The viewpoints of the Los Angeles based citizens who lived to tell about the Rodney King riots are featured in Anna Deavere Smith’s documentary based piece Twilight: Los Angeles. The artist exposes many different people with widely varied backgrounds, social classes and races in order to study the underlying social issues that lead to such a tragic event. Sympathetic in sharing the individual viewpoints, this piece prompts audiences to think about how these different people are pieces of cloth which make up a quilt known as Los Angeles. The mixture of viewpoints portrays some dark characters that focus on the rage and pain as well as some insightful characters that are more hopeful in a city that has awakened to its issues of race/class divisions, and civil unrest of the time. This evocative work brings to light the consequences of individual actions on communities and how some people do not understand or care that their actions can hurt others as well as the very fabric of their own community. The same can be said for some of the characters in the book What Makes Sammy Run which is based in Hollywood. Both Twilight and What Makes Sammy Run compare and contrast decent citizens with the less pleasant members of society—selfish people who squash others to reach their own purpose.
Sammy Glick is one of those selfish characters from a poor background who is determined to clamor his way to the top of the corporate ladder with no regard for who he extinguishes along the way. Opposite Sammy is Al Manheim the drama editor who helps Sammy and is one of the hopeful characters in the book What Makes Sammy Run. Al describes himself as a “gentle soul at heart” who was never “able to walk past a street-fight…without trying to stop it” (Shulberg 8). Al continues to describe himself as one of the few people who believes in the golden rule and brotherly love while Sammy disrespects his own father, saying “my old man croaked from…Dumbness”(Shulberg 9). Manheim was full of good intentions, much like Stanley K. Sheinbaum, the former President of the Los Angeles Police Commission featured in Twilight. Sheinbaum went in good faith to talk at the Los Angeles gang meetings to try and make a truce. Afterward, he received a letter from other law enforcement officers questioning why he went to meet with the enemy. Sheinbaum was just trying to understand the gangs from their own perspective in an effort to solve a social problem. The main similarity between Al Manheim and Stanley Sheinbaum is that they display respect for human-kind, a theme interwoven throughout both Twilight and What Makes Sammy Run.
Reginald Denny is a white truck driver who was attacked as he drove through L.A. during the riots but afterwards illustrated respect for human-kind as he reminisced about the race-fueled attack which almost took his life. Author Smith successfully pulls out perspectives that many audience members might overlook since we usually see the negative. It is surprising that this Caucasian man who was attacked so viciously because of his skin color could display such compassion and kindness toward the event and people in Los Angeles. Denny expresses how he wanted people to see individuals and not race, maintaining awareness of even colorblind racism. His account of how he felt in the hospital afterwards leans toward the healing of a community rather than resentment.
In contrast to Reginald Denny and Al Manheim, some people just seem to be bad apples who cannot help being hateful and do not care how their actions affect others. Sammy Glick was one of those people who “live in this world like a lot of cannibals trying to swallow each other” (Shulberg 10) but character Kit Sargent saw right through the abrasive Sammy Glick. Kit was a street-smart screenwriter but is different than Sammy because she cares for causes larger than herself. She pities him because she believes he cannot help but act the way he does as he must have had a terrible upbringing. Maybe people like him were born into poor bad neighborhoods and couldn’t help where they came from as Kit surmised about Sammy in Shulberg’s book (111). Some neighborhoods in Los Angeles during the time of the riots could be compared to Shulberg’s fiction as he describes Sammy as a product of the area he grew up in and his disease as “epidemic raging in that neighborhood” and the people who are born into them don’t know any better and become “one of the worst cases on record” (111). Kit Sargent even sympathizes with Sammy as she compares his twisted ego to the disability of a cripple (Shulberg 111). Kit is jaded by Hollywood and thinks there are “many like him” in Hollywood, men who are only out for their own (Shulberg 85). These types of self-serving individuals exist in the real world and were the type who helped themselves by looting businesses during the Los Angeles riots.
