Sophia Nahli Allison, an experimental documentary filmmaker, photographer, and spiritual ethnographer who was named one of the 2020 United States Artists Fellows in film is behind work that allows for Blackness to exist outside of the dichotomies of pain and pleasure. Her film A Love Song For Latasha, which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, explores the life of Latasha Harlins, a fifteen-year-old whose death was a catalyst for the 1992 LA riots.
"What does that mean to tell a story when there is no tangible evidence but the only evidence that survives are from the memories of those who knew her, from that oral history and why was her story never documented in that way?" Allison told VICE. "Why has it taken 30 years for people to finally know more about Latasha outside of those that were close to her during that time?”
Harlins was a straight-A student, poet, and the oldest of three siblings. She dreamed of graduating with an almost perfect GPA, and going to college to become an attorney. These dreams were not stunted because they were unrealistic; they collapsed when her 15-year-old life was abruptly taken. Although Harlins' death has been called a catalyst of the LA riots, we barely hear about her life outside of her last moments—26 seconds of grainy security camera footage.
A Love Song For Latasha uses existing footage and memories from Latasha's best friend and cousin to create a dreamlike account of Latasha's life. The film follows and expands upon a long tradition held by Black women writers (Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker) who reimagined the histories of Black women outside of the limitations of the existing archives. These writers gave complexity to the overly simplified, allowing their characters to create new realities, and heal existing wounds—a task that Allison takes on with the same care, curiosity, and experimentation.
This documentary is an invitation to rethink how Black life and death are documented in a society where the media glamorizes violence against Black bodies. This work is especially crucial during these a time when Black death is at the forefront of daily coverage, and it challenges us to remember the Black womxn, trans men, and non-binary folx we’ve lost and to reimagine the rich and nuanced lives they lived.
Under the limitations of a global pandemic, Allison is currently working on figuring out ways to make A Love Song for Latasha available to the public. She'll be posting regular updates on her website. In the meantime, read the filmmaker's conversation with VICE about her journey making the film, and how Blackness can live beyond trauma.
Mia Harrison: A lot of what drew me to this film was you coming up against this opposition of wanting to tell Latasha’s story outside of the trauma loop—wanting to give her a second breath of life. How did it feel to go through the process of conceptualizing this film knowing that the process itself might become traumatizing for you?
Sophia Nahli Allison: It was honestly terrifying because I didn’t have a blueprint for what it was supposed to look like or what it was that I was actually trying to do. It felt like my spirit just understood that this has to exist. I see it as an extremely spiritual process. The film took two years to actually make. When I was beginning it, I remember pitching it to the documentary organization that I worked with at the time in LA. They had no interest and couldn’t understand why this was significant, why this was important.
We were approaching the 25th anniversary of the LA Riots and that’s when I decided that I had to quit because I could no longer work within institutions that don’t validate the importance of my existence. If they don’t validate the existence of other Black women and girls then they have no right to work with me. So, I quit and decided to create this but I didn’t know what this is supposed to look like because there is no archival footage of her except for, unfortunately, the videotape of her death and a couple of surviving photos.
Your work seems to surround not just the recreation of the archive but the gaps that exist there. Who inspired your work on this topic?
I want to challenge how we remember our stories and our histories. How can this inspire Black women and Black girls to excavate their own memories, rebuild their own archives and retell stories that they may have gaps or missing pieces from? I was deeply inspired by Saidiya Hartman. I read Venus In Two Acts the year before I even started the project because I took a gap year from grad school. My first year, I was in a Black feminism course and she had us read that and something in me clicked. I didn’t know how I was ever going to incorporate it but I understood its connection to my past projects.
Even for myself, my dad passed away when I was 15 and so much of my memories are scattered, some are hazy and fuzzy and I don’t know which ones are real or dreams. I can’t recall certain details so what’s that mean for me to rebuild my life. When I decided to work on this piece and tell Latasha’s story, Saidiya Hartman’s concept of rebuilding the archive and creating alternative histories that are truthful really helped guide me through that. So much of our history as Black folx has been discarded, erased, and not properly recorded. Why do we need to see the trauma to the Black girl’s body to understand why her life is valued?
With such an experimental project, how did you find a team that could support and realize your vision?
I feel really fortunate that my creative producer Janice Duncan and producer Fam Udeorji completely understood, validated, and on the same spiritual realm that I was of why this needed to exist. Fam actually grew up in South Central just like me, so he remembers Latasha’s death and how people in the community were affected. Janice is from Detroit so she has the Detroit experience of violence towards Black folx.
