Photographer Interviews

Girlhood, Interrupted: Documentary Honors the Life of Slain 15-Year-Old Latasha Harlins

June 28, 2019

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Sophia Nahli Allison
Filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison.

Sophia Nahli Allison’s short film A Love Song for Latasha describes the friendship between three girls who grew up together in South Central Los Angeles: Latasha Harlins, her cousin Shinese Harlins and her best friend, Tybie “Ty” O’Bard. As the voices of Shinese and Ty are heard reminiscing about their friend Latasha, impressionistic and sometimes fleeting images of little girls together—walking together, playing, swimming in a public swimming pool—appear on the screen, intercut with footage of a swing set or other places where they played.

Latasha Harlins’ voice isn’t heard in the film. The only video that exists of her is the grainy surveillance footage that captured the last minutes of her life. In March 1991, when Harlins was 15, a store owner accused her of stealing a $1.79 carton of orange juice, though she had approached the cash register with $2 in her hand. The store owner, Soon Ja Du, grabbed her, they tussled, and after Harlins threw the carton on the counter and walked toward the door, Du shot her in the back of the head. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, but was sentenced to probation and community service; she served no jail time.

The Rodney King beating 13 days earlier overshadowed Harlins’ death. Though Allison also grew up in South Central, she didn’t learn about Harlins until 2016. “When I was reading about her, I was disturbed to find that all that existed of her online was the retelling of her final trauma,” she recalls. “I said: This cannot be the only way that this young girl exists.” She did some research, and found Harlins’ cousin and then her childhood friend. Allison asked them if they would be comfortable being interviewed. “I said I wanted to know more about Latasha beyond her death, and learn who she was as a person,” Allison explains. “I feel so grateful and honored that they would agree to it.”

At the time, Allison was living and working in Los Angeles while taking a break from getting her masters in visual communication from the University of North Carolina. She pitched her idea for a video about Harlins’ life to her employer, the news website Fusion (now called Splinter). When they rejected her pitch, she says, “I knew I had to quit and do this story on my own.” Allison had trained as a photojournalist, worked at a newspaper and attended the Eddie Adams Workshop. But she realized that to tell Harlins’ story, she needed “to break free of everything I’ve been taught” about documentary work. She says: “How do we reimagine archives of black women and black girls when the archives are erased or discarded, or only focused on their trauma? How do I challenge traditional rules of documentary so that Latasha can live in her fullness, and show evidence that she existed?” 

© Sophia Nahli Allison
In a poster for the film’s screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, two girls pose for a scene reimagining Shinese Harlin’s childhood memory of her cousin Latasha.
© Sophia Nahli Allison

She decided to ask some young black girls—most of them the daughters or relatives of friends—to reenact moments from Harlins’ childhood. Almost none of the girls had acted before. “I wanted people to realize that Latasha could have been anyone, she could have been me,” Allison explains. “That’s why the image of Latasha is always changing” in the film. Allison, who had only shot documentaries and had no experience directing actors, would first tell the girls what she wanted to show, then simply follow them and observe. “I wanted them to feel comfortable being themselves and not feeling that they had to perform,” she says.

She shot the footage herself, usually using a handheld Canon 5D Mark III. “It made it so much easier working with young girls, not actors, to not have a big bulky camera in their face,” Allison says. The DSLR was inconspicuous when she was shooting on location in schoolyards and streets in South Central. “I wanted it to feel intimate and personal and not invasive at all.”

She created a script based on her interviews with O’Bard and Shinese Harlins, choosing recollections and anecdotes “that touched the core of Latasha.” She wanted the film to draw viewers into Latasha’s life and portray her girlhood dreams for the future before it revealed how she died. Once Allison had figured out the film’s narrative arc, she outlined some ideas for what footage she might shoot. Rather than shooting “crisp, clear frames” that offered “a literal recreation of what you’re hearing,” she wanted to combine the voiceover with fleeting images that suggest visual memories. “In memory, especially when trauma is involved, details are blurry,” she notes. 

For help with production, she turned to her childhood friend Fam Udeorji, who has worked as creative producer on the Childish Gambino video “This is America,” written for the TV show Atlanta, and was the music supervisor for Creed II. Udeorji advised Allison on sound editing and music licensing, and helped her with logistics, locations and casting during the two years she was shooting the film. 

At a gathering of filmmakers, Allison met Janice Duncan, who had worked as a director and producer on fictional features. By the summer of 2017, Allison had edited the first two minutes of the video, which helped her establish the film’s visual style. Allison showed the cut to Duncan, and asked her to be the project’s creative producer. Like Udeorji, Duncan was eager to help tell Harlins’ story. 

When Allison and Duncan toured South Central, they had ideas of what they wanted to shoot but “let a lot unfold,” Allison says. When interesting scenes happened in front of them, “we felt Latasha’s spirit with us,” she says. After they had scouted a church they wanted to film, they returned just as the deacon’s wife was walking in with her two young daughters. “We explained what we were doing,” Allison says, “and she let us film her daughters with the girl we had playing Latasha that day.”

© Sophia Nahli Allison
Archival images of Latasha Harlins. © Sophia Nahli Allison

Allison filmed throughout 2017 and the winter of 2018. She edited the footage herself every night after she shot, to make sure “the puzzle pieces” she was gathering fit together. Work on the film became harder, she says, when she reached the point in the film when she had to reveal what happened to Latasha. She decided to use animation to depict Harlins’s death, rather than relying solely on the surveillance video. Last fall, she filmed the film’s final scenes: Ty O’Bard walks on the beach, her favorite place, talking about how much more she might have accomplished if her old friend had been around to push her forward. O’Bard reads a poem that Latasha Harlins wrote, and cries.

Allison began applying for grants—and getting several rejections—in 2017. When she wanted to give up, “I thought: But Latasha’s story deserves to be told.” In the spring of 2018, she landed a grant from Glassbreaker Films. The funding allowed her to travel between North Carolina, where she had returned to graduate school, and South Central to keep filming. Her application to attend theSundance Institute’s New Frontier Lab Programs was rejected, but about a month later the organizers contacted her, wanting to know how the film was progressing. Months later, they gave her a grant. “We did our best to pay just about everyone who was a part of the crew, and some people did it out of love,” Allison says.

“A Love Song for Latasha” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in late April, and was screened at the AFI Docs festival in June. Allison also hopes to screen it in South Central and to create community engagement programs elsewhere: “I’d love for other black communities to reimagine their archives,” Allison says. She adds that the film belongs in part to Ty O’Bard and Shinese Harlins, and she would like to use it to help them realize a memorial to their friend. “Ty and Shinese want to create their own community center. And I’d love to help them create that.”

The trailer for Sophia Nahli Allison’s film, A Love Song for Latasha.

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Related Links:
Frames Per Second: How Independent Filmmakers Earn Back Their Production Investment

Tips for Pitching Your Film Successfully to Festivals and Funders

The Funding and Distribution of a Feature-Length Documentary

First-Time Director Jonathan Olshefski on Creating a Feature-Length Documentary

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