As a nonfiction filmmaker, Sophia Nahli Allison had known for some time that there were ways to creatively tell an authentic story without necessarily resorting to facts and figures, brought up by a musician for a father and a folklorist for a mother who raised her to seek out truth in art. But there was another aspect to those influences that is reflected in the stories Allison chooses to tell.
“I believe there are so many of our truths that have not been properly documented and even if there isn’t that evidence, that doesn’t mean it’s not real, which is why I love fiction so much because I believe that’s rooted in a deep truth,” says Allison. “Reading so much Zora Neale Hurston, she was a brilliant folklorist and I was constantly inspired by how we had to collect our stories, what kind of oral history had to travel down to all of us to keep our stories alive when no one else was doing that.”
Allison grew up only blocks away from Latasha Harlins in South Central Los Angeles, but had been too young at the time of the L.A. Riots to hear of how Harlins’ death, at the hands of a liquor store owner, when attempting to pay for orange juice had been such a large part of what sparked the civil unrest. Still, it wasn’t until only recently that the filmmaker became familiar with Harlins, a sad testament to how so many stories of African-American women have been left untold or speciously covered even in this era when the mantra “Say Her Name” has become a popular rallying cry, leading Allison back to South Central to carry on her story to future generations with “A Love Song for Latasha.”
Summoning the life of the 15-year-old with the memories of her best friend Tybie O’Bard and her cousin Shinese Harlins, Allison brings a breathtakingly fresh visual vocabulary to channel Latasha’s experience as a young woman in Compton, losing her own mother at a young age and compartmentalizing her pain when helping her grandmother take care of her brother and sister. The film conveys the full freight of what was lost when the ebullient and athletic straight A student was killed, but chiefly it carries on her spirit as Latasha takes the form of a number of young girls who who can envision themselves in paradise when the streets are lined with palm trees, yet the sky high fronds are indicative of how it remains just out of reach when the imaginations of others continue to be so limited.
Bold enough to never risk being forgotten again, “A Love Song for Latasha” reinvents notions of living memory in employing the aesthetic of a slightly worn VHS tape, savvily nodding to the era in which Harlins grew up, but also allowing for images to vividly break through the standard def and acknowledging media’s role in our collective consciousness, making the introduction of image-makers as striking as Allison invaluable to reshaping the perceptions that led to Harlins’ death in the first place. With the film’s premiere on Netflix following a celebrated festival run that began last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, Allison spoke about what drew her into the multi-year journey of filming “A Love Song for Latasha” and the responsibilities that come with making history.
How did this come about?
I’m a Los Angeles native. I was born and raised in South Central and I was four years old when the riots happened, so I still remember bits and pieces of it, but Latasha’s a story that I never was surrounded by, and as an adult, realizing that Rodney King took up so much space regarding what the catalyst for the riots were, Latasha really existed only within the context of her trauma. So [I asked myself] what does it mean to rebirth this archive and understand and know who Latasha was? I just couldn’t believe that for almost exactly three decades next year, nobody has really gone in depth in a film showing who Latasha was outside of those moments in the liquor store.
What was it like getting to know Latasha through Shinese and Ty?
It became such a beautiful and magical moment. Myself and my creative producer Janice Duncan, to this day, still go hang out with Ty and Shinese and see them and it feels like they take us back to those moments from the stories they tell us. I just feel like I’ve known Latasha…it breaks my heart that I won’t be able to meet her, but it’s just this beautiful vibrancy that they’ve kept alive and when they talk about Latasha, there’s never sadness. They’re never focused on that moment unless that’s something that needs to come up, but they really just remember her with such laughter and so many of the beautiful things that she meant to them and the community. It feels like being a part of this sisterhood of what they were, and I can only imagine how electric it was when all three of them were together. It makes feel deeply honored to hear such intimate stories from them and them allowing us to relive these dear, dear memories to them.
When they’re walking you through things with them, was there specific imagery coming to mind or scenes that you realized you could recreate specifically from Latasha’s experience?
Yeah, I never like calling things in the film reenactments because I didn’t want to try to emulate exactly what they were telling us. I always wanted this to feel very spiritual, like you’re moving through a dream and a lot of times dreams and memories can be very fragmented. The images don’t appear as clear as we remember or sometimes faces aren’t even the same for us and how we remember, so I wanted to make sure that was very evident going through it. I was never trying to find an image of who Latasha was, but rather how can all of these young black girls who are part of the film represent Ty, Shinese and Latasha simultaneously and always evolving this image of who we are speaking about. I would really meditate on the stories they shared with us and would just let imagery come to me that I thought really spoke to the spirit of their stories.
