentary “Clash of Colors: L.A. Riots of 1992” provides a snapshot of that darkly seminal American event, filtered through the lens of an element not often discussed — the riot’s impact on the Korean-American community, whose businesses bore the brunt of more than half of that damage. Staged in lackluster fashion but still fairly interesting for its unique perspective on the subject matter, the film has an instructional/educational value that could lend it worth as a teaching implement in how to defuse future racial and ethnic tensions.
The first 20 or 30 minutes of the movie is devoted to providing an overview of both the run-down economic conditions of 1990 and ’91 — which impacted poor urban areas like South Central Los Angeles particularly harshly — and the various reasons behind how and why such a large percentage of the Korean immigrant population settled into small business ownership in the L.A. area. In chronicling the real but perhaps media-conflated and exaggerated tension between African-Americans and Korean-Americans, “Clash of Colors” illuminates the ingredients of the powder keg that would subsequently explode in late April of ’92. The rest of the movie recaps events from the perspective of Korean-Americans, who first saw their businesses ravaged and then found themselves on the receiving end of post-riot political maneuvering which refused to grant them liquor licenses, and thus made it more difficult to re-open.
First-time director Kim evinces no great talent at construction or contextual cross-editing, but he does have the benefit of a cache of never-before-seen footage — of Korean-American business owners banding together to protect their businesses — and, most of all, an impressive and eloquent roster of interview subjects that includes author Lou Cannon, former state senator Tom Hayden, Radio Korea president Richard Choi, controversial former pastor Cecil Murray and many more.
Kim speaks too, recalling how he advised colleagues at Radio Korea to broadcast advice to the contrary of the Los Angeles Police Department’s call for business owners in Koreatown to leave before sundown on the second evening of the riots. With no one there to defend their stores, Kim and others surmised, they would be burned to the ground, as so many were in South Central the previous evening.
The fact that Kim likely figured right — saving millions of dollars in property, but also perhaps inciting or at least providing tacit moral cover for some of the gun battles and deaths that ensued — gives “Clash of Colors” a bracing splash of grey. One realizes just how complex the social, racial, political and economic issues compressed in Los Angeles at the time were, and how any and every poly-ethnic metrop0lis needs to grapple with hard truths to help create and foster an environment of openness.
Written by: Brent Simon