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In 1967, the arrest and beating of an African-American taxi driver by a white cop sparked a riot that killed 26 people, caused millions in damage and led to a mass exodus from the beleaguered city of Newark. These racism in America impacts were easy enough to identify. But when documentary filmmaker Kevin McLaughlin begins Riot by stating that, "The week changed the world forever for everyone who lived there," he's also referring to subtleties that weren't so easy to spot - yet had far-reaching consequences.
"Captain Moran, the Fireman who was killed during the riots lived around the corner," said McLaughlin. "That impacted me in realizing the same thing could happen to my father. That's one of the ways the riots changed me, and there are thousands of people with similar stories."
What follows is a powerful film that captures the tumult with raw and honest interviews - illustrated by news footage and photographs that bring viewers face-to-face with the tragic upheaval.
The personal anecdotes, though, didn't come from his father. "He tried to protect us from what went on at work," said McLaughlin of his father Jim, who was a firefighter and appears in the film. So the neighborhood served as McLaughlin's primary source and eventually sparked interest in trying to make sense of the conflicting histories.
Newark was a Smoldering Powder Keg
But the squalid conditions that African Americans endured in a segregated city are not in doubt and sufficed as the powder keg. "We knew something was wrong,” said Newark resident Samuel Nash. "We were tired of being poor.”
Ignition occurred as rumors spread that the Taxi Driver died in custody, which would have been another in a series of police custody deaths that took place that summer. "We had no power, and when you back people up against the wall, they feel helpless and strike back," said longtime Newark Mayor Sharpe James.
The police initially forbidden to respond to the spontaneous demonstration, the film follows the protest from civil unrest to looting, arson and mayhem. "It looked like London during the blitz," said former New Jersey National Guardsmen Paul Zigo. "The whole city was on fire.”
Call in the National Guard
Thus the National Guard was called and marked a major escalation due partly to this grossly inexperienced and poorly equipped force. "This was not a military unit," said Guardsman Graig Mierop. "We were like the Knights of Columbus."
Lacking training and discipline, New Jersey State Policeman Ron Chance bluntly framed the consequence. "They were shooting a lot," said Chance.
The Black Community also had good reason to view the intervention as an occupying force - even before the all-white units arrived in this profound racism in America story. "As the guard marched through the North Ward, people were shouting, 'Kill the niggers," said New Jersey City University Associate Professor Max Herman, who spent 15 years studying the riots.
"This changed the entire character of the conflict," says the film's narrator Andre Braugher, whose acting credits include Homicide and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Who Fired the First Shot?
Additionally, Braugher explains that there are still numerous controversies surrounding the intervention of the Guard and State Police, particularly as to who did the bulk of the shooting. Doubts also remain over how many bullets were fired by first responders, whether snipers occupied the high-rises, and the source of all the fatal gunfire - including the police officer and firefighter killed. "Nobody ever did an autopsy to prove where the bullets came from," said Mayor Kenneth Gibson. "The mayor, the governor, the prosecutor - nobody wanted to know that those people were killed by the ballistics of the guardsmen.”
Even so, McLaughlin doesn't assert a point of view to get to the truth. "I realized there were many different viewpoints. So I thought if I could include them all, the truth would be fairly apparent," he reasoned.
Still, McLaughlin had to be cognizant of what was being left out. "You could sense some people were censoring what they were saying," he said. "There's wounds from 50 years ago that are still raw, and everybody is cautious."
In that regard, the film finds a place for each demographic by way of identification and shows the divided states of America even then. A riot, rebellion, civil disorder or a pogrom, said the late Newark Historian Clement Price, "It depends what side of history you want to be on."
Of course, against the backdrop of the devastating impacts that still linger and all the ambiguity, evolution and healing balance the film's dissertation.
In making the film, McLaughlin had a trove of contacts among former cops and firemen through his father. Some were willing to talk and some weren't but tracking down the former public officials required much more legwork. Once on board, though, time back in the spotlight was more than welcomed. "They will talk as long as your battery lasts," he joked.
Primary Sources a Plenty to Sort Out
The drain he did encounter was unearthing and going through the old footage. "There was a lot of digging. That's why it took five years to make," said McLaughlin.
While the timeframe caused the project to drag, it did help accentuate his thought process. "I had plenty of time to think about it and look at the footage," he said.
In turn, he logged headings into a spreadsheet of 50 different topics. "I made notes whenever someone mentioned the topics," said McLaughlin. "I used that to help me plot out the story."
An eventual script gave way to the narration provided by Braugher who clued McLaughlin in on cultural sensitivity issues that were lacking. "He pointed out some of the biases in the narration," said McLaughlin. "He was also very generous with his time by staying longer than he initially agreed to.”
The film had its World Premiere at the Vail Film Festival in April, and will be included in the Pre-Season Mini-Fest of the Boardwalk Film Festival in Asbury Park on June 25th. While several distributors have expressed an interest in releasing the film, McLaughlin is seeking additional funding to secure the rights for use of the news footage in venues beyond film festivals.
Otherwise, McLaughlin has a basic aspiration for the documentary’s eventual release. "I hope people could see from this film how terrible the consequences of this kind of violence can be," he concluded. "This then may help eliminate or minimize these kinds of things in the future.”