I’ve heard you say you really didn’t want to direct the young girls who represent Latasha and gave them a lot of latitude to simply be young girls — what was it like working with them to get their experience on the screen?
It was so, so beautiful working with them because before we would film, we would always talk to the young girls about who Latasha was, so they would get an idea and an understanding of that history and why this was so important. I never wanted it to be performative, so I’d talk them through what I wanted them to carry with themselves in that process, but I never wanted anyone to feel like they were acting. I just wanted them to exist fully in the space that they were in, so there was never a lot of direction when it comes to, “Right now, you are all doing X, Y, Z.” It’s just “I want you all to enjoy yourselves in the front yard while I’m having you double dutch or jump rope, or I’m having you lay in the grass,” wanting to really let those moments sink in with them.
What’s been really beautiful for me is two of the young children used in the film, I went to high school with their parents, so it’s really beautiful to see how these other South Central natives are able to be a part of this film. And some of the young girls [came to the film] through family or friends — one had worked on a previous project with a creative producer — and we really wanted them to always feel comfortable and natural in front of the camera.
Was the fact that there wasn’t a lot of archival immediately seen as an opportunity to try something original or was that an evolving process?
Yeah, it’s a challenge I always knew I wanted to engage with and really reimagine how documentaries are created. It’s extremely hard to find images of Latasha, and I knew from Shinese that they still don’t have that much footage or photos any more of Latasha, but [beyond that] so often we have to have the B-roll, the archival and footage to prove the existence of someone’s story and I really thought a lot about the archival process for black women and how so much of these archives have been erased or discarded or not fully or properly curated. So what does it mean for us as black women and black women creatives and filmmakers to decolonize that process to disrupt what we know documentaries to be and to really just allow ourselves what this archive could look like? It was definitely a challenge, but also exciting and beautiful.
This may have naturally occurred, but did seeing how this story specifically was covered before influence how you wanted to approach it?
Yes, before when I have seen Latasha mentioned briefly in other documentaries, they pretty much always show the footage of her death, so I knew we didn’t want to include that at all. We wanted the film to focus on her life and I would go through old archival newspapers and very often, they would not say her name in the headline. It would just say “15 Year-Old Black Girl Killed” or “The Case Involving An Asian Woman Killing a Black Girl,” so it was so interesting to see how easily her narrative was reduced down to these last moments of trauma. That really helped a lot with understanding the structure of this story, like how do we make people have to excavate this information and go through this journey of who Latasha is before they learn what really happens later in the story?
I also wanted to juxtapose how Latasha is seen in the video of her death — it is a grainy security footage camera, so I wanted to play with that duality of this is how people see her with this aesthetic and footage, but let’s take that and put that life back into it. I just remember so much of my childhood being documented with VHS tapes and wanting this to feel like a family video, something that was intimately created by young girls or family members, so I wanted this to feel like a VHS that someone found of Latasha that’s been documented and that the aesthetic also played with the idea of the deterioration of memory, so a lot of times the static or when the screen starts to flicker or footage starts to break apart, I’m using that as a way to think about how trauma affects memory, how age affects memory, and how we move throughout life with pieces weaving back in and out. That’s why before Ty tells her story about Latasha’s death, the footage really starts to crumble down.
Does anything happen during the process of making this that radically changes your ideas of what this could be?
I did a lot of reading at the time I was working on “Latasha” and I was also working on a self-portrait project during the same time about flying Africans, so I was constantly surrounding myself with magical realism and black feminist discourse. A lot of the writing by Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Saidiya Hartman all directly impacted how I thought about the process of filmmaking, about the editing, and just about the spirit of the work, [with how] these other women have deeply been invested in their own excavating and their own archiving of black stories.
The film had a wonderful festival run before the world shut down. What was it like to start bringing this out in to the world?
It was a very spiritual process. The film took two years and sometimes I felt very misunderstood. I was so grateful for exist in all the festival spaces it did, but sometimes I didn’t see the conversations I really wanted to, regarding archiving, regarding rebirth, reimagining our archives, so there was a period of time where I really felt this film would just exist for South Central and it would just be this piece of history that I created even before we did festivals. There was a period of time where I almost felt that this story and this period of time might get erased all over and was very fearful of that and I just did this film as a memory for Ty and Shinese, as something that could be an archive for the community, never really expecting how it could really expand into what it is now. But it has always been such an intimate and personal and exhausting and soul-searching project that I don’t think I have the proper words yet to really comprehend what these past three years have been. I just feel so grateful that a larger audience will now know who Latasha is and her name can exist beyond just that trauma — and that more people speak about her and tell their memories and their stories.