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L.A. riots: A guide to the TV documentaries marking 25 years

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CBS

Two and a half decades ago, a powder keg of racial tension, economic inequality, and institutional dysfunction exploded in Los Angeles when a jury acquitted four police officers of beating Rodney King. People are still trying to make sense of the 1992 L.A. riots, which claimed at least 58 lives, injured more than 2,000, caused an estimated $1 billion in damage, and continue to reverberate to this day.

Over the next two weeks, five television documentaries will reflect on the roots, details, and legacy of the riots. Here’s a guide to what’s in store.

L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later

Channel: A&E
Air date: April 18
Running time: 120 minutes
What you should know: South L.A. native John Singleton was 24 years old and coming off the success of his Oscar-nominated debut film, Boyz n the Hood, when the riots erupted. In L.A. Burning, which he executive produced, he revisits the weeklong turmoil, including the moment he rushed to the Simi Valley courthouse where the King verdict had just been announced. “It’s just like a bomb,” an outraged Singleton told reporters. “We’re sitting on a bomb.”

In addition to Singleton, L.A. Burning also includes detailed accounts from actor and activist Edward James Olmos, bystanders, rioters, law enforcement, first responders, and reporters.

Burn, Motherf‑‑‑er, Burn!

Channel: Showtime
Air date: April 21
Running time: 90 minutes
What you should know: This documentary from director Sacha Jenkins (Fresh Dressed) examines the riots through the lens of the long, fraught relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department and the city’s black and other minority communities. Looking back to the 1962 raid of a Nation of Islam mosque, the 1965 Watts riots, and the rise of street gangs in the 1970s and ’80s, Burn illuminates the root causes of the ’92 riots as well as the ongoing national debate about race relations and police brutality. Interviews feature three generations of local residents, community organizers, artists, and influencers.

The Lost Tapes: L.A. Riots

Channel: Smithsonian
Air date: April 23
Running time: 60 minutes
What you should know: The latest installment of Smithsonian’s Lost Tapes series recounts the chaos of the riots entirely through archival materials, including news footage, home videos, photographs, and LAPD recordings. Bringing unique perspectives to the project are previously unreleased dispatch calls from the Los Angeles Fire Department, in which firefighters are heard pleading for police backup while being fired upon, as well as recordings from the Compton radio station KJLH, which dropped its music format in favor of news coverage and discussion for three pivotal days.

Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992

Channel: ABC
Air date: April 28
Running time: 120 minutes
What you should know: With screen projects such as American Crime and 12 Years a Slave, writer-director John Ridley has proved himself to be a fierce and fearless storyteller who digs deep into issues of race and class. In Let It Fall, he begins a decade before the ’92 riots and shares the stories of a diverse cross-section of individuals caught up in the rising tensions. Interview subjects hail from the black, white, Latino, and Asian-American communities, as well as the ranks of law enforcement and city government.

L.A. 92

Channel: National Geographic
Air date: April 30
Running time: 120 minutes
What you should know: As with The Lost Tapes, NatGeo’s L.A. 92 is told solely through news footage, radio reports, and amateur video, without narration or talking-head interviews. Directed by the Oscar-winning duo of Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin (Undefeated), the documentary weaves different vantage points together into a candid, multifaceted chronicle of civil unrest.