What We Can Learn From Showtime's Burn Motherf*cker, Burn!

Photo: Los Angeles City Archives/Courtesy of SHOWTIME.
America’s racial tensions bubble up in waves. Currently, we are in the midst of another crest. With the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin — and the subsequent not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman, who shot him — racism has once again become a focal point in US consciousness, politics, and society. In its current iteration, law enforcement are the gatekeepers and poster children of anti-Black racism and violence. Following Martin’s death, headline after headline announced the killing of another Black person at the hands of police. Naturally, entertainment media is tapping into this wave in order to tell its stories — sometimes with extremely poor results.
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Sacha Jenkins, however, is reminding us that these waves are all from the same source in his new Showtime documentary, Burn Motherf*cker, Burn! His film explores the L.A. riots of 1992, which were a direct response to the "Not Guilty" verdict for the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King. By focusing on the Black community’s relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department since the ‘60s, Jenkins’ project feels less like an opportunistic grab at a controversial topic, and more like a case study in the source of the waves that keep crashing over America.
When Los Angeles erupted into violence in the ‘90s, the rest of the country watched the pandemonium in a state of shock. I was only about four years old during this time but I still remember the sense of unease in my Black household. Flashes of those fiery buildings are just as iconic as the video footage of King being brutalized. But for those who were old enough to remember, the events of 1992 were simply an example of history repeating itself. The Watts riots of 1965 broke out when the LAPD was accused of police brutality for assaulting a motorist. This series of events established a precedence for communal responses to King’s beating.
On the flip side, I can see how the historicization of the riots in Burn Motherf*cker, Burn! could be misconstrued. Relying on images that are strikingly dated, these riots appear to be a distant part of history; an outdated practice of resistance that should no longer be considered as valid. However, technology ages much faster than humans do. This violence erupted in response to institutionalized oppression and racism — systems that are still in place today. It seems naive to assume, or even hope, that the collective responses to racism should evolve when racism itself won’t.
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