On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 29, 1992, a jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department officers of criminal charges in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. By nightfall, the city was in flames, ignited by the rage of an African-American community that had been denied justice time and again in a city where racial tensions had simmered for decades. Over a six-day period there would be widespread rioting, looting, arson, and killings, and the California National Guard would be summoned to stem the violence. In the aftermath, property damage was estimated at $1 billion; the damage to the city’s psyche was incalculable.
Almost exactly 25 years to the date, screenwriter and director John Ridley’s first documentary film, Let It Fall: LA 1982-1992, offers a sweeping yet humanized two-hour overview of the events of April 1992 and a preceding decade’s worth of police brutality and other factors that caused those tensions to eventually boil over on that fateful day. Ridley, who won an Academy Award for his 12 Years a Slave screenplay and is the creator and show runner of ABC-TV’s American Crime (which dramatizes real-life criminal cases) collaborated with veteran journalists from ABC News’ Lincoln Square Productions on the film, which airs Friday, April 28, 2017 at 9 p.m. on the ABC network in the U.S. A longer cut is currently in theatrical release.
JR: John Ridley
POV: Steve Ryfle
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
POV: Where were you on April 29, 1992? Not just geographically, but where were you in your life, how did you experience the events, and how did they affect you?
JR: Physically I was in Los Angeles, living in the Fairfax district, which is geographically removed from where the initial incidents took place on that first day. By the early evening of that first night, I think everybody could sense and feel there was a situation where the police, the administrators and the municipality were either unwilling or unable to control and that was very frightening.
I was relatively young, early twenties, had just moved from New York, which at that time had been dealing with a good deal of racial problems. You know: Bernhard Goetz [a white man who shot four black youths on a subway train in 1984], Howard Beach [Queens neighborhood where a racially charged incident took place in 1986], Crown Heights [Brooklyn neighborhood, site of 1991 race riots], Tompkins Square Park riot . There was a lot of animosity in the city, which was surprising to me because I feel as though New York is a major metropolitan area, a cosmopolitan city where people would see and appreciate other people, their differences and what they brought to society. [But] I did not feel that in New York, and when I moved to Los Angeles initially, I thought OK, [this is] a better place. It was an LA that I remembered from the 1984 Olympics and from seeing award ceremonies, and where it just seemed like people were in service of dreams.
But by the time I had gotten to Los Angeles, by 1991…we were all made aware of what many people in the city long knew—that there were real serious tensions [between] different demographics and how the police were applying the law in different neighborhoods. By the time the uprising began, I think people in Los Angeles already understood that they were serious issues. [But] I don’t think anybody could have expected how, on such a massive scale, this uprising would take place.
POV: This is your first foray into documentary film. When and how did the idea come to you?
JR: I had been interested in telling the story of the uprising for almost 10 years, and that goes back to a time when I was approached by Spike Lee and Brian Grazer, Ron Howard about trying to craft a narrative version of the story. And for me, beginning 10 years ago, it was a real upending of what I understood the uprising to be. It wasn’t about one moment; it wasn’t about one night; it wasn’t about one individual. It really was about many different people and communities. In trying to write that story and mount the film over 10 years [I found that] it is very difficult to tell that story from any perspective; it is not a traditional hero’s narrative; people are not traditional villains. They make mistakes. They do very inappropriate things, very harmful things, but they didn’t necessarily wake up in the morning thinking they’re going to go out and do wrong. It’s not an uplifting ending…
I felt there was a real opportunity to elongate the storytelling, elongate the lens if you will, to involve different communities, to be patient with the storytelling, to excavate these issues as much as possible. There’s an advantage in the documentary space of taking the facts and being able to lead with them a little bit more. Whereas in a film narrative, there is a different kind of drive, a different kind of involvement. But with this documentary I think we were able to be more patient, be more objective, be more broad-based, and have an emotional honesty as well as a factual honesty to the storytelling.
