At the end of each March, in honor of Women's History Month and the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent, the African American Policy Forum holds a week of programming on the status of Black women entitled Her Dream Deferred.
For the first time this year, we decided to hold a Black women’s mini-film festival as part of Her Dream Deferred. Over the course of three days, we screened three films about Black women -- Coded Bias, an exploration of racial bias in facial recognition algorithms; Still I Rise, a story of sex trafficking in the Bay area, and its hugely disproportionate impact on Black girls; and the film we’ll be discussing today -- A Love Song for Latasha, a documentary short directed by Sophia Nahli Allison.
The film title refers to Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl who, in 1991, was shot point-blank in the head by Soon Ja Du, a 51-year-old Korean grocery store owner. The reason? Soon Ja Du falsely believed that Latasha was stealing a carton of orange juice priced at $1.79.
Although the killing was captured by security footage, Du was sentenced to just five years probation and 400 hours of community service by Judge Joyce Karlin. And while Latasha’s murder happened just 13 days after the Rodney King beating, her story garnered little lasting attention. Even now, most people remain wholly unaware of Latasha’s important role in sparking the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
AAPF first explored Latasha’s story and historical erasure of her death in March 2017 during our third annual Her Dream Deferred series. At that time, LA was commemorating the 25th anniversary of the riots, but by and large, Latasha’s story was not being told.
The panel discussion [entitled Latasha Harlins: The Victimization of Black Girls] was held at the Hammer Museum and was moderated by broadcast journalist Laura Flanders. Panelists included Brenda Stevenson, renowned historian and author of The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots; Priscilla Ocen, professor of Law at Loyola Law School and co-author of AAPF’s Black Girls Matter report, and myself.
Here’s a clip from that conversation:
Latasha's case is critical to the way we in Los Angeles think about the vulnerability of Black girls. Finally, this is the 25th anniversary of the uprising. It's important for us to remember that that was not just about Rodney King. That's the reason why we wanted to have this conversation tonight.
Latasha Harlins is this walking threat. This 15-year old Black girl, this 5'6" Black girl is a walking threat because she had the audacity to be alive, to be a child and to enter that store.
In the audience at that event was Sophia Nahli Allison, an experimental filmmaker who was doing some thinking of her own about Latasha Harlins. Fast forward 4 years, and her extraordinary film A Love Song for Latasha has taken the world by storm. Now streaming on Netflix, the documentary short subverts the genre by choosing not to include archival footage, instead bringing Latasha’s spirit to life through interviews with her best friend Ty O’Bard and cousin, Shinese Harlins, who recount memories and stories of Latasha..
CLIP: She wanted to be a lawyer so that’s what she was aiming for to get good grades to help her grandma out as much as she can when she did make it. She got all A’s. Popping out them A’s
Through their eyes, we see the community Latasha grew up in, meet the Black girls who live there now, see the girl that Latasha was, and imagine the person Latasha might’ve grown up to be, had she lived.
I was honored to sit down with Sophia at this year’s mini film festival to discuss the importance of telling the full, complex story of Black girls’ experience; how the media transforms them from victims of violence to perpetrators; and how the adultification of Black girls robs them of their right to rely on adults for protection and nurturance.
Sophia Nahli Allison:
I was a young girl in Los Angeles and South central. When the LA riots, the LA uprising happened, I was about three or four years old. And for me, my memory is always associated with Rodney King and it wasn't until my early twenties that I discovered Latasha story. We had all, as children been told, you know, be careful be safe when you go into our Korean owned store and Black communities, but I didn't understand where the root for that was. And when I finally discovered Latasha, I was just so shocked that as a Black girl, I didn't know the story and it really helped me identify and understand and name the eraser of Black women, the eraser of Black girls stories. And when I discovered her story, it was really hard to find out a lot about who she was outside of the murder.
