October 28, 2020

Allison A. Waite wins Student Academy Award for The Dope Years

By Maria Warith-Wade and Taylor Yarber-Smith

The Dope Years is a riveting documentary that follows the historical retellings of Latasha Harlin's cousin Shinese Harlins and childhood friend Ty O'bard. Together they detail their experience growing up with Latasha Harlins and living through the Los Angeles uprising in 1992. Here is what award-winning director and cinematographer Allison A. Waite had to share about being one of the 2020 Student Academy Awards recipients. 

Can you talk about what it meant for you to make this story? Given you are an L.A.native?

I always believe that a certain level of presence creates possibility in every Black child's life. And I was fortunate to be raised by a family who saw possibility within themselves on a daily basis. I mean, it could be from their rearing as immigrants from the Caribbean. But, you know, my parents always encouraged me that things were possible. But it was strange when I would go out into the world and the world would tell me otherwise, you know? And so I went through trying to balance the way the world perceives me versus the way my community and my family perceive me. And that's really confusing as a child. I saw that in Latasha’s experience where you hear the stories of her standing up for her community, protecting the kids who would be verbally abused by some of these store owners. She was like a mother amongst her friends. And that's what I hear all the time. But, you know, how the world treated her was so different. And of course, as a young girl, I've gone into stores where the worst is assumed of me and being followed and being seen as a target and a criminal before anything else. So I think even though -- what happened to Latasha didn't happen to me. The fact that she grew up in a community right next door, where I used to go to the park and go to church not far, and drive past that liquor store many times to go to school.

So the close proximity and that shared experience of the confusion of being praised in one world and demonized in another.  I felt like it could have happened to me too. As Black children this is our coming of age. It is our shared story of the experience. So I felt like sharing her story would help shed light on things that are going on within our consciousnesses, Black women coming into age and Black children growing up seeing their experience represented through Latasha.

Do you believe the tensions in the community are still there? 

I would say it's about the same, but ownership of space in Black communities has been an issue since the beginning of time in this country. So, I think there are still remnants of that everywhere, but in different shapes and forms in Los Angeles. In terms of communities like South Central, it's a food desert. So we don't have access to a lot of supermarkets, fresh produce. It's better today, but rarely we walk into a store and see organic or even the basic necessities. So a lot of times we depend on these liquor stores. We rely on these liquor stores as a life source and these outside communities know that and they know that they have a certain power within the community. The way they treat us, I believe is still the same, I've had experiences where store owners will stand next to me as I'm shopping and watch me without any regard, and you say, “hey, why are you watching me? Why are you following me?” They'll say nothing, or a racial slur -  it's just a regular thing.

Can you tell us how you were able to capture the essence of community and the unapologetic Blackness in the piece? A lot of times people see communities like South Central and all they attach to it are negative stereotypes and statistics.

We really wanted it to be an oral storytelling, we wanted the women who knew her [Latasha] or who knew the family or grew up in that area to be the people to speak. They would be the ones to orchestrate the story. And we came in with an open mind and allowed them to tell us their experience, what they remember, or small memories with Latasha. We wanted to do it from their perspective.Their perspectives became the framework of the whole story. When you're a kid, you're able to live without feeling, so we wanted to show Latasha in all of her glory and in the happy moments that people remembered her by, not forgetting what happened. She wasn't a misguided teen as many newspapers even wrote about her in the 90s. She, as I said, was a caring community member, a mother to all of her friends.

Can you talk about the media’s role in her slaying? We know the names of so many unjustly taken at the hands of another, but LaTasha Harlins escaped national conversation in the 90s. It’s constantly overlooked as one of the catalysts of the LA riots. 

I really think it's because the interactions between the Black community and the Korean community were so new and people didn't really know how to interpret it or how to understand that dynamic. Latasha's story was sandwiched between the Rodney King beating and the verdict. So that was one reason why people didn't hear much about the story because the video with Rodney King went national at that time. It was the first of its kind. People didn't see beatings on video. It was the first time people were able to see the evidence on TV. Of course, Latasha was on TV as well, but not nearly as much as Rodney King. So a lot of people didn't pay attention or didn't see the value in Latasha as much as Rodney King. Today, we have more and more Black women and their deaths being politicized and people trying to remember their names, actively sharing their names, including LaTasha’s story. We are starting to see more focus on Black women stories as well as Black men stories, and the stories and names of Black trans people. I think we're all slowly educating ourselves and coming into a consciousness of how to understand what's going on.

Can you talk about how you see the intersection of social justice, activism, and art? Especially in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s killing and the assertion that Black women matter decades after the slaying of Latasha. 

Breanna Taylor's death and her murder is evidence, again, that police have maximum power with little responsibility. I think people are tired. They're ready to create work that demands answers. When I say they, I mean creatives, filmmakers and artists, want to create work that demands answers for these injustices that we're able to hold people accountable, hold up the mirror, create discussion. As the Black community, or Black artists, we don't have the luxury of remaining silent. We've learned from the people before us what they've done and what didn't work. We've spent time trying to understand our dilemma, trying to understand our problems, having panels and discussions, and so now people are tired, they just want to demand answers and they want to create work that is unapologetic.

What would you say you're looking forward to? What are your next projects? 

At the beginning of quarantine as a 2020 graduate, we are so focused on getting our first job out and are so busy looking up at the people above us, looking for them to give us an opportunity. We forget to look alongside us and partner with the people who we are in school with, graduated with, or our peers. I think I've been really refocusing on that, working with my friends, people in my community to help make their stories happen and help make their narratives known. So a lot of the things that I'm doing right now, I'm directing and producing specifically with people within my community and people of color. I see promise in their stories and want to help make it happen. One of them being titled, Maternity, written/produced by Maria Warith-Wade ‘21 and co-produced with Rebecca Malaret ‘21. So right now, we are currently in preproduction looking to get it off the ground. But I think it'd be fun to explore the idea of birth, what it feels like to bring a Black child into this world and all the dangers, intricacies, fears that come along with that. Knowing the circumstances of what you're bringing your child into and also the circumstances that you're walking into as a woman, going into a hospital in a world that doesn't see your value or see you as human, that in and of itself is scary.

To see the trailer for The Dope Years, go to The Dope Years