POV: Among the people interviewed for Let It Fall, there are no big names—no famous politicians or celebrities. Instead the story is told through the words of actual people who lived through the events of April 1992 at the street level: residents of neighborhoods that burned, beat cops who responded to the violence, Korean-American merchants. This results in a story that is far more personal and human than the incendiary nature of the material might suggest. Was there a conscious decision to avoid the big-ticket type of interview?
JR: It was important for myself and the other individuals involved to make sure that this was a very human story…When I was a younger person. it was very much about inserting my perspective or leading with my opinion…In a space where this story really could have been about proselytizing or finger-wagging or leading with an opinion, I thought it was more important to start with a collection of individuals: we’re not exactly sure who they are; we’re not exactly sure what their connection is to these events, if any connection at all…[We] allow the story to unfold at its own pace, over time, and in some ways discover who these folks are, discover their connection, and live these events with them.
As with any moments of history, there are the people who are readily identifiable by name or deed, but there are other individuals daily who are caught up in decisions and choices, who are swept up in the moment. And those are the people who tend to be unfairly affected. So that’s what we wanted to do with the story, is [to] be less about a particular opinion or a particular perspective and more about building an apparatus where we could deliver empathy across a wide perspective.
POV: You chose to begin the movie roughly 10 years before the April 1992 events with the story of James Mincey, a young African-American man who was killed in an altercation with police. He was not a criminal and had a bright future ahead of him. This one incident is like the symbolic match to the fuse of the Los Angeles powder keg. It’s an entry point into the police violence, the excessive force, racial profiling, the tension between the LAPD and the community, all the things that would eventually explode.
JR: Yeah, we look at a 10-year period and certainly, when one talks about engagement with the police and the history of Los Angeles and the vast demographics, we could have rolled that story back another five years, or ten years, or back to 1965 [when the Watts riot took place]. But for our purposes and our capacity, a decade was a sufficient space to look at the issues we wanted to look at.
James Mincey’s case [was] one of the last applications of the chokehold as a method of subduing suspects by the LAPD; subsequent to that [was] the introduction of the metal baton, the PR24. The fact that people who were involved in the arrest of James Mincey did bring a bias, in my opinion, to that arrest, thinking that he was on PCP…and had to be handled in a particular fashion…It was the beginning of a number of steps that led to the Rodney King beating and then obviously to the uprising. It felt that was an appropriate span of time with which to begin our story and end our story.
POV: How deep did your research go? And were there people who did not want to be interviewed?
JR: Very fortunately I’d been able to familiarize myself with these stories over a 10-year period. Many of the subjects involved I was either aware of, or I had some incidental contact with, or I’d read books or articles or personal narratives. Arriving to it, I felt I had a good deal of time to, as a writer, become a bit of a lay expert. I was very fortunate to be working with… producers who [do this] all day, every day. When I could put in front of them a list of individuals I wanted to speak with, [they had the resources] to find those individuals, to approach them all in a very individual way. [Having] different kinds of producers with different backgrounds, some in law in enforcement, some with community involvement… allowed us to get further down the road with some of these individuals than I would have been able to on my own.
The four officers who were charged with the assault on Rodney King chose not to speak to us. Among them, we had different levels of engagement. Some would not talk to us at all; others would talk to us but off the record and explain the circumstances of why they didn’t feel they wanted to speak with us. I wish they had; I do think there is more to the story; I do think there is a human dynamic.
We did not want to necessarily exonerate anyone for their actions or what they did, but we didn’t want to indict people, either. We really just wanted to build out a space where, if people cared to share their experiences, their perspective, be as candid as they cared to be, this would be a space where they could do it. I think some people forced the audience to reconsider what they may have thought. Other people left the believing what they have always believed may be the truth. But we tried to do that in all cases without bias, without editorializing, just creating a space where people could share their stories as they saw fit.
