How "A Love Song for Latasha" disrupts and decolonizes documentary filmmaking about Black trauma

Latasha Harlins died 30 years ago, but director Sophia Nahli Allison flips the story in this Oscar-nominated short

Published April 16, 2021 5:00PM (EDT)

A Love Song for Latasha (Shorts TV)
A Love Song for Latasha (Shorts TV)

The frontrunner for the Oscar in the documentary short subject category is "A Love Song for Latasha," Sophia Nahli Allison's astonishing, heartbreaking film about the senseless killing of a 15-year-old girl by a Korean American convenience store owner in South Central Los Angeles back in 1991. The short, available on Netflix, recounts the life of Latasha Harlins as seen through images and voice-over recollections by her best friend Ty and her cousin, Shinese. It is a powerful commentary against gun violence, especially in this era of Black Lives Matter

The film has a very deliberate, dream-like feel to it, featuring images in reverse or in slow motion. However, Allison uses animation (not archival footage) during the most emotional moment, which depicts what transpired when Latasha was killed. A later scene, in real time, of Shinese reading a poem her late cousin wrote, is equally moving. End titles explain the shocking aftermath of Latasha's murder and the efforts her friends and family have made to create a foundation in her honor.

Allison, who qualified for the Oscar after winning the best short documentary prize at the New Orleans Film Festival in 2019, spoke to Salon about her nominated short documentary and Latasha's legacy.

What observations do you have about campaigning, especially this weird year? 

What's been beautiful about campaigning is that Netflix has been really adventurous in how we are doing it, so not only am I on panels, but we had a mural created for Latasha. That wasn't campaigning; it was for the community, but it was a beautiful and remarkable thing. We hired the artist Victoria Casanova who created the first ever Latasha Harlins mural at the Algin Sutton recreational center. This park is where Ty, Shinese, and Latasha played as children. We had a huge reveal of the mural on [what would have been] Latasha's 45th birthday. That's been exciting. Netflix is not thinking about making voters aware of the film, but that we've always connected the community and South Central. Having a balance of both those worlds and how we always involve the community was important to me. This year, Shinese and her family are renaming the playground the Latasha Harlins playground. This is the 30th [anniversary] of her murder.

Most shorts are made as a calling card, or proof of concept project. What prompted you to make this short? 

I had done a lot short films before "A Love Song for Latasha," and they help me sharpen my visual language. I felt I had what I needed to pursue this. I wanted there to be an archive for the community and not forget who Latasha was or how important her history was. Within documentary, it's very common to use archival footage; you are using evidence of the story as the existence of history. But there isn't much archival footage for Latasha — we have a couple of photos, and the video footage of her being killed. I really wanted to challenge the conventionality of documentary filmmaking. I wanted to intentionally disrupt what I've been taught. I wanted to reimagine the archive, and I wanted to create a blueprint for myself to understand what experimentation looks like when there is no archive to tell a story. How do you reimagine and conjure these images based on oral history and oral storytelling? Especially thinking about stories dealing with Black women, and Black girls, and trauma. I wanted to decolonize what it meant to tell a story about trauma and not needing to show the trauma and letting the majority of the film exist in the memory of life and the joy of Black girlhood and not just her murder.

The film took two years to make because I was doing a lot of external work to discover my language. I was doing the research, doing Black feminist readings, and consuming art outside my film to inform my process — looking at African spirituality and Black southern practices to inform the process as well. It was never a feature, or proof of concept, but an archival piece I needed to create at this time. When I was doing it, it was the year of the 25th anniversary of the LA uprising. I initially thought I was doing this for that. It was 2017. 2018, when we finished it, we realized it was so much bigger than that moment. This was supposed to be a lasting piece of work to help us rethink how we are telling documentary stories. To help us have more understanding of Latasha and fill in the gaps of the archive.

I love the way you use video footage, show images in reverse, employ animation, voice-over, and other techniques to convey such powerful emotions. Can you talk about your approach to constructing the narrative? 

When I was working on building the script, I knew initially, this film couldn't start with her death and go backwards from that. I wanted to disrupt that the only archive we know is that incident. I wanted to make the audience excavate this information with me. We have to go through this journey together before you are allowed to understand what happened. You have to be invested in Latasha's life and her existing purely because she existed, rather than we need to care about the story because she was a Black girl who was killed. For me, it was you need to care about this story because she was a Black girl who lived, and then she was killed. 

It's very life-affirming and inspiring. "A Love Song for Latasha" is a poem, a memory, a reflection. 

