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Smoke Got in Their Eyes

The first thing you notice

is how slender everyone was in those days: the rock-throwing rioters, the shirtless detainees curtsying for cameras — even the white reporters and civic leaders were nearly as skinny as their neckties. It was 1965; Americans were prosperous but not gluttonous. Most, that is, were prosperous — obviously the African-Americans torching Southeast Los Angeles that summer had a bone to pick with the distribution of that prosperity.

Two contemporary documentaries about the just-concluded Watts riots showed not only a trimmer but blunter America. Hell in the City of Angels was produced by KTLA and The Big News is a compilation of KNXT’s August 1965 broadcasts. The latter, named for Channel 2’s nightly news show, was anchored by the late, lamentable Jerry Dunphy; Hell, complete with scary music better suited for a Roger Corman movie, was moderated by Hugh Brundage and featured Stan Chambers and a very young and balding Hal Fishman. (Think Roy Cohn on a macrobiotic diet.) The footage of these documentaries, which screen August 11 at UCLA, is hypnotic, even though it’s mostly confined to three stages: helicopter shots of burning stores, befuddled officials yammering about regaining control of the city and white newsmen interviewing each other. It’s easy to get stuck on the minutiae: the familiar palm trees, an absence of American flag lapel pins on bureaucrats, the ever-present cigarettes between the fingers of everyone from cops to community spokesmen.

More LA Weekly coverage of 40 years after the Watts Riots: The Dirt We Stand On by Erin Aubry Kaplan and Lessons From the Ruins by Joe R. Hicks

It’s the nature of TV to distract viewers with images, to separate us from the meaning of the news with pictures of it. Our eyes are naturally drawn to the surfaces of the Watts rebellion — the clothes, the cars, the spartan newsrooms, the very black-and-whiteness of it all and, yes, to the slenderness of the actors playing their parts in this historical tragicomedy. And comic it often was, according to this footage.

There’s a scene in which a state senator incurs the wrath of LAPD Chief William Parker by drawing a reporter’s attention away from the chief.

“Do you want to get on the microphone, senator?” the pouting chief yells. “This is my office, senator! My office, senator! Not yours!”

Then there’s Mayor Sam Yorty, about to board his flight out of L.A., fleeing town to have lunch in San Francisco: “We’ve had great race relations here,” he chirps about the West’s most racially segregated city.

There’s also a public meeting in which a black youth warns of the riot’s spread:

“They’re going to go where the white people are — to Inglewood!”

Eventually, though, we notice deeper details: Parker’s slurring, barroom bitterness; the dysfunctional relations between Sacramento and City Hall — even the grooming contrasts between the Brylcreemed downtown squares and the news anchors with their $25 Hollywood haircuts.

Finally, we become aware of what’s not here: any interviews with the rioters. Nothing better epitomized the gulf between the white world, with its command centers and newsrooms, and L.A.’s burning black ghetto — a place Messrs. Fishman and Chambers could only describe from their studio chairs as though it were another planet. The riot footage is always vertically shot from thousands of feet in the sky. The result is a George Romero zombie movie in which we watch, terrified, as distant figures stagger across littered parking lots or dart in and out of department stores.

There were, it must be said, early attempts to cover the violence from the ground, but after their press cars got stoned early on, no white reporter or camera unit dared venture anywhere near Avalon Boulevard and 103rd Street. When a group of black leaders, including state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally and comedian Dick Gregory, hold a press conference to claim the unrest was not directed at the white media, reporters angrily yell at the speakers.

“Is that why you burned our car?” asks one, lumping Dymally and Gregory together with all black rioters.

There are other things missing: the endless repetition of buzz words and pseudo-tech expressions that clog the airwaves today, along with the mind-numbing replay of just-seen footage. And we soon realize that reporters back then spoke in a spare prose that had no room for false sentimentality — even their talk was lean. They were there to convey what they saw, not to lay their heads on the viewers’ shoulder and warble about healing and closure every time someone’s canary died.

Ralph Story summarized black correspondent Joe Dyer’s impressions with these words: “Joe Dyer felt that this was definitely a race riot stemming from hatred and that all white persons and all police were the targets of that hatred.” Concise and crisp enough to carve onto a tombstone — of the Great Society, it turned out. Still, it is clear that smoke got in the eyes of the media. When Brundage concludes Hell in the City of Angels by proclaiming his profession’s objectivity, we might well ask why his documentary showed none of the now-iconic images of blacks being slammed against buildings or didn’t mention that the National Guard foolishly went about Watts shooting out its street lights.

That smoke stayed in the eyes of many people for years. Today I think of the summer my family vacationed in upstate New York and how ominous the news of the California riots sounded on the radio. I was even more upset to hear my uncle say that all blacks needed to be locked up in camps. Even to a child, camps was a horrific word to hear. The idea that a member of my own family would feel that way was, to me, worse than the news of the riot. It turned out to merely be the first of many lessons about the adult white world.

A year later, the school recess joke was, “How much electricity does it take to burn down L.A.? Ten Watts.”

The jokes, of course, masked an ongoing fear — one that became panic the day the news exploded.

THE WATTS RIOTS ON TELEVISION

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Watts Riots, the UCLA Film & Television Archive presents these two programs, Thursday, Aug. 11, 7:30 p.m., in the James Bridges Theater, Melnitz Hall. Admission is free.

The Big News (8/13/65)

“Telecast during the riots, KNXT’s one-hour newscast includes scenes of burning and looting, interviews with L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty and Police Chief William Parker, and a heated press conference at which California state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally and comedian/activist Dick Gregory face an audience of white reporters.” Director: Mike Cozzi. Producers: Pete Noyes, Bob Flick. Anchors: Jerry Dunphy, Maury Green, Ralph Story, Bill Keene, Robert Simmons, Gil Stratton, Joseph Benti. (60 minutes)

“KTLA’s week-in-review coverage of the Watts riots was broadcast live with film and videotape roll-ins, and featured extensive footage shot by the station’s ‘telecopter.’ Included are comments by California Governor Edmund G. ‘Pat’ Brown, Police Chief William Parker, Mayor Sam Yorty and other community leaders. KTLA won a Peabody Award for its overall reportage of the riots.” Anchor: Hugh Brundage. Reporters: Stan Chambers, Hal Fishman, Larry Scheer. (90 minutes)

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