Sacha Jenkins Explores the Roots of L.A. Unrest in ‘Burn Motherfucker, Burn!’

In his new documentary Burn Motherfucker, Burn!, director Sacha Jenkins looks at the 1992 uprising that engulfed Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict through a broader historical prism. The MASS APPEAL film, which debuts tonight on Showtime at 9pm (EST) and will air again on April 29, marks the 25th anniversary of the transformative event by exploring the roots of the city’s unrest, particularly the contentious relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department and the Black and Hispanic communities, going back to Chief William Parker’s control of the police force that began in 1950. Burn traces a through-line that intersects with moments including the police’s 1962 attack on a Nation of Islam mosque in L.A., the 1965 Watts riot, the institutionalized thwarting of local Black Power and Black Pride organizations, the transformation of street gangs in the 1970s and ’80s, the murder of teenager Latasha Harlins, the Rodney King trial and the current increase in officer-involved shootings.

It’s a complex and fascinating look at an often overshadowed or misunderstood aspect of the city’s history, filled with interviews with everyone from Cypress Hill’s B-Real, to Los Angeles scholar Mike Davis, to current Police Chief Charlie Beck.

We spoke with Jenkins about how his own understanding of Los Angeles has changed over the years and how the impact of a city’s trauma can last for decades.

Watch the above clip where Jenkins talks about his interview with Beck and then read our complete interview.

MASS APPEAL: What were you the most surprised to learn in the making of this film?

Sacha Jenkins: I was surprised to learn that if you go to Watts there are vacant plots of land that have been vacant since the uprising of 1965. You learn that Watts as a community never really recovered from that. You think about that and how things continued on into the ’70s and ’80s. You think about crack and how there weren’t many opportunities. A lot of the factories that folks traditionally worked in that provided the decent wages where you could take care of yourself and your family, they were gone. So you’ve got a 40 percent unemployment rate in Watts by the mid to late ’70s. Crack came in in the middle ’80s and it’s unfortunate because it helped to further destroy the community, but at the same time it was feeding the community and giving people opportunities. So it’s a sick cycle of oppression.

At one point in the film during the interview with Cle “Bone” Sloan, he says the three days after the Rodney King verdict were the best days of his life. When you were interviewing people for the documentary, did you get a sense that they were still constantly thinking about or remembering what happened in 1965 or 1992?

All of the folks, whether they were around in ’65 or ’92 or both, those memories are sharp because these events continue to happen. It’s trauma. You’re exposed to your initial traumatic event, and then you continue to see similar traumatic events that have the same texture of that very first traumatic event that you’ve experienced. So it’s easy to remember that initial traumatic experience years after the initial traumatic event. If you were around in ’65 and around in ’92, ’92 brought back those memories from ’65 in a very real way. And if you’re around in ’92 and you saw what happened in Ferguson and Baltimore and all these other places, those events just make the memories of those initial traumatic events more vivid.

“You see Rodney King and all of sudden it’s like every baton swing that hits Rodney King is in perfect sync with ‘Fuck the Police.'”

You were living in New York in ’92, so what are your memories of when this happened?

I was writing about hip hop and at that point I had just started to go to California to interview artists like Cypress Hill. I’d met some people, I knew some artists. So I remember being on the phone in New York, watching everything unfold on TV, while talking to people in Los Angeles who were in the thick of what was happening. And seeing it on TV and then hearing from someone who’s literally in the middle of it brought certain things to light for me.

For instance, gangsta rap. I appreciated a lot of that, I was a fan of a lot of that, but for me hip hop is very regional—the slang, the conversation, the reference points. You can like the beats and you can like the rhymes, but there are little things if you’re not from a community that you’re not going to pick up. But once I saw what was happening, all of a sudden all this West Coast hip hop came to life for me in ways that it hadn’t before. The rappers were reporting on this stuff, and I’d been hearing about it, but once I saw it on television, it all started to make sense.

What started making more sense to you specifically?

Cypress Hill having a song like, “How I Could Just Kill a Man” or [N.W.A’s] “Fuck the Police.” Being from New York, I always wanted to grow up in a house, I always wanted to have nice weather, and I just didn’t understand. I’m like, “What are these people pissed off about? They’re always having barbecues. They live in houses. They have space. What’s the problem?” And sure, guys are rapping about police abuses, but then you see Rodney King and all of sudden it’s like every baton swing that hits Rodney King is in perfect sync with “Fuck the Police.”

In the film you cover how after the Watts uprising in ’65, there were similar events in cities throughout the country afterwards. Do you remember in ’92 feeling like that was a possibility as well?

I don’t know, I was much younger then. New York, we had issues with the police, but I never would have imagined that what happened in Los Angeles would happen in New York. You just look at the history of Los Angeles and the history of Los Angeles Police Department. You think about how in the early 20th century, by their own volition, these African-Americans left the South looking for a better a life. Those that left were adamant about creating a better life for their families. And at every turn, they are treated like slaves or, at the top of my film you learn that some white folks thought of Black folks as pets. So you’re being dealt with by overseers, and you’re saying, “I’m not going to take this shit anymore.” And I think that’s why Los Angeles has such a strong history of these uprisings, because the folks who went there initially, went there on their own. They went there to make a better life. They didn’t want to deal with the abuses of the South. To have the great promise of California stripped away from them only prompted them to be more vocal and more physical in regards to dealing with the oppressors.

