Los Angeles, 2029 CE. A nude cyborg from the future arrives at a biker bar, where he proceeds to beat the tar out of the patrons before leaving with a newly acquired wardrobe and motorcycle, riding off into the night on a mission to protect John Connor. This early scene in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day took several nights to shoot, and Peter Kent was there for the duration.

The muscular, six-foot-five Canadian had been Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stunt double since the original Terminator in 1984, taking beatings and driving stunt vehicles while wearing an Arnie mask. T2 was a grueling, six-month shoot that stretched into March 1991. “If I had some time, Arnold and I would hang out in the trailer and have a coffee and smoke a cigar,” Kent recalls. “But generally it was just running around with your hair on fire.”

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On one of those nights, George Holliday, a plumber who had just purchased a Sony Handycam, noticed the crane lights and film crew surrounding the real-life biker bar across the street from his apartment in Lake View Terrace, a suburb north of Burbank. He grabbed his camera and ran over for a better look. “You weren’t allowed to get close, like all movie shoots,” Holliday says. “But I was close enough. I was filming [Schwarzenegger] coming out of the bar, getting onto the bike, and riding off.”

A few nights later, on March 3, Kent and company were still shooting the scene, and “we had pretty much every cop in L.A. out there with us,” he says. Some were controlling traffic; others were there for the free food and coffee. “It was like two in the morning, and all of a sudden I heard the radios squawking, and all the cops on set just frickin’ jumped in cars and took off.” Up the street, a Black motorist named Rodney King had been pulled over after a high-speed freeway chase and was being savagely beaten by four Los Angeles Police Department officers. Kent had no idea that night what they were responding to, “but all of a sudden every cop looked like somebody touched his ass with a wire,” he says. “Over the next couple of days, we realized what had happened. The cops didn’t come back and talk about it, but we put two and two together.”

Startled by the commotion outside, Holliday grabbed his Handycam and ran out onto his balcony. On the same videotape he’d used to capture the T2 shoot, he recorded perhaps the most famous footage in American history since the Zapruder film. Imagine: a fantasy about L.A.’s dystopian future, which would become the biggest blockbuster of 1991, side by side with grainy images of King’s beating, which would be broadcast around the world—the latter directly catalyzing the city’s violent unrest in the spring of 1992. But the eerie parallels between Hollywood fiction and Los Angeles fact don’t stop there. Three films released in 1991—Terminator 2, Boyz n the Hood, and Grand Canyon—all seemed to channel, and even prophesy, the powder keg that was about to explode.

captured footage of los angeles police officers beating motorist rodney king on 
march 3, 1991
George Holliday, a plumber who’d recently purchased a new video camera, captured footage of Los Angeles police officers beating motorist Rodney King on March 3, 1991. “Terminator 2” was filming nearby the same evening.
George Holliday

“TO PROTECT AND TO SERVE”

When Cameron was promoting T2 the summer it premiered, 30 years ago, he brought up Rodney King and told the Los Angeles Times that “the LAPD are strongly represented [in the film] as being a dehumanized force. What the film is about, on the symbolic level, is the dehumanization we do on a daily basis.” Actor Robert Patrick’s lethal, liquid-metal T-1000 indeed takes the form of a cop, wearing an LAPD badge on his uniformed chest and driving around the city in a squad car ironically stamped with the department’s slogan: “To protect and to serve.” But according to Cameron’s co-screenwriter on the film, William Wisher, the decision to make the bad guy a police officer had nothing to do with social commentary. T-1000 “chose to be a cop,” Wisher says, “because cops basically go where they want and do what they want, and nobody messes with him.”

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
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T2 is strictly science fiction, depicting a grim future for humanity if the machines take over, but its ambient soundtrack of helicopters constantly circling overhead was a daily reality for residents in South Los Angeles. In a climactic sequence, the LAPD swarm an office building with choppers and guns and cop cars—many of which are shot up and set ablaze by Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. Police rush inside and open fire, killing the innocent engineer played by Joe Morton, the only major Black character in the film. “We’ve got a war zone down here,” a voice says over the police radio as a helicopter flies away from the flaming building, lighting up L.A.’s night sky.

