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 a