What was your motivation in making this film?

The technical reason is Vinnie Malhotra, who was an executive at CNN who green lit my film, Fresh Dressed, he wound up moving over to Showtime and heading up their docs division. One of the first films he commissioned was this film. He called me up and said, “I have a film that I think you’d be great for and I think you’d be able to tell this story in a unique way and I’d love to see you do it.” I’m not going to say my dream was to make this film, but as a journalist and particularly as someone who often tries to use various platforms to articulate the feelings and the sentiments and the positions of African-Americans or folks of color in America, ’92 presented a great opportunity to cover a lot of ground.

While making the film I learned that there were other folks making films [about the ’92 uprising], for instance John Singleton and John Ridley—who are obviously amazing filmmakers and storytellers and way more accomplished than I am. The hip hop in me is competitive, and I want to make sure that my shit stands out and is different and has flavor that separates me from everyone else, but ultimately I’m looking to not just serve myself and my aspirations as a storyteller. I have to serve history. Knowing that there were all these other folks coming out, what can I do that is going to make a statement but ultimately serve history? What can I do that is going to educate and arm people and give people a sense of how Black people feel.

So many people still to this day are like, “I don’t understand why these Blacks are so angry? Why are they lashing out? They have all these great opportunities.” And if you watch the film, there are plenty of white folks that say that. Chief Parker in the ’50s and ’60s is saying, “Los Angeles is the best place for the Negro where he has the most opportunities. There are more opportunities here than anywhere else.” I mean, from his perspective that’s how he feels, but that’s not the perspective of African-Americans.

I’m not saying a white person or someone who is an outsider can’t make a film that touches on some of the things that my film touches on, but since I’m the one asking the questions, and since I’m the one particularly who is native to music culture—whether it’s Perry Farrell or Norwood [Fisher] from Fishbone or Cypress Hill—there’s a level of comfort that the subjects are going have with me, that they’re not going to have with others. When I’m interviewing Kam about what he remembers about ’92 and then all of a sudden he starts telling the story about how he remembers thinking about how he could kill Ice Cube, and then I say to him, “How do you get to a place where you’re thinking about killing your own brother?” And he says, “Four hundred years of being conditioned to hate yourself.” Someone might argue, “What does that have to do with ’92?” And my answer to that is I wanted to create a picture that goes far back enough and leads up to ’92 and beyond, and gives you the full spectrum of why Black people feel the way that they do. From some folks that saw it at the screening, the response was, “Hey I have a better understanding of why people feel the way that they do.” So if more people have that feeling, I feel like I’ve made a successful film. But above and beyond all that, the fact that I got away with calling it Burn Motherfucker, Burn! is a victory in itself.

“There are a lot of people who are still struggling and suffering and trying to just simply make a life for themselves and their families.”

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 14 years now and I imagine that you had to come here a lot while making this film, so I’m curious to hear your outsider’s perspective and from talking to all these people around the city how you think L.A. is doing now in terms of race relations.

I’ve been going to Los Angels since the late ’80s, early ’90s, and often if I’m writing a story or I’m doing a film, I’m staying in “nicer,” parts of town. But I was in Watts. I was in Compton. I was in these neighborhoods that have long, storied histories, both good and bad, with real people and families who live there every single day. And in L.A. you can easily never go to these places and never see any of these people. In making this film, it really helped me to see the divide. It helped me to see invisible Los Angeles—at least it was invisible to me for a long time. And as an African-American who finds himself in situations that a lot of people who look like me aren’t often in, it’s easy for me to not be in the mix of reality, beyond Hollywood and rappers and entertainment and people smiling. There are a lot of people who are still struggling and suffering and trying to just simply make a life for themselves and their families, who want to see their neighborhood change. And throughout my film you see this.

Overall, culturally there’s great diversity there and great people and a mayor and a governor who are saying hands off our undocumented folk. I think there’s lots of great things about Los Angeles that I learned while being there, but I also got to see people I haven’t seen before, whole neighborhoods I hadn’t seen. And these neighborhoods and communities continue to be unseen.

Los Angeles just launched this new tourism initiative called #EveryoneIsWelcome, which really plays up the city’s diversity—in the video there are two African-American women on the beach, there’s a woman in a hijab skateboarding, there’s a same-sex couple and so on—and everyone getting along with each other. Part of me wants to believe this vision is what Los Angeles is moving towards, but another part of me wonders if this is just a new construction that’s just as fake and surface as previous depictions of the city. 

I think because it’s easy to not interact with people you don’t have to interact with in Los Angeles, it’s more difficult to create a utopian community. And it’s even more difficult to create that when there’s a lack of opportunity and a lack of jobs. I also know that a lot of neighborhoods are starting to be gentrified.

And I’m sure Los Angeles has changed in some regards. I’m sure that there might be a bit more interaction than there was in the past, but from what I’ve observed at least in communities that are still struggling and still suffering, it’s like when Jay Z said, “I’m still spending money from ’88.” These people are still suffering from ’65. They’re still not spending money from ’65. And I’m talking 1865.

 

 

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