Sophia Nahli Allison:
Um, when I met Latasha's, step uncle he shared with me a book called “The Last Plantation: Color, Conflict and Identity by Itabari Njeri, and apologies if I'm pronouncing her name wrong. But this book was from 1997 and in it, she spent time with the Harlins family and it was the first time I was really able to have some sort of entry point into this world and I knew I really wanted this story from the young Black girls that knew her at that time. And it became important to me for us to honor these memories honor, the oral history, understanding how so much of Black history is rooted within the tradition of oral storytelling. And so for me, I went on this mission of what does it mean to be erased and what does it mean for Black women to be the ones that reclaim their stories that are re-imagining the archives, that we will never let erase your actually happened, that our spirits have lived, that these stories have lived, and now we're exploring experimental ways to insert these narratives back into the archives where they belong.
I had a moment when you said you were three, uh, when it happened. Um, I wasn't three. I was actually a law professor at UCLA at the time Latasha was murdered. I remember seeing the endless loop of the murder. It was one that was played on many news stations locally. The idea that this young girl would be killed basically in a dispute over, um, a bottle of orange juice, um, that she would, um, die with the $2 still in her hand. And that she would be framed by the judicial system as the aggressor. She would be framed not as the victim of violence, but as the perpetrator of violence. In fact my good friend and colleague wrote an article about the sentencing colloquy that, uh, the judge wrote when she sentenced Soo Jan Du to two hundred hours of community service and he basically just ripped it apart and wrote about how this was a contestation of stereotypes. The hard working, frightened, self defending, immigrant shopkeeper and a Black woman, uh, hostile, aggressive threat. It's one of the reasons why, you know, when we did the hammer conversation, it was critical for me that in, in commemorating the anniversary of the uprising that we do so putting Latasha back in the historical memory,
Here’s a clip of Brenda Stevenson at the Hammer Museum
Judge Karlin and her decisions and what she says to the court, clearly she thinks that Soon Ja Du is the victim. She never considers Latasha Harlins as the victim. Latasha is dead. She's buried by her family. She insults everyone in the courtroom by saying, "If Latasha had lived that she probably would be before her for assaulting Mrs. Du." She actually says.
So many of us who witnessed that knew that violence was being done to Latasha, to her story, to her memory. So we knew that, that there was something that had happened to her body and then something that happened to her memory, but we didn't know the story of who Latasha was. There's so many ways that your film fills that absence and makes her life matter, allows us to imagine what that life could have been. And I know that involved some challenges. So I want to take you back to what made you desire to tell this story. And then I want to ask, so what were some of the challenges that you confronted in getting this film made?
Sophia Nahli Allison:
I began thinking about the film in 2016. In 2017, I moved back to Los Angeles and that happened to be the 25th year anniversary of the uprising. I was working at a production company at this time, and I pitched the idea to them. Let's tell a story, a fuller story of Latasha Harlins. I think this is a really pivotal time for us to finally name who she was as a young girl, and they completely turned the idea down. And in that moment I decided I had to quit. I was like, I'm not going to let this white organization tell me what stories about Black girls are worthy and not worthy. And I began a two year journey of re-imagining this archive. The biggest challenges were how do you tell a documentary story? How do we re-imagine documentary when there isn't that much footage, you know, documentary, we understand that you have to show that evidence, but I knew that I had to decolonize that, that mindset decolonizing it because so much of doc documentary is rooted within the Western gaze. And I needed to tell this story from the Black woman gaze, you know, I needed to tell this story as a Black woman that grew up in South central, as a Black woman, that wants was 15, that experienced trauma as well at 15.
And also the biggest challenge is we're not going to use this footage of her, of her killing. You do not need to see that, to understand why her life was worthy. I do not want to show that because this is going to harm the community. And so how do we, instead of being extractive, we incorporate healing within the process. And always making sure the audience remembers this was a child. How do we confront adultification? We remind you, this is a young Black girl. This Black girl is never a threat, no matter what situation, she's never going to be a threat.
And I reached out to Ty and Shenice, and I shared with them what I wanted to do. And I was very transparent that this is not a story about her death. This is a story about her life. Ultimately we will have to discuss what happened, but I really want us to rebuild this memory of who she is. And I gave them both the time to think about if they want it to do that, because I wanted it to be known that this is, this is a journey we would have to be on together that would open up some old wounds that could be traumatic. And I did not want to re-trigger them. I did not want to excavate any trauma. I wanted this to be healing. I wanted them to feel safe and supported to share their memories and for me to hold those memories to honor them and to care for them in the process.
