In the seven months since John Ridley’s documentary on the LA Riots first hit theaters and then ABC, the nation has taken a turn, the director says—and not for the better.
“I ask this as a rhetorical question—why have we regressed that much between April and November? It certainly seems that way,” he tells Deadline.
He cites two developments that followed the debut of Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992—the march by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia last August that left a counter-protester dead, and the burgeoning controversy over the “take a knee” movement in the NFL.
Ridley expresses shock that one group—NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem—has come under attack from President Trump, while the president said the torch-bearing marchers in Charlottesville included some “very fine people.” That kind of “equivocation,” as Ridley puts it, shows how little the country has progressed since the time of the LA cataclysm.
“It doesn’t feel as though these issues are being resolved with any more rapidity,’’ Ridley notes.
Let It Fall marked a departure into nonfiction for a man better known for creating the TV series American Crime and Guerrilla, and for writing the screenplay to 12 Years a Slave, which won him an Oscar.
“This is a story that I had been trying to tell for more than 10 years,” Ridley says of the documentary, which recently qualified for Oscar consideration. Let It Fall re-opened on a single screen in the LA area today, as the deadline approached for the Academy’s documentary branch to narrow best feature contenders to a shortlist of 15.
“It’s very humbling to be part of the conversation,” Ridley acknowledges. “That does not get old.”
Also part of the Oscar conversation this year is another film on the LA Riots—LA 92, directed by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin. While they share a subject, the films take very different stylistic approaches: LA 92 is composed solely of archive material, while Ridley combined archive with new interviews with many key players from the original events.
“We wanted individuals whose recollections were immediate and were raw and were, in many cases, overlooked by history,” Ridley says.
Those individuals included Gary Williams, who was convicted of attempting to rob Reginald Denny, the white trucker who was nearly beaten to death at the outset of the unrest at the intersection of Florence and Normandie.
Williams told Ridley of those events a quarter-century ago, “I have compassion for anybody… [But] at that time, the compassion line was closed.”
Bobby Green, who would run to Denny’s aid and save his life, told Ridley about having a divine vision that compelled him to take action. The director also interviewed Michael Moulin, the LAPD lieutenant who made the fateful decision to withdraw officers from the flashpoint at Florence and Normandie, which many observers believe allowed the situation to spiral out of control.
“We wanted to create a space where everyone felt as though they had the opportunity to speak their piece, impart their perspective freely and fairly,” Ridley says. “It was not our desire to indict anyone in this film. But it was also not our desire to exonerate anyone.”
Let It Fall not only explores the events of April 1992 but the 10-year period that led up to them. Ridley sees 1982 as a seminal year because it marked the end of the LAPD’s use of the chokehold to subdue suspects. With the chokehold no longer an option, the department furnished officers with metal batons—the PR-24—the very kind used to brutally beat motorist Rodney King during an incident captured on video. It was the acquittal of the white officers accused of using excessive force on King that triggered what Ridley considers an uprising versus a riot.
“I think it was very important to understand that the uprising itself was not about one incident that happened to one person or affected one community,” he insists. “There were any number of instances and incidents along a timeline that were indicative of where LA was and where it was heading.”
Where is LA heading now, and the country in general? Ridley says it would be wise not to ignore the question.
“If what happened in Los Angeles 25 years ago was something that built up over time, what’s building up right now? What communities are being left behind? What individuals are not franchised in a way that many of us are franchised?” Ridley wonders. “I think those are the questions we have to ask.”