Footage of four Los Angeles Police Department officers beating Rodney King kicked off Spike Lee’s great 1992 film, Malcolm X, months after the Los Angeles riots had died down. Now, 25 years later, he has directed Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show, Rodney King. Interestingly, Rodney King premieres on Netflix the day before the one on which the cops who beat King were acquitted in 1992. Smith and Lee are longtime collaborators dating all the way back to School Daze. Chi-Raq was their latest before now.
Rodney King may be one of the lone dramatic pieces dealing with the Los Angeles riots, but it is far from the only one. There are a few by other black directors, including Los Angeles native John Singleton’s A&E documentary, L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later, and longtime Los Angeles resident John Ridley’s ABC documentary, Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992. And they all, says Lee, have merit.
“To me, it’s not a competition. Singleton’s my guy. John Ridley’s my guy. There’s not one to tell the story so I hope people see all those documentaries about the uprising,” says Lee. “All black directors don’t think alike.”
But Rodney King was all Smith’s doing, says Lee. Smith conceived the one-man show shortly after King’s death in 2012 and came to Lee to direct it after performing the show for years.
“It started because I wanted to make a statement in that season of mourning and I wanted to explore my own emotions,” explains Smith. “You know, ‘Why do I feel this way? And why might my audience, my potential audience, feel this tremendous sense of loss?’
“So I started digging into the Rodney King archives the same way that anybody could these days: Just Google Rodney King,” he continues. “All kinds of great articles, interviews with him, came up. Don Lemon did an amazing interview with him on CNN. He wasn’t shy about revealing himself to a certain degree and so, by the first week of August, I was onstage trying to work it out.”
Smith actually never expected the show to last this long. “I thought that it was just going to be for that summer and it would be kind of a memorial for Rodney King and a meditation on that loss, but it continued to resonate in all kinds of ways, many of them tragic because this thing called America happened. ... We have these code words now: Staten Island, Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, the list is endless. So doing this piece live all over the country and all over the world has, unfortunately, given it a certain resonance that I had no idea that it would live with over these several seasons that I’ve been doing it.”
To make the one-man show more cinematic, Smith turned to Lee. And, to that end, Lee had 10 cameras capturing Smith performing the play in Brooklyn, N.Y. So while the filming process was one take, it took months to edit. And, as a result, it’s very nuanced.
The way the cameras zone in on and out from Smith onstage, the lighting, the sound effects, the music by Marc Anthony Thompson, all of it works to deliver moments larger than life, which is fitting, since the performance is about more than just Rodney King. It’s about specific incidents like the LAPD’s brutal beating of King and the slaying of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old girl shot to death by Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du, as well as larger issues of race and inequality in this country. Of course, we learn about Rodney King, the man, not just the catalyst to the Los Angeles riots.
“I think that this is a testament to the great amount of research that Roger Guenveur Smith did,” says Lee, “because you get to know who he is, you get to know who Rodney King is as an individual, as a human being, because he’s being demonized, and the portrayal or the information about him is very limited, and Roger goes all in.”
For instance, Smith is intrigued by King’s drowning death. “Rodney King loved the water,” he shares. “He was a surfer. He was a [jet] skier. He loved to swim. He loved to fish. He loved being in and near the water in all of its forms, and to go to the bottom of the pool like that is kind of out of character for him considering his abilities.”
Even more curious, King’s father died in a bathtub of water, says Smith. More correlations are made throughout the work, which is very dense and very thoughtful. Smith doesn’t shy away from the weight that was placed on King, especially during the riots. “He most tragically had to watch the loss of 56 people in his name,” shares Smith. “Fifty-six lives were lost. Interestingly enough, the same number of blows that it was determined that the LAPD gave him. Fifty-six. So that’s a tremendous weight that brought him to that microphone on May Day, May 1, 1992 [when King made his “Can we all just get along” cry to end the riot]. Tremendous weight.
“And I think it’s the same weight that took the brother to the bottom of his pool on Father’s Day 2012,” adds Smith, a longtime L.A. resident who was himself detained during the riots. “That was a lot to live with. And he was not a tutored man. He was not even a high school graduate.
“After the beating, they tried to have him take courses in black history to make him into a spokesperson, but he wasn’t going to do that,” he adds. “That wasn’t Rodney—or Glen, I should say—because Rodney was a person that emerged from the media construct. His family and friends always called him Glen. So he was literally called out of his name.”
Rodney King begins streaming on Netflix April 28.