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Mob Mentalities

Actress and Playwright Anna Deveare Smith portrays the many faces caught up in the 1992 L.A. Riots

By Richard von Busack

AFTER LOS ANGELES blew up in 1965, an analyst of the Watts riots named Robert Conot, listed suggestions to keep the next riot from happening. In Conot's 1967 book Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness he proposed, among other things, a massive literacy campaign, raising the amount of welfare to sustenance level and job training programs. The government and the people of L.A., who remained blind to what was going on south of the Santa Monica Freeway, ignored these ideas. Conot concluded by saying the 1965 riots occurred because "Negroes were fed up and whites were fed pap." So it continued for the next 25 years. In the 1990s, Officer Mark Fuhrman, the racist cop deposed in the O. J. Simpson case, shocked a lot of outsiders. But his opinions were no surprise to people who'd read the novels of ex-Los Angeles Police Department cop Joseph Wambaugh. Nor were they news to victims of other LAPD muscle-flexing, discussed in Askilah Monifa's article in the new Media File, the publication of the San Francisco Media Alliance. The LAPD's K-9 unit "find and bite" policy of the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted--according to the ACLU--in 900 people chomped by LAPD Rottweilers and German Shepherds.

I was never bitten myself, but as a card-carrying member of the Los Angeles underclass during the 1970s, I spent a lot of time assuming the position for LAPD officers. And my skin's white. A friend of mine, an L.A. Sephardic Jew, is darker. The cops pull him over frequently, once saying "What's the hurry, amigo?" No place I've lived since--Santa Cruz, San Jose, San Francisco, the East Bay--have I been so frequently followed, interrogated and harassed as in L.A. So when the Rodney King footage was released, and the 1992 riots broke out, the only surprise was that it had taken so long for the explosion.

The story of the riots is well-known. In 1991, four LAPD officers arrested an uncooperative African American motorist named Rodney King, beating him half to death. Unknown to them, a neighbor with a home video camera taped the incident, which went on the national news. At the trial the next year, an all-white jury acquitted the four cops. When the news spread, a riot of several days broke out in the south central ghetto of Los Angeles, a vast area miles wide, remote from the richer parts of the city, and plagued with poverty.

Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles is her own investigation into the April 1992 Los Angeles riots. The film of the Stanford professor's one-woman show replays interviews of the some 300 people of a wide range of classes and colors. All the words are verbatim, from street kids, to Congresswoman Maxine Waters telling the president and the House, "Whether we like it or not, the riots are the voice of the unheard."

The surprise in Smith's work is that it's often very funny. Sometimes Twilight: Los Angeles is like the finest kind of stand-up comedy. You think of Richard Pryor watching Smith's drawling portrayal of Charlton Heston. Amused, Heston recalls all of the shotguns he loaned out to his liberal friends when the riots broke out. Smith's little bit as African American studies professor Cornel West satirizes West as a cozy, armchaired academic: his brandy snifter is a crystal ball in which he forecasts the future. (As portrayed by Smith, West looks completely effete. Yet every word he says about black pain and white ignorance is true. West's hopefulness--perhaps brandy-fueled, yes, but hope is hope--is light in the bleakness.)

Giving us the Hollywood view of the conflagration, Smith interviews a talent agent. Here's a specimen of the genus Liberalus impotentus equivocatus. He's trying to arrange his thoughts as he talks, remembering the day everybody was so spooked by what was happening across town. He has to ponder whether he would have deserved attack, it if indeed he'd been attacked . . . perhaps yes, he would have deserved it, and on the other hand, thankfully, it didn't happen, but it might have happened. Oh, and Lenny Bruce himself couldn't have put a finer barb on Smith's portrayal of the elegant Jessye Norman, who mulls over what an opera diva might have done to bring peace to the strife-torn city. Norman concludes, somewhat reluctantly, that singing wouldn't have been the right thing.

In a shift from hilarity to sorrow, Smith impersonates a meek, crushed, anonymous juror, who voted to free the four officers accused of beating Rodney King half to death. This juror might be male or female, probably elderly. He or she is probably a very sweet, gentle and sheltered person who never understood how much rage would be loosened. Here's an unforgettable glimpse of a pawn of history. Face turned away, and on the verge of tears, the juror breaks down when recounting how a letter from the Ku Klux Klan arrived in the mailbox, congratulating the verdict.