It was high-tech machinery—Holliday’s camera—that captured the brutal attack on King. (Holliday sold his tape to KTLA-TV for $500. The Federal Bureau of Investigation seized it and holds the tape to this day, T2 footage and all.) When four officers were tried for the beating in April 1992 in Simi Valley, Holliday was called as the first witness. And after the jury acquitted those officers, the city did erupt into flames, an apocalyptic image that chillingly echoed Terminator 2’s depiction of a future L.A. engulfed in chaos and death.

ice cube, cuba gooding jr, morris chestnut, boyz n the hood
Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Morris Chestnut in writer-director John Singleton’s debut film, “Boyz n the Hood,” which gave an honest portrait of life in South L.A.
Columbia Pictures

“THEY WANT US TO KILL OURSELVES”

South Los Angeles was a war zone in 1991, a community torn apart by poverty, drugs, rival gangs, and violence. Two weeks after the King beating, a local convenience store owner fatally shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back of the head, raising tensions between the area’s Korean American shop owners and their Black neighbors—another match to the conflagration that ignited in 1992.

In the fall of 1989, John Singleton, a senior in USC’s film school who’d grown up in Inglewood, wrote an impassioned screenplay about three boys coming of age in South L.A. called Boyz n the Hood. Sony, the Japanese electronics company, purchased Columbia Pictures that same year, a time when people were getting bored with traditional studio fare. “And then here comes this little glasses-wearing, nerdy-looking guy named Singleton,” says producer Steve Nicolaides, “who wrote this magnificent script and who had the balls to say no to just about everybody in Hollywood. They all responded to how great the script was, but they also said, ‘We have the perfect director for this movie.’ And John would say, ‘You’re talking to him! I’m directing this movie. If you don’t understand that, then this meeting is over,’ and he would leave.” Singleton’s force of will won over Columbia, which was run by two white men, Frank Price and Michael Nathanson. “Probably the only Black people they knew were on the Lakers,” says Nicolaides, who signed on as a producer and was one of the few white members on the filmmaking team. “But it was still Hollywood. ‘It’s a really good story, and we can get this for under $6 million? Let’s go for it.’ So they basically turned us loose.”

None of the studio suits visited the film’s locations until the last week or so, “when word was getting around that this might be something that, you know, ‘we can hang our hat on,’ ” Nicolaides says. The perception of South L.A. among white Angelenos was largely shaped by the nightly news, which the producer refers to as the “murder news”—because “it was basically a roundup of Blood and Crip murders” by the city’s sensational media. Singleton’s film begins with this opening text: “One out of every twenty-one Black American males will be murdered in their lifetime…. Most will die at the hands of another Black male.” Laurence Fishburne plays Furious Styles, a real estate agent and father trying to keep his son, Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), away from the dead-end gang life.

“We need to keep everything Black-owned,” Styles tells an impromptu neighborhood gathering one day, noting that it’s not Black people who are bringing the drugs or guns or liquor into their neighborhoods. “They want us to kill ourselves.” Fishburne was nominated for best actor at the NAACP Image Awards for his performance but lost to Wesley Snipes for his portrayal of a drug kingpin in New Jack City. After the ceremony, Fishburne told Nicolaides, “Was that just the biggest bunch of bullshit you ever saw?” The producer was confused; Boyz n the Hood had won the award for best motion picture. Fishburne said, “Yeah, but I didn’t win.” Meaning, Nicolaides explains, that Furious Styles didn’t win. “Instead of going for maybe the greatest father portrayal since Paul Winfield in Sounder,” says Nicolaides, “they chose a murderous gangster in Wesley Snipes.”

When Boyz n the Hood came out, a day before T2 in July 1991, 30 people were injured and 2 died in fights at theaters in 12 states. In Singleton’s film, violence in South L.A. is a tragedy, nothing to be glorified. Nonetheless, the director and the film were blamed for the bloodshed. “I didn’t create the conditions under which people shoot each other,” Singleton responded. “This happens because there’s a whole generation of people who are disenfranchised.” (Things are hardly any better in 2021, after last summer’s nationwide protests against the ongoing systemic racism that Black Americans experience.) The film went on to earn critical accolades and $123 million in current dollars, and Singleton—who died of a stroke in 2019—received Academy Award nominations for writing and directing.

danny glover, kevin kline, grand canyon
Characters portrayed by Danny Glover and Kevin Kline became unlikely friends in writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon,” which explored the chasms dividing race and class in L.A.
20th Century Studios

“THE WORLD AIN’T SUPPOSED TO WORK LIKE THIS”

In 1991, Steve Martin portrayed a well-off Angeleno in three films. There was the huge hit Father of the Bride and the satire L.A. Story, which might have more aptly been called Westside L.A. Story, director Mick Jackson admits: “It’s about a group of very privileged, fairly affluent white people living north of the 10.” Martin’s character in Grand Canyon is also extremely privileged—he’s a Hollywood producer of violent schlock who has a brief change of heart after a near-death mugging—but the film itself is hardly myopic in its depiction of L.A. life.