I wanted [to open the film with] something that caught the audience off guard. I wanted a story that invited the audience in in such an intimate way — this is a private, personal memory; that this is the first understanding we have of Latasha. We realize she is a protector and will do what it takes to care for her loved ones. I wanted us to be surrounded by these memories of these Black girls in South Central. I never wanted the basis of her story to be her death. I wanted to tell this story with Ty and Shinese because so often when we are met with young women killed by racialized violence, by gun violence, we often hear from the adults, who were adults at the time. We rarely get to hear from young people who were the same age as the victims and who grew up with them and have a different experience than what the adults saw. I wanted to revisit this moment in life from Ty and Shinese. These two young girls have a different perspective and memories, and I wanted to have this blend of time where we are moving throughout time and have these intimate details from people who know her as a child. They were children. This is not from the gaze of an adult who understands all the sociopolitical things surrounding it. These are from children who have had their life disrupted, and they are putting the pieces together. These pieces build a fuller narrative. I wanted it to be healing process not only for Ty and Shinese, but for Black women and Black girls and the community. That was one of our decisions not to start with Latasha's death, and not to ever incorporate the video footage of her death.

"A Love Song for Latasha" is sadly, still a topical film. Latasha was unfairly murdered 30 years ago. Can you talk about finding the subject and telling this story now, and still having an impact?

What was interesting was that the film premiered in Tribeca in 2019, and I never expected the film to have this much life in 2020. To have all the unrest, it's disturbing how cyclical this is. 

I hope people understand we have never gotten to the root issue, and I think 2020 is when we are naming white supremacy and having the nation address that terminology as well and acknowledge that. I'm hoping this creates the shift we need. I'm hoping this film allows us to keep putting the image of life on the people that we've lost when we are thinking about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and not just letting their death being the thing that upsets us, but that their lives was stolen. They had a full life before anyone knew their names. I hope that people are not discussed within the image of their death but that we also celebrate their life. I hope people stop using footage of Black folks dying. It's really traumatizing and triggering to see that.

Yes, I just did an interview with an actor where we talked about the Asian hate crimes and how trauma is triggering.

To your question about Asian hate, it's so heartbreaking to see. I hope that it allows us to have more cross cultural conversations. When we think about the root and South Central at that time, there was a lot of Anti-Blackness with the Korean-American community, and there was a lot of tension in South Central between Blacks and Korean Americans. But it wasn't because they were programmed to not get along. It's wanting to address that root of imperialism and white supremacy, and how Anti-Blackness is something Korean Americans were taught, and these groups were placed together in a community with little resources, and everyone is fighting over these resources. I want to see these conversations of healing and conversation that interrogate and disrupt and name what it is that we are needing to dismantle in this time.

What has the response been to Latasha's story? Is the foundation in her name gaining traction as a result of the film?

Ty and Shinese are creating their own nonprofit. They are working to create a nonprofit that provides resources for youth in South Central, and it's been remarkable to see the headway. We all just gathered at the park on March 16 to remember Latasha's death, and we had a city councilman announce the park's renaming. On April 29, they are having a [renaming] event. Ty and Shinese are in the process of working on their nonprofit.

At the end of the film, Ty says, "If Latasha were still here, I'd be a lawyer." Within that time of us completing the film, Ty is finishing her degree in criminal justice. It's beautiful to see how Ty and Shinese have both healed through this process, and they are continuing this legacy, and this fight that Shinese's aunt started 30 years ago. They are continuing to move forward with the goals and dreams they shared with Latasha.  

This is your first film, and your first, of what I hope are many Oscars (or at least nominations). Can you talk about what this means for you and your career as a filmmaker? 

There are so many days where just because of how long and exhausting and beautiful of a process this was, that I still have to breath. It's still a bit surreal for me to realize what this entire journey has looked like. What is exciting for me is what this means for myself and other Black women creators and filmmakers, artists that are doing experimental work and work that is unconventional, and which sometimes is not recognized within the genre that is documentary. I'm excited for this to open more doors for Black women storytellers that people create and provide the resources to support and believe in Black women when they are wanting to try something new within filmmaking. I'm currently completing my first feature, which is also an experimental documentary. I'm just having a moment where I don't even know how to process it. I don't have words for how much it means. How excited it makes me feel for the rest of this journey. How grateful I am that the story of a young Black girl from South Central is being recognized by the Academy. That's radical within itself to me. It's been 30 years, and Ty and Shinese get to see their story celebrated at this level. That for me is more than I could ever ask for.

"A Love Song for Latasha" is currently streaming on Netflix. For more information on watching this and the other Oscar-nominated shorts, visit Shorts TV.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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A Love Song For Latasha Documentary Interview Movies Oscars Shorts Sophia Nahli Allison