Smith's wariness makes Twilight: Los Angeles a major film. She's subtle enough to mirror her own reflection, so to speak, in the faces of the people she interviews. In Smith's version of Angela King, Rodney's aunt, King shows a little flicker of suspicion at a reporter's question before understanding breaks through. That's when Angela King says something that she must have had to say many times: "It took three plastic surgeons to get Rodney to look like Rodney again."

Elvira Evans, a mother shot through the womb, has a calm chatty story; it'll tell you all you need to know about the bravery and strength of some of those surrounded by the riot. Smith captures the shades of the riot--the exhilaration of being in it, the shame--or shameful obliviousness--that caused it. One anecdote I hadn't heard until I learned it here, was L.A. police chief Daryl Gates' flabbergasting decision to attend a fundraiser on the night his city was going up in smoke. Didn't know whether to laugh or cry, though watching Twilight: Los Angeles you'll do both. All I could think, hearing Gates' excuses, was, yep, that's my hometown for you.

Watching the film, I had the parallel feelings that it was handily one of the year's best, and also that it could have used a director wiser in the dynamics of films. Smith directed herself with the help of documentary maker Marc Levin. Watching seemingly unplanned alternations between close-ups and medium shots, you can practically hear the thought aloud--"ok, time to cut to something." I wondered what a Steven Soderbergh or Jonathan Demme could have done to help shape Smith's material into a film instead of a filmed performance. These two directors worked with Spaulding Gray's monologues in, respectively, Gray's Anatomy and Swimming to Cambodia. (Gray hasn't looked nearly as smart since.) Nothing in the direction of Twilight: Los Angeles was as assured as the transitions Demme made in Swimming to Cambodia. I mean the changes of lighting and angles, for example, to create the illusion that one man's monologue was a conversation between two people. And Soderbergh's film Gray's Anatomy is a model of how to take the one-performer film and fracture it into a visually multilayered work.

Twilight: Los Angeles is sometimes impaired with the usual problem of someone changing venues from stage to screen: too much volume, too much closeness to the camera. There are a few performances that seem prejudicial, especially the cops and lawyers, who have a vicious sleazy side Smith emphasizes with a swagger or a drawl. But Smith's performance as Reginald Denny seems the most extreme. Denny was the white truck driver pulled from his cab and beaten; in a turn worthy of a Preston Sturges comedy, Denny ended up as a national celebrity, strictly for being KO'd with a brick. Denny seemed the least sympathetic of Smith's portrayals, probably because the truck driver missed out on the worst of what happened to him: "When I woke up and saw Jesse Jackson standing by my bed, I knew something had happened!.' Because Denny became famous in this fluky way, he seems to perceive the riots as a fairy tale that ended happily. Denny talks about making a room in his house as a mini-shrine to the riots, and thus Smith portrays him as a kind of boob. Unlike a lot of self-made celebs, Denny really earned his temporary fame the hard way, having it beaten into him. To be fair, Smith also recites the narrative of Henry Watson, one of the four men convicted of knocking out Denny. As Smith embodies Watson, he's still strutting. In a moment that sinks the heart, Watson confides that he's been called a hero on the level of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.--this because he was courageous enough to beat up a prone man on a street corner.

What could have been is less important that what is here. Twilight: Los Angeles is a crash course in the cause and the cost of the riots. Smith's extraordinarily versatile performance is worth dropping everything to see. This bare-bones film is the best movie made about the vanishing of 45 lives and one billion dollars in property. Compare this painstaking study of fury with the happy-go-luckiness and the obliviousness of the rest of the movie industry (Now playing, The Legend of Bagger Vance!) The two Los Angeleses are still split down the middle; both sides awaiting the next outbreak of fire and murder as if there were nothing to be done, as if it were the next earthquake.

Twilight: Los Angeles (Unrated; 76 min) Directed by Marc Levin, written by Anna Deveare Smith and starring Anna Deveare Smith, plays at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, Nov. 24-30

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Web extra to the November 23-29, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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