John Ridley: Why My LA Riots Movie Doesn’t Talk About Black Lives Matter

The “American Crime” creator made the documentary “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” to explore a seminal moment, not draw parallels to the present

John Ridley Let It Fall
Photographed by Dove Shore for TheWrap

Twenty-five years after it happened, the violence that wracked Los Angeles in the wake of the acquittal of four LAPD officers who brutally beat Rodney King has become an irresistible source of drama. ABC, Showtime, NatGeo, A&E, the Smithsonian Channel and others are broadcasting documentaries about the event this month, and a couple of those docs are also getting theatrical releases.

The longest and one of the richest of the films is “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992,” a chronicle from “American Crime” creator and Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” screenwriter John Ridley. A three-hour version of “Let It Fall” begins a theatrical run on Friday, with a TV version airing on ABC April 28.

The writer-director, who is also overseeing Season 3 of “American Crime” and the first season of Showtime’s “Guerrilla,” spoke to TheWrap about his longstanding interest in the event he refers to as an uprising, not a riot.

TheWrap: Didn’t you write a narrative script about these events years ago?
John Ridley: I did. About 10 years ago, Spike Lee and Brian Grazer and Ron Howard had approached me and asked if I would be interested in writing about the uprising.

I spent a year or so working on a draft that came in around 2007, and over the years it’s been on and off. In trying to stay as true as possible to the narrative, I found that people were not traditionally heroic or traditionally villainous. And in the economics of Hollywood, it was very difficult to do that kind of story, despite the best efforts of Spike and Ron and Brian.

How did the documentary come about?
About 10 months ago, Lincoln Square Productions approached me about doing a documentary, not knowing that I had written the narrative feature. And I thought there was a way to have an emotional honesty, but also work in a narrative structure that was a little nontraditional for straight-up news documentaries.

This is complicated storytelling, and I wanted to upend the audience expectations so they walk away and think, “What do I feel about what happened? And how different is it from what I thought I knew?”

What was your personal experience of that time?
I had just moved from New York to Los Angeles prior to Rodney King being assaulted. I was living in the Fairfax district the night of the uprising, so I was removed from the events of that first night. But most people in L.A. did not know how far it was going to spread and what areas were going to be affected.

During the daylight hours of that second day, as things were spreading, I remember thinking, “If there is not police intervention during the daylight hours, what is the night going to be like?” The police either did not have the desire or the capacity to contain this. And either one of those is not a place where you want to be.

When you were making this, were you aware that several other filmmakers were working on docs about the same events?
There were one or two that we were aware of. It’s the 25th anniversary, and you knew that people were going to start looking at these stories. Every time you do something, you want to feel like the work you do is singular, even when you’re aware that you’re one of many.

And I do feel that this is an event that directly affected thousands of people, and indirectly affected hundreds of thousands. So if there are five or six or seven versions of this story, great. As someone who sat with this story, I hope there are versions that I can watch and say, “That’s good, I wouldn’t have thought about doing it that way.”

One of the thing that your film does extremely well is to take the time to back up and show us context. It singles out things we might not have connected with 1992. Was that a key for you when you were making it?
Absolutely. I was trying to pick some kind of narrative context, looking at it from a 10-year perspective, which was 10 years from the end of what you could call the chokehold era with in the LAPD. But also, I wanted to look at things like the 1984 Olympics, moments when elements of the city were very aspirational.

The idea was to put together this real mosaic of individuals that at the outset seem like a random collection of people recounting their memories of L.A. But then for all of them, it leads to 1992, when they can say very specifically, “This was my intention at this moment, this is why I made the decision I made.”

Some of the other docs about this story openly tie 1992 to more recent events, and to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Right. But we don’t do that.

Why not? And do you think the story of the uprising tells us something about America today?
I think there are parallels to things that are going on, very, very clearly. And for other storytellers to make those connections, I get it and I respect it. But for me personally, Los Angeles is not Ferguson, not Baltimore, not Cincinnati. Those events deserve singular examinations.

So even though there are clear similarities and issues that do not dissipate over time, for me one of the challenges was not doing the easy math for the audiences. This is not a case of, “Now you understand L.A., so you understand the situation in other cities.”

You also address social issues in “American Crime” and in “Guerrilla.” Do you feel an urgency these days to make television about the issues in our political and social landscape?
Absolutely. There is an urgency and an immediacy and an ability to do it. There are some very insightful and reflective films released toward the end of every year because of awards season, but the film business has changed.

The kind of issue-oriented storytelling in films that I grew up with is just not done with regularity anymore. But you do see in television, whether it’s “Black-ish” or “Transparent” or “Underground,” and I would hope to put “America Crime” in there. These are stories of race, gender orientation, so many thing that are vital socio-economic issues today.

You see television shows that are cognizant of issues, and there is an ongoing audience for that kind of storytelling, and studios and networks and content providers that are putting those kinds of shows out now with regularity. I think we can do a better job of telling those stories and reflecting those environments, but I do think TV has embraced and recognized the need to put those shows out.