The powder keg that exploded 25 years ago in Los Angeles — after the shocking acquittal of the LAPD officers involved in the Rodney King beating — gets the documentary it deserves in John Ridley’s enthralling, heart-rending history “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992.” (The film screens theatrically for one week in New York and Los Angeles before debuting on ABC.)
Coming on the heels of a benchmark year for non-fiction movies about America’s ever-simmering racial tensions, from Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America” to Ava DuVernay’s “13th” and Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” it’s a worthy successor. Laying a groundwork of personal testimony and archival assemblage that tells the story of what Ridley, the Oscar-winning writer of “12 Years a Slave,” calls “the uprising,” there’s directness when needed, detail (often horrific) when appropriate, and complexity where least expected.
This is, first and foremost, a story about human beings, those who lived during a time when the worsening state of L.A.’s most economically constricted communities, and the increasingly negligent or destructive attitude toward them by the city’s police, were bound to result in violence. Ridley’s sly, thoughtful approach to the editing of his interviews is to introduce dozens of Angelenos of all colors — black, white, Asian — through their older, seen-it-all faces and some general remembrances, before letting us know who they are with names.
Eventually, the picture is completed with revelations as to what part they played in the run-up to the riots, or the day of, as observers, participants, victims, heroes, or something else entirely.
It’s a surprisingly simple and humane technique, like an anonymous group therapy session that turns into an emotional deposition, or the war saga that gives you the characters’ pre-conflict lives so it can make their role in the battle that much more gut-wrenching. (Ridley shows a similarly artful talking-head technique on his ABC fictional series “American Crime,” which can make two-person dialogue scenes feel like the most private of interviews.)
And in diligently sticking to interviewees who were directly affected by, or themselves influenced, the incidents Ridley recounts, he avoids the trap of larding his movie with experts and analysts who contextualize from afar. This is history from the inside, told by people who don’t always look like they’ve gotten past it, and it’s what makes “Let it Fall” so memorable.
Its power comes from moments like the realization that the gentle soul from South Central — who, early in the film, describes seeing his best friend gunned down by gangbangers — turns out to be one of a handful of African-American bystanders who helped save trucker Reginald Denny’s life. Or that the white cop with the correct outrage about his boss Daryl Gates is also the Incident Commander who made the tragically ill-advised decision to pull all the cops from the increasingly volatile 71st & Normandie area. With first-hand accounts like these, “Let it Fall” achieves a remarkable breadth regarding the depths of heroism and the terrible repercussions of human error.
In examining the events prior to April 29, 1992, “Let it Fall” provides a sobering reminder of the various strands of tension that corrosively paved the way. Ridley chose 1982 as the first bracket in his timeline title because it’s when the LAPD’s controversial chokehold policy resulted in the death of African-American James Mincey Jr. during an arrest. (The King-beating cops would cite the subsequent chokehold ban as the reason they couldn’t restrain King sooner.)
The precursor narrative also includes a tumultuous 1988, in which gang violence hit the UCLA-adjacent Westwood area, leading to the murder of a young Korean woman (whose brother Ridley interviews). That crime was met by a disproportionately injurious police response called Operation Hammer that, in one night, willfully destroyed two southwest L.A. apartment buildings in a drug raid, leaving residents homeless, but yielding no arrests. Two weeks after King was beaten, 15-year-old African-American student Latasha Harlins was shot in the head by Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du, who thought she was stealing.
Du’s slap-on-the-wrist sentence with no prison time only added to the escalating hostilities between blacks and Koreans, and further signaled to a put-upon community that its citizens were as disrespected in death as they were in life. Surely video evidence of police brutality — 57 baton slugs from a cruel scrum of officers in full control of a downed suspect — would be met with justice, they hoped. But then a judge moved the trial to Simi Valley, maybe, prosecutor Terry White suggests, because his honor wanted to be able to commute.
Ridley’s handling of the riots is exemplary, both as archival-plus-interview storytelling, and as a painful road map of scary circumstance, risky curiosity, bad decisions, and brief shining moments of rescue. A good kid grows up to throw a brick that changes his life forever. A closeted lesbian cop outs herself to her partner, defies her superiors, and saves a life. Others carry expressions that suggest, What else did you expect?
The cumulative effect is of anger and fear ignored for far too long, and of a narrow-minded, slipshod protect-and-serve force made stunningly ineffective at either protecting or serving. Though both Rodney King and Daryl Gates are both gone now, their now-iconic TV-clip faces are the haunting extremes in Ridley’s sober, affecting film, the “Why me?” and the “Who, them?” as far apart as ever while a city burned.