Kit Sargent is not a self-serving character because she is working on a project for the greater good of the community, the writer’s guild which protects individual writers. Kit and Al Manheim are characters willing to stick their necks out for a cause which won’t help them individually, but will protect others from corruption, greed and immoral actions. Many of the viewpoints which come to the surface through the different viewpoints of the Twilight characters evoke this same theme of denouncing individual selfishness and promoting community thinking instead. Los Angeles scholar Cornel West points out how corporations have been allowed to carve out systems that serve their best interest and discard individual voices, especially those of minorities. People in Los Angeles, before and after the riots, also point out that minority citizen voices were not being heard and that was one of the major causes of the social unrest which fueled the riots. Twilight takes a well-rounded look at the perspectives of all races, former gang members, police and fire employees, public employees, as well as victims of the riots. Like the writer’s guild acts as a neutral intermediary for writers, author Smith acts as the mediator of the points of view of people who experienced the Los Angeles riots, in order to show all points of view on an even playing field.
Anna Deavere Smith is successful in pointing out that the Rodney King riots made people rethink their passive roles in society. If we all sit around and allow inequality in our society, we might be responsible when things eventually come to a boiling point. Peter Sellers was the Director of the Los Angeles Festival who lamented in Smith’s documentary that things are burnt out in the United States, like his father who was too cheap to replace burned out light bulbs. Like Sammy Glick, Sellers’ father only cares about his own success. Sellers adds that citizens of Los Angeles cannot live in their homes because their houses are burning and he compares the city of L.A. as one house. If someone starts a fire in the bottom portion of the house, it continues on to eventually destroy all other parts of the home.
The theme of individual actions creating havoc for others in the same community is another major theme which runs through both pieces of literature. Producer Sydney Fineman was just one of the characters stepped on and destroyed by the actions of self-seeking Sammy Glick. The Sydney Fineman character represents the few morally correct people left in an extremely competitive corporate world where the weak get trampled. Sydney’s character is wholesome and loyal, in glaring contrast to Sammy, who has no conscience. Fineman helped Sammy and in return got shafted like everyone who came across his path. Anna Deavere Smith provokes audiences to reflect on their individual actions as they lead to consequences which affect larger communities and environments that we live in. It takes all of us to make a peaceful coherent society and we should think about how our actions affect others.
Reverend Tom Choi demonstrates peace and love for human-kind as he recollects on his experience in Los Angeles after the riots. Choi goes into a bank after the riots and asks people how they are doing. He receives warm responses from everyone he talks to and concludes that any protection we have comes from the love that we pour out into the world. An anonymous Hollywood agent who experienced the tension around L.A.’s Beverly Hills area during the riots says he witnessed yuppies running from their offices like the movie Godzilla. This agent offered a sympathetic view as he pondered the question of whether his class and race deserved to feel scared because they had in essence allowed a system which treats people unequally. He remarked on how it was so terrible to see people burning down their own neighborhoods. This is not much different than Sammy Glick as he double crosses people in his own minority and social class with no guilt or remorse. Kit Sargent comments on how writer Larry Paine “really believes the Guild was organized just to deprive him of his individuality” (Shulberg 183). Just as Larry has “been nursing his paranoia along for years” so have real life Los Angeles characters such as Rudy Salas, Sr. and others who are guilty of reverse-discrimination. Writers in Chulberg’s book “haven’t learned to work together” and have “pitted against each other” just as citizens of L.A. had to admit about themselves in retrospect of the Rodney King riots (184). Both literature pieces point out that individuals must stop to take their selfish blinders off in order to be of any help to their neighbors and the larger society as a whole.
The social fabric of society is examined by Smith as she paints the picture of people from different backgrounds and social classes. Her work stimulates audiences to think about what we could have done or can do to help those in need and to be conscious of how our individual actions become part of a larger society. We are all part of the problem and we can all be part of the solution.
Schulberg, Budd. What Makes Sammy Run? With a New Introd. by the Author. Modern Library, 1952.
Twilight, Los Angeles. Dir. Anna Deavere Smith. PBS Home Video, 2001. Videocassette.