Needing such a small and intimate team to do something that is so personal and intentional and to take the time. Grateful to our funders who allowed the film to take as much time as it needed, who allowed us to have the freedom to experiment and explore these new ways of reimaging someone’s life beyond the traditional and conventional documentary norms. For me, so much of documentary focuses on stories of people and wants to center trauma but don’t necessarily need to be center trauma. It needs to be decolonized. What is problematic for me is that every time people try to talk about the documentary or mention it, they always have to make the trauma the most significant part. They don’t realize that this is actually a story of rebirth, a story about memory, a story about dreams—dreams deferred and dreams still being manifested.
I felt such a deep connection to Latasha, Tybie "Ty" O'Bard (her best friend), Shinese Harlins (her cousin), and the women who portrayed them in the film. As if I was being spoken to in a code I only knew. How did you create this atmosphere in the film?
I always say that this film is a secret language for Black women and Black girls. I want us to find ourselves and to feel ourselves within the piece which is why the image of the young Black girl in the film is constantly different and constantly changing because I want us to recognize that we all could be Latasha. That we are all a part of Latasha. That we all can identify with what it is that we as Black women and girls experience and the importance of us preserving and archiving ourselves and not allowing someone else to do that.
Since the film’s production, what have been some of the personal challenges?
So much of the past year has been my own fear of erasure within the process. Not only did they try to erase Latasha, but my own fear that I’m gonna be erased because people don’t give a fuck about these kinds of narratives. Can we try to expand our stories beyond moments of trauma? What’s really disheartening and the most fucking annoying thing is when white people come up to me after and try to relate to this idea of ancestral memory. It is really insulting to me. I understand that a lot of different folx are going to see this film and I’m completely fine with this but please do not try to be a part of these spiritual, personal, intimate, and private conversations that I am having with Black folx, and predominantly, Black women. Don’t try to come into our circle because this has been crafted, and specifically created for our safety, for our preservation and I’m okay saying you are not allowed.
How did you get through creative blocks while working on the film?
There were times when I would write letters to Latasha. Whenever I felt really stuck, my creative producer who said, “have you written a letter to Latasha in awhile?” just thanking her for allowing you to tell this story. This is decolonizing the documentary practice.
You mentioned wanting to decolonize the documentary form, what does that look like?
In documentaries you have to have photos you have to have footage, and b-roll. But our history doesn’t allow for that type of documentation. So what does it mean when we not only decolonize the final piece but the practice. Janice and I would just go through South Central and walk around and be led by the memory of Latasha. Be led by the spirit of the 90s, by what Ty and Sharice told us. We let the spirit lead us and felt like these ancestors helped us put these missing pieces back together. I think I have been so frustrated because people want to reduce this story down to one aspect and the trauma is 10 percent. That was the last part of her life. Everything else is what’s really important. I’m hoping that this continues to build a blueprint within experimental documentary and hybrid films. How do we reclaim our histories, we are the only ones who can do that.
You have discussed the piece as one that is a vehicle for healing. How did being part of the project help heal Latasha’s cousins Ty and Shanice?
What’s really beautiful is that in the film, Ty mentions that she wanted to go to law school and just told me a while ago that she is going back to finish getting her criminal justice degree. She said she just has so many credits to finish and has always held this unspoken promise to Latasha. Ty never talked about Latasha publicly before this and I feel so blessed that she would trust me with this. Even for Shinese, so much of Latasha’s memory had been through the legacy that her mom built [ before she passed in 2018. Denise Harlins was the founder of the Latasha Harlins Justice Committee. Now, Shinese is the one to continue making sure the legacy stays alive for Latasha.
What’s next for the film, how has COVID impacted this?
Since Tribeca, the film went on to screen nationally and internationally throughout 2019. The LA Premiere was at Ava Duvernay’s Array 360 Inaugural Film Series (2019) and was recently screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. I have been getting a lot of people reaching out to see the film at this moment. I do realize how important it is for people to have access to it right now. We are still working on finding ways to make curated screening accessible.
Regarding COVID, it has been so many of the things that we had planned have completely fallen through. From going to Spelman to the Black Women’s Film Conference. It’s all completely not happening. It’s breaking my heart that community can’t come together right now because these screenings were for us, for Black women to be in conversation.
This is the year I wanted it to be in community and for the community. Now, I am trying to find a new way for it to be accessible and somewhere that Latasha can live.