POV: Documentary film has moved away from the talking-head format. In watching Let It Fall, I was at first surprised that this format was utilized to such an extent but I soon realized that there was probably no other way to tell this story.
JR: I think you’re absolutely right. Many documentaries, they want to involve the audience in different ways and the concept of the talking head…can feel a bit antiquated. For me, I never felt that these individuals were merely talking heads because they didn’t just have an intellectual recollection or an intellectual perspective on the stories. They were incredibly personal.
It’s about capturing more of a collage of people’s stories than if it had just been academics…dryly talking about history and facts and things like that… But as the language of cinema advances there are elements of it that can, if not handled correctly, feel as though they exist in an antiquated space. But for me, knowing the power of these personal narratives I didn’t feel there was any other way to do it. And quite frankly any other way to do it would be incorrect. There are other documentaries out there about the LA uprising. Every storyteller has their way of doing it. I know that other people bring their own velocity to it. But the emotional velocity to ours, to me, mitigated any concerns about it being just a collection of talking heads.
POV: Were there any films that influenced your approach to Let It Fall?
JR: No. I enjoy documentaries, I really do. I had not worked in the documentary space before but we had done some versions of documenting stories in American Crime, the TV series I do. Last year we had an episode that was largely devoted to people documenting stories. In doing that, and feeling the power of individuals just sharing their story in a largely unedited fashion…[it] just helped me believe this was the correct way to tell this story.
[In] a documentary that I saw, Last Days in Vietnam, the individuals were quote-unquote talking heads, but as the story evolved there were elements of their personal narrative that were not revealed until very late in the story. As the story evolved, as these last bits of information were imparted to me, I was just stunned…“Oh my God, I never considered that; I never thought about that.” And that really informed me…
There’s an inevitability often in documentary; you’re building toward certain subjects and the audience that comes to it are savvy [and] there are things that they know to a certain degree. But what kinds of things within that can you hold back from people? What kinds of things can you reveal moment by moment? I think at some point the audience becomes aware that all these people talk, and they’re going to have a personal narrative. But we could have lead with, “Hey, this is the LA Four. These were the officers that were at the scene of the Mincey arrest [and] subsequently at the scene of the King arrest.” How can we weave that into a narrative so that we as an audience arrive to their connection with history along with them instead of preceding them?
POV: So much of the current conversation about race in film and TV stems from your work, and the work of a handful of others. Where does Let It Fall sit within your body of work, and do you plan to continue working in the documentary genre?
JR: I think you categorized that in a very good way, that it sits among a body of work. I have been very fortunate to be able to tell stories at all. It’s not easy for anyone, and when you add any kind of what is perceived as an “other” to it, whether it is being a Black male, or a Latina, or an older Asian female writer, whatever it is, that bar of entry continues to rise. So I’ve been fortunate to tell stories that I feel are representations not just of Black American history…[but of ]our history. This is American history, world history. But within that, I’ve also been fortunate to be able to tell stories in very different ways. I did start out in stand-up comedy, and I’ve written half hours, and novels and graphic novels and features and television. And I’ve been very fortunate to work in the documentary space.
For me, it’s been less about wanting to work in one particular space, but what is the most appropriate delivery mechanism for the story that I have the opportunity to work on now? As I said, I had for years wanted to try to tell the story of the LA uprising as a feature narrative and it just proved to be something very difficult to do. But when I had the opportunity to share this story as a documentary…to not shy away from things, to embrace things, to embrace this version of storytelling…[it was satisfying] but…part of a body of work. And to not be limited by my lack of experience in some spaces, to be able to take all of my experiences and bring them to bear on whatever it is I’m working on at the moment, and then always be looking toward what’s next. I’ve had great experiences, I’m happy to tell stories from the quote-unquote Black perspective but if I’m not creating spaces for other people as well—the only reason I’m here is because people gave me opportunity. I have to make sure that as I move along, there’s opportunity for others as well.