So I always knew that A Love Song for Latasha had to be healing for Ty and Shenice, but it also had to be healing for Black women and Black girls that witnessed the film. So I wanted the immediate team, the ones that would be filming, the ones that would be with me all the time to be Black folks from the same community as Latasha that understood, understood the nuance, understood the beauty, understood the balance of holding pain with joy, that we had to be intentional the entire process.
There are moments where Janice, my creative producer would have me write letters to Latasha. There are moments where we would just walk around Latasha's old neighborhood without a camera, because we just wanted to feel the energy. We want to tie in Denise's words to just surround us as we walked throughout her school, you know, with the school librarian, going through yearbooks, finding Latasha. Um, and so the decolonizing process was not only in production, but pre-production post, even now, you know, still making sure that Ty and Shanice at the center of all of this, that Black women and Black girls are at the center of all of this.
So it was a challenge to get funding. It was a challenge to make people care. It was a challenge to make people understand why her story deserved to be revisited. And that's why the work you do. I have to say Professor Crenshaw. It's so hard for me to say, Kim, I honor and respect you so much. That's why the work you do with #SayHerName, with, you know, intersectionality. This film is rooted in that this film is rooted in Saidiyah Hartman's work. This work is rooted in Black queer women founded Black lives matter. It's understanding that Black women have always been at the forefront of these movements for Black liberation, Black queer woman, Black trans woman. And it is time that we acknowledged that and we recentered them, because we will never get to Black liberation without the liberation of all Black folks.
So much brilliance there and so much insight, as you said, seeing our stories through our own gaze. I mean, that's, that's something right there because the conversation about our, our exclusion, the absence of our stories, if it's framed within a traditional kind of diversity frame, it's basically, okay, so turn your gaze onto us more. And that is not what we got. We got plenty of that. You know, what we're trying to do is reconceptualize how we, um, how we see ourselves, reposition ourselves to tell our own stories. And, and in doing that, there are, you know, so many of the challenges that you mentioned, the fact that the archive is buried, the fact that the memory of our lives is often lost.
You mentioned adultification as one of the frames that you eventually were introduced to, and you were able to use that term to understand what story you were telling. I'm wondering if you can say more about the artistic choices that you made to navigate a real, uh, challenging narrative, because, you know, we meet Latasha and the contours of adultification are already in play. She's lost her mother also to violence. She becomes responsible for other people, even people she doesn't know. So we have all of the conditions.
Sometimes I say that when we talk about Black girl magic, we are talking about survival in conditions that are virtually impossible, uh, to navigate, and yet Black girls do it. How do we talk about those conditions without normalizing them? How do we celebrate survival without normalizing the horrific conditions under which Black girls are expected to just take it and make it? So you navigated that beautifully so much that we didn't see how challenging that was to do. So, say a little bit more about how you went about doing that, the choices you made to do that.
Sophia Nahli Allison:
It's so interesting hearing the word survival, because I used to be someone that was so adamant and we are going to survive. And then I realized, surviving’s the least, the least we could ask for, to survive is not our ultimate goal. And so thank you for naming that with just how to combat that within this film, all of the young girls within the film, none of them were actors. They were real young girls from the community, from, you know, different friends that we talked to of, Hey, we need young girls. Um, the producer Finn, has niece in it, and some of the other children, I went to high school with their parents.
Sophia Nahli Allison:
But for me having real Black girls, not casting actors was number one. I wanted Black girls that grew up in the neighborhood that had, that were living their everyday lives within this moment, not me trying to create this picture perfect image of what I thought Black girlhood is because it's nuance. It's not perfect. You know, we're figuring it out as we go. The other beautiful thing is when the community became a part of the story, you know, when we would just meet Black girls by accident, I don't even really want to say by accident, you know, Latasha would lead us there, and them being a part of this process with us.
