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Always a trove of powerful, personal filmmaking, the Academy Awards’ Documentary Shorts category is packed with gems this year. Among the five worthy nominees — all of which can be streamed online — the artful and compassionate A Love Song for Latasha hits particularly close to home at a moment that the whole world’s contemplating the unlawful killing of a Black man whose death sparked waves of emotion, protest, and, dare we hope, change.
The killing of 15-year old Latasha Harlins in South Central, Los Angeles, in March 1991, likewise ignited turbulent events and emotions that, along with the Rodney King beating and subsequent acquittal of the officers responsible, led to the ’92 L.A. Uprising. But lost in most postmortems of that ground-shaking era are a vivid sense of the girl Latasha was, and the woman she hoped to be. Filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison, a Black, queer native of South Central, who was only four when the riots lit up L.A., set out to rediscover her story.
“I really wanted to explore who Latasha was, who was this young Black girl beyond just these headlines, this video of death, of trauma,” says Allison. “I wanted to explore this idea of what does it mean to rebuild an archive. What does it mean to revisit a story, and fill in these missing pieces that the archive did not have, did not take the time and the care to make sure Latasha was talked about as a person, as a child.”
Drawing on the girlhood recollections of two of the people that were closest to Latasha at that same age — her cousin Shinese and best friend Ty — A Love Song for Latasha paints a fond and moving portrait, aided by expressive imagery, clever animation, and Harlins’ own poetry.
“So often, we hear from organizers and community activists that are adults,” Allison says. “And we didn’t get to hear directly from the children that were impacted at the time. And so I really wanted to rebirth this memory of Black girlhood. I was very honest with them because I wanted to make sure that they were ready to go on this journey. I told them if they didn’t want to do that, then I would not pursue the film without them, because I understood it had to be a collaboration.”
The film’s journey back to March 1991 stresses that Latasha saw a life full of possibilities ahead of her. While Allison chose not to include the infamous security video showing convenience store owner Soon Ja Du shooting Harlins in the back of the head, the film resolutely evokes the pain of that life lost. Both Ty and Shinese experience moments of profound emotion in the film.
“I wanted to make sure that they felt safe enough to do this journey with me,” says Allison. “Understanding that we would be revisiting some memories that are painful, that are hard to revisit, but that I will be there to hold them in that process and at the end of the day, this is going to be a celebration of Latasha’s life.”
The film also helped inspire a beautiful new remembrance in the form of a mural painted by artist Victoria Cassinova.
“From the beginning of working on the film, I knew that I always wanted to have some sort of activation within the community,” says Allison. “I was thinking about documentary, thinking about, ‘What does it mean when we tell a story about the community, but then that engagement is never really within the community?’ It’s always within the film world, which is sometimes so separated from those that are directly a part of the story.
“And so we always returned to where Latasha lived. Thinking about the family. Thinking about the community. And it was very shocking to realize that this was the first mural. It’s been 30 years. But I’m so grateful that South Central has been so beautiful and open and accepting, like, ‘Yes, we need to revisit. We need to remember Latasha. We need to make sure that this is a story, this is a history, that we don’t forget, that is always a part of the community.'”
A Love Song for Latasha is available for streaming on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.
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