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'Uprising' documents role of hip-hop in L.A. riots

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
updated 3:44 PM EDT, Mon April 30, 2012
In the VH1 film
In the VH1 film "Uprising," Rodney King revisits the site where Los Angeles police officers beat him up in 1991.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots" examines the connection between music and 1992 riots
  • The documentary features rap stars as well as those who participated in the rioting
  • The director said he hopes viewers take away a powerful message from the film
  • The documentary airs at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday on VH1

(CNN) -- In 1988, the West Coast hip-hop group N.W.A released a provocative song called "F**k tha Police," which stirred controversy and marked it as one of the most high-profile examples of tension between the black community in Los Angeles and authorities.

A few years later tensions erupted into rioting and violence in that city following the acquittal of Los Angeles police officers in the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King.

Those two incidents, and whether the former helped spark the latter, is just one of the topics explored in the documentary "Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots," which airs at 9 ET Tuesday night on VH1.

The project was the brainchild of director Mark Ford and executive producer Brad Abramson, both of whose professional credits include stints at CNN. The pair told CNN earlier this year at the South by Southwest music, film and technology festival that the documentary was an idea they had long thought of bringing to the small screen.

"We had worked together on a documentary about N.W.A. a few years ago," Ford said. "That was always in my mind, the song 'F**K Tha Police' and how powerful it was, and was there a connection between that song and what happened years later?"

Abramson added, "We have the Roc Doc franchise at VH1, and I always look for film and subjects that transcend music and that impact social and cultural ways of living, and this felt like one of those. It was a huge moment in time for America, and there was a music angle that no one had ever looked into."

Now 20 years after the riots, the rapper Snoop Dogg narrates the documentary, which includes appearances and commentary from other rap stars, including KRS One, Ice T and Nas. In the film, KRS One notes that "Rodney King was the confirmation of everything we had been rapping about since the early '70s."

"Boyz N the Hood" director John Singleton, who is featured in the documentary, told CNN, "It was almost as if the riot legitimized everything we were trying to do as artists and show the world what was happening in our neighborhoods."

The filmmakers gained access to several people connected to the riots, including Henry Keith Watson, who participated in the beating of white truck driver Reginald Denny following police officers' acquittal in the King case.

Watson has long maintained his silence, but Ford and Abramson were able to get him to open up on film in a moment that shows him shrugging when asked if he regrets his part in the assault on Denny.

"(Watson) pretty much tells it like it is," Ford said.

"That was a very interesting thing to explore, that 20 years later even people who participated in the looting, Snoop Dogg being one of them, aren't incredibly repentant or apologetic about it," he added. "They look at it as something that happened; it was a moment in time that was a frenzied and mob feeling."

Former talk-show host Arsenio Hall appears in "Uprising" and attended a recent screening and panel discussion about the film. As the 20th anniversary of the riots is marked, Hall said the country must never forget.

"Here we are 20 years later, but it's almost like the battle against AIDS," Hall said. "If we stop talking about it, people get careless, and they stop remembering that we're on a mission."

Ford and Abramson said they are aware some may take offense at the title "Uprising," viewing the events as more of a crime than a revolution. But Ford said he hopes viewers come away from the documentary with a different message.

"It shows how powerful music can be, what it can do and what it means to people," he said. "I hope what people really take away from it is for us to pay attention to the suffering going on in our society. It just so happened at that time, hip-hop was about the only place you could hear the messages being told."

CNN's Denise Quan and Jennifer Wolfe contributed to this report.

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