And so for me, I wanted the image of a Black girl to always revolve within the film. I didn't want the film to have this young girl that's been cast as Latasha here's Ty and Shenise. But I wanted there to be a rotation for us to remember. This could have been any Black girl. This could have been me. This could have been my friends and to remember just how vulnerable of a moment this was. And I wanted to play with that spectrum of how girlhood evolves, how Black girls understand that they have to hold this balance for so many people, how they have to care for people while learning and remembering to still be a child. Um, another thing I use within the film is really wanting to play with time and wanting to play with the disruption of time. So there are moments where we see things are in reverse. There are moments where you see through animation, there's the deterioration of memory. And then there are these, these moments where you see Black, the visuals of Black girls come into the screen quickly. And so that’s one way that I really thought about how do we challenge that. Also, when we think about South Central, we always have masculine individuals helping us paint that backdrop. There aren't that many movies where we allow a Black women to be the center of these stories of South Central. And then yes,
Absolutely. They’re signifiers, they're modifiers, but never the subjects.
Sophia Nahli Allison:
They’re never the main characters. And for me, I grew up in Lamar park and then in Jefferson park and LA, and what Moesha takes place on Lamar Park. So I had Moesha to hold on to of this as a Black girl in my neighborhood. But I wanted it to disrupt our own understanding and idea of Black girls in South Central. For me, you know, as a young girl, I would go to the beach at times. And so our opening image is a young Black girl at the beach. And what's really interesting about this moment is I didn't understand why I needed to film her near water. I just knew water holds memory, water, cleanses us water comes, and it goes, it returns, and it leaves. And for our last day of filming, I wanted to film with Tai and I said, Tai where do you feel the most relaxed, the most at peace? She said at the beach. I always go to the beach and it became this beautiful bookend. We have this young girl at the beach releasing, embracing, caring. And then at the end, we see Ty at the beach. Just because we grew up in South Central, doesn't take away any of our innocence, doesn't take away any of the beauty. So wanting there to be that balance of Black girls in nature, and then Black girls finding these moments of silence and solitude, whether they're in a burger joint, eating French fries, listening to stand by me, or jump roping and playing hand games on the front porch. Or releasing everything in a field of flowers or at the beach breathing. This is the balance of Black girlhood.
You know, there's so much of that that's restorative for those of us who witnessed the killing of Latasha, and the story that was told about her by the court. To reimagine her in relation to the people who loved her, who experienced life with her, to sit with her dreams for her future, it is lasting repudiation of the ugliness in which the value of her life was dismissed. So when I think of this film, I think of it as part of the archive of restoration, of repair, of reparation.
And it's so it's so beautiful to recognize that there is a budding community, uh, of artists, activists who are unapologetic about telling the stories that have not been told. The stories of anti-racism that don't center women and girls. The stories of the uprising that don't say anything about Latasha and in the context of doing some of this work, um, say her name has also presented us with precisely the same kind of challenges that we were talking about in the telling of Latasha story. How do we breathe life into a space that has been absented? How do we elevate our sister without rehearsing solely the thing that people know her for: as the girl who got killed. So we have created a play called Say Her Name: the lives that should have been to, to hold in our consciousness that these were lives that were interrupted. They're still lives, right? So to know them only by what happened to them is to participate in that interruption, in that reduction now, to now a dead body. And instead, we want to imagine all of the things they wanted to be. So in the same way that you interview those who loved her to try to create a three-dimensional person out of what she has left behind, we try to do the same thing with the Mothers of Say Her Name
Sophia Nahli Allison:
Hm. That’s powerful.
You know, tell us how she would talk or let's have a conversation with her. Just trying to embody who she is. And so art can allow that in, in a way that other modalities can’t. Now, the challenge is for the intention to do the work of disruption and repositioning that we want. Now, you and I talked about one of the challenges on the work that we do is how hard it is to keep Say Her Name, right? People want to divulge it.
Sophia Nahli Allison:
Yes, yes. They were like, no, we said, say her name for a reason. Yes. And, and we want this
And I would say for you. And here, I want to acknowledge and celebrate the fact that the film has been nominated for an Oscar.
Sophia Nahli Allison:
Thank you. Thank you so mu