It’s hardly surprising that the Rodney King verdict is the subject of a crop of new TV documentaries on the occasion of its 25th anniversary; the contemporary resonance of the trial and its aftermath couldn’t be clearer. From the amateur camcorder footage of King’s March 1991 beating by LAPD officers, which went viral on television in the pre-internet age, to the cops’ shocking acquittal a year later and the ensuing civil unrest that left more than 50 people dead, the case transfixed a nation and changed the public conversation about race and the justice system.
One of the upcoming docs on those convulsive events, Let It Fall, is a work by John Ridley that ABC News will release theatrically before its April 28 small-screen bow. That’s a precedent for the alphabet network’s broadcast division, as well as a smart move to heighten awareness of this stirring film and bring it to as wide an audience as possible.
The incisive beauty of the documentary, and its power, is that it’s not a thesis or an argument but a full-blooded, multifaceted real-life drama. As an artist, Ridley is anything but doctrinaire, and those he interviewed aren’t professional opiners peering back over the quarter-century with 20-20 vision; they’re people sharing firsthand experiences of an explosive, bruising era.
Through their recollections and a potent selection of archival material, the writer-director deconstructs identity politics, much as he does on his narrative series American Crime. Delving into the King case with a storyteller’s eye for the human stories behind the headlines, Ridley has captured what it felt like to live in Los Angeles at the time — not just the emotional turmoil of the weeklong rioting that shook the city, but the decade of politics and tensions that preceded Rodney King’s fateful encounter with police.
That decade, marked by the clashing reigns of Mayor Tom Bradley and divisive Police Chief Daryl Gates, begins in this clear-eyed telling with the 1982 death by LAPD-administered chokehold of a 20-year-old man named James Mincey. It was the 16th such death in a seven-year period, and the one that led to a ban on the use of the controversial subdual tactic. In its place, the police department turned to metal batons, like the ones that would be wielded, to infamous excess, against Rodney King. Ridley’s film reminds us that President George H. W. Bush weighed in on the video of King’s beating by declaring, “It made me sick.” In a new interview, an Angeleno whose son was directly involved in the L.A. riots says the images reminded her of Emmett Till.
Everyone the filmmaker spoke with was, in one way or another, on the frontline of pivotal events. They include civilian heroes, retired police officers, and the relatives of victims of violence as well as its perpetrators. One grew up on a Mississippi plantation; another is the child of Japanese-Americans who were sent to domestic internment camps during World War II. Crucially, the roles of a few participants are revealed only late in the film. Until then, they’re identified as residents of South Central (using the period-appropriate designation for the city’s predominantly black communities, officially changed in recent years to the presumably more neutral “South Los Angeles”). Withholding key pieces of information about certain interviewees proves a shrewd choice that will compel many viewers to examine their own assumptions.
Among the toxic assumptions that the documentary exposes is the 1980s LAPD notion that uncooperative suspects must be on PCP, as was falsely alleged of King. If such suppositions were more readily applied to black suspects, the film deftly offers examples of racism both institutional and personal. While most of the police veterans in the doc offer thoughtful commentary, its most sickening instant arrives in the form of an ex-cop’s gratuitous malice: Talking about chokehold victim Mincey, he says of the young man’s girlfriend (who also spoke with the filmmakers) that she was pregnant “supposedly with his baby.”
Let It Fall is filled with insights and instructive cause-and-effective connections, but there are no neat conclusions to draw. Each unfolding event in this 10-year drama feels both inevitable and preventable, the stuff of true tragedy, racially charged, whether it’s black teenager Latasha Harlins‘ shooting death by a Korean shop owner or white truck driver Reginald Denny’s brutal beating for being the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Some of the men who attacked Denny are interviewed, as is Bobby Green, who rushed into the unpoliced mayhem at Florence and Normandie to save him. They were all residents of South Central, all African-American. Ridley’s film is an eloquent testament to the artifice of race as much as to its social reality.
With his filmmaking collaborators, he lays out an elegantly organized timeline of critical moments in the psyche of a city whose star was rising even as it was rattled by gang warfare and the prevalence of crack. Through the reminiscences of witnesses and survivors, he gives the collision of crime, fear and ultra-aggressive policing new urgency and dimension. Like journalist Jill Leovy’s indispensable book Ghettoside, Let It Fall is an astute portrait of Los Angeles and, in turn, American racial politics, viewed through the prism of the legal system and its effect on lives — a work that’s troubling and illuminating and shattering in its compassion.
Distributor: ABC News
Production company: Lincoln Square Productions
Director: John Ridley
Screenwriter: John Ridley
Producers: Jeanmarie Condon, John Ridley, Melia Patria, Fatima Curry
Executive producer: Morgan Hertzan
Directors of photography: Sam Painter, Ben McCoy
Editor: Colin Rich
Composer: Mark Isham