The excellent new documentary, “Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race,” tells the terrible story of race relations in Los Angeles, particularly the way a racist police department brutalized African Americans and white property owners kept blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and sometimes Jews out of segregated neighborhoods.
It relates this through the life of Bradley, the five-term African American mayor who brought the city together, as King Arthur sang in Camelot, “for one brief shining moment,” and then saw it crumble in fire and death during the 1992 riot.
The documentary will be shown at 8 p.m. August 18 on PBS SoCal.
Anyone who cares about L.A.’s past and future should see it. Among those who care the most are the two filmmakers, Lyn Goldfarb, an Academy Award nominee, and Emmy winner Alison Sotomayor. I watched them with admiration as they spent several years researching Bradley’s life. They interviewed many people, and wrote and rewrote the script, shaping it into a compelling story. And all the while, they had to scrape up the money needed to finish the project. I never could understand why it would be so hard in such a rich town. But nothing stopped them and now we can all benefit from their success.
Goldfarb and Sotomayor take Bradley from his early childhood on a Texas sharecropper’s farm to Poly high and UCLA, where he was a top athlete, to the LAPD, where he rose to lieutenant despite bigoted superiors and colleagues. Defeated by Mayor Sam Yorty’s racist campaign in 1969, he came back to win in 1973. He served until 1993. He laid the groundwork for the new downtown and for rail transit. He brought the 1984 Olympic games here, his personal Camelot. Most important, he forged a coalition of blacks, Jews, Latinos and Asians that ushered in an era of multi-ethnic politics that lasted until the early 1990s. Years later, Barack Obama followed that path.
From the start, I thought the two filmmakers had a tough job. Bradley was a reticent man who didn’t enjoy talking about himself. No introspective or self-promoting interviews ever came from him, as I found out in my years covering him. Pulling a revealing anecdote from him was exhausting.
I admired Bradley. He was intelligent, courageous, tough, forthright and challenging. One day, Ali Webb, his press secretary, called. “The boss wants to see you,” she said. That meant now.
With another politician, I would have fallen into a defiant, “you can’t push the press around” mode. Not with the mayor. I quickly walked across the street to city hall. He was waiting at his desk with a pile of my stories, a number of paragraphs marked in red pencil. He didn’t agree with them. He told me why, as specific as a teacher grading papers. We discussed, and argued each point. Sometimes I held my ground and on a couple of paragraphs I agreed with him. He didn’t yell or insult me. He was calm and determined. That must have been what it was like when he was showing an errant cop or politician the error of their ways. When we were done, he thanked me for coming over. I told him I respected him for talking to me man to man about my work instead of whining to my publisher or editor.
Goldfarb and Sotomayor caught his quiet and determined manner when they told of his experiences as a police officer and his purchase of a home in a white, segregated neighborhood. The LAPD and housing segregation were racial ills that poisoned the city and they came together when the cops were called in to investigate firebombing by white neighbors against African American neighbors. Bradley took them both on without raising his voice.
He kept the city fairly calm as long as possible. But as this documentary shows, bigotry remains LA’s burden, just as it is across the United States.