In Grand Canyon, writer-director Lawrence Kasdan grapples with the gaping chasm between two L.A.s. It opens with a white man named Mack (played by Kevin Kline) who’s terrified when his car breaks down in Inglewood after dark, and it ends with a terrified young Black man, Otis (Patrick Malone), who, having relocated from South L.A. to the more staid Canoga Park to escape gang violence, gets roughed up by the LAPD. Grand Canyon cuts back and forth between Black and white characters across the city, with a unifying device of helicopters overhead. The film showed all of L.A. in a way that no one had seen before, says actor Alfre Woodard, who plays Jane in the movie. “We get on the freeways, and we see each other in cars passing by,” Woodard says. “We become each other’s landscape every day. It’s not like other cities, where you have to ride that train, you got to get on whatever the public transportation is. So we can live in L.A. with our own particular sense of reality much longer, because whatever our hood is, we don’t really get outside of it.”

Kasdan and his wife, Meg, wanted to write a story about the individual fears of growing older and watching your kids leave home, but also about the larger fears of living in Los Angeles. Their screenplay touches on racial tension, earthquakes, and homelessness. When the couple moved to L.A. in the late 1970s, they were charmed by its palm trees and sunny weather, not to mention the promise of the film industry that had brought them there, but “there was always this sense of controlled violence,” Kasdan says. “Meg had grown up in Detroit, and in ’68 it blew up, and it blew up out here, too. So you never had a sense of ‘Oh, this is some peaceful, pastoral place.’ It’s just this feeling of the world being a threatening place. And once you have children, you’re very aware of it.”

The director applied the same ensemble-cast format and relational, humanistic concerns he’d utilized in his earlier hit The Big Chill to a group of characters on both sides of the divide. Mack and his wife, Claire (Mary McDonnell), struggle with the anxieties of middle-age ennui, of affairs and losing one’s identity as parents, while Deborah, a single mom played by Tina Lifford, lives with the trauma of day-to-day survival—walking past another neighborhood mother scrubbing blood off the sidewalk, or being approached by a salesman offering life insurance policies on her children. “I don’t like to speak for all Black people,” Lifford says, looking back at the film, “but we grow up knowing that we have to be careful, that the police are not our friends, and that you have to be mindful of what you’re doing as a Black person and where you are going. And like the nature of the human psyche, we adapt. We normalize that tension. I think that the movie absolutely captures and represents a known reality. It does highlight a tension that was and, surprising to me, is real, and becoming even more so.”

Kasdan laments that he would probably not be able to make the same film today, “where some white guy helps the Black guy, and there’s some reciprocity.” But Lifford praises the film for representing a three-dimensional, loving Black family living inside that normalized tension, and for how well it portrays “the divide, the big hole, between the haves and the have-nots” and how privilege and power can insulate people. Kasdan also imagines he would receive contemporary criticism of the character he wrote for Danny Glover, Simon, who rescues Mack from a tense altercation with young, armed Black men, as falling into the “magical Negro” archetype. But Woodard argues, “I think the film holds up really well. It is a story told from an authentic heart, which is Meg and Lawrence, and so it’s always going to work with honest portrayals. Now, do we have a different way of labeling things? Have we come into a new consciousness, individually and collectively? Yes, but there’s no reason to go overboard. I mean, this whole ‘magical Negro’ trope—I think that’s bullshit anyway.”

In the film, Simon pulls a gang leader aside and says, “Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. I mean, maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be.” It’s a line that might have been uttered by Furious Styles, and it’s a notion that Kasdan and Singleton and Cameron seem to have shared when they looked around their city in 1991 and saw the helicopters and the fear in people’s eyes.

T2 takes place in 2029—only eight years from now. We’re as enslaved to technology as the Terminator future predicted, although that very technology has brought to light so many instances of police abusing or murdering Black men and women, catalyzing ever more protests and—in some cases—reform. The LAPD has improved its track record somewhat, but it’s still plagued by a lack of accountability. L.A.’s white and wealthy are arguably even more removed from their neighbors than ever before. In some ways, the canyon has only gotten grander.•