Although he has been a part of Hollywood for some time, John Ridley cemented his status as a force to be reckoned with when he won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film 12 Years a Slave.
Now, he's back, as the director and screenwriter of the documentary Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982—1992an unflinching look at not only the riots, but the simmering tensions and sometimes devastating setbacks that led to the three-day event that resulted in more than $1 billion worth of damage. Also, the film ( which, no doubt, involved exhaustive research ) delves into how people of all races and ethnicities were affectedand even looks at the life of one woman ( Lisa Phillips ) who came out to her police-officer partner during the riots.
Windy City Times: I've seen this movie twiceand it affected me quite viscerally both times. I'm curious as to why you picked this particular point and time. Is it because you lived through it?
John Ridley: Part of the reason we did this documentary is because the time sort of picked us, with the anniversary arriving and awareness about the events. But, at the same time, there were people who were not aware of what happened, who don't remember or who misremember certain moments.
There was an opportunity to really go back and excavate history; to do it in a very personalized way, with verbatim narratives; and to expand the conversation beyond being binary about raceabout Black and white. There were various communities that were affected, going back at least 10 years. It wasn't just one incident that reverberated through one community; it was a series of events that led to this uprising.
WCT: And it was great that you got so many different perspectives [regarding race].
JR: It's 2017, and when we think about race, we think about it as being binary. And certainly there are particular grievances that Black people have, but we need to look at race, society and community conflicts as being so much more than thatbecause the reality is that they are. We can't have a complete understanding of this event without looking at it through the eyes of the officers, the Japanese-Americans, the Korean-Americans, the Hispanic individualsthey're all a part of this city, and they're certainly a part of this story.
WCT: I understand the title comes from passive behavior.
JR: Yes. There was any number of opportunitiesin my opinion, from looking at this storywhen people tried to insert themselves into situations to let [others] know there were problems and that people were going down a very, very bad road. But I do think there were people who looked at what was going on with an intellectual shrug.
My takeaway from all of this is that when the system fails or when things fall apart, people rise. And you look at the individuals in this story like Bobby Green or Lisa Phillips, who chose to do betterand at the risk to their own lives.
WCT: What was the most surprising thing you discovered while making this film?
JR: More than anything, it was how immediate these emotions were for so many individuals. Even though it's 25 years later, the quality of the recollections, the immediacy of their emotions and their willingness to share these private momentsthat was extremely powerful. All of these individualseven people like the [Rodney King case] juror Henry King, who still feels he made the right choicehad this emotional [resonance] to their stories.
WCT: And Henry King revealed that he's 30-percent Black?
JR: Yes. He said he was slightly aware of it growing up, but he didn't know the extent regarding his own personal makeup and what it meant for him as a person. But still, looking at that moment and time as a juror and still thinking he came up with the right conclusionit was stunning, like all the other stories. It was quite humbling to be part of this [film].
WCT: Was it hard for you to remain objective?
JR: [Laughs] There were a couple moments.
I knew it was difficult, but it was my desire to remain objective. I aimed to it without judgment; I wasn't trying to indict anyone or exonerate anyoneI just wanted to create a space for people to share their stories.
There was one individual who said something and I felt it necessary to question or to not let the answer just stay therebut beyond that, it was not about trying to get a particular answer. I was just trying to guide the conversation about their pasts, hopes, dreams and desires. I want the conversations to be full representations of their histories and stories.
WCT: Sometimes, the emotion comes flying through the screen, like with Kiki [Henry "Kiki" Watson, one of the so-called "L.A. Four" who attacked truck driver Reginald Denny during the riots]. At one point, he says that Black men are not accepted unless "you're a f—king homosexual or a transient."
JR: Yeah. That was a very emotional, very powerful momentbut the way he views what it means to be a Black man is very "us against them." But the strugle is also with how we view ourselves. Kiki, by the choices he made, will represent an element of the Black community in South Central L.A., but he's not the only voice. It's very important to put Kiki next to Bobby Green [a rescuer during the riot] or Gary Williams [another member of the L.A. Four] and say his is not the only response.
People are the products of bad decisions, not a bad environment. Frankly, Kiki is not ready to take ownership of the decisions he's made. It's very important to show things in context and to show as many perspectives as possible.
WCT: And how did you find Lisa Phillips?
JR: I was aware of her story, in general. To not leave her post, to not pull back like other officers did and go into the [scene] and do her jobbut I wasn't completely aware of her personal story and of her decision, in that moment, to come out to her partner.
That, in itself, is an amazingly powerful storyregarding her identity and personal life. But we didn't want to make a blanket demonization of the LAPD; it was an opportunity to say that the officers were not of any particular kind. It was an opportunity to put a new face ( and a new orientation ) on what it means to be heroic. It showed the LAPD in a different light and in a strong light. Lisa is a remarkable individual; we were very fortunate to be able to include her. She is the best of the best, and she retired with honors.
WCT: I know that [onetime LAPD Chief] Daryl Gates died several years ago. If you had the chance to interview him, what's one question you would ask him?
JR: I would ask him if he finally took full responsibility not just for the uprising, but for the attitudes of the LAPD. At one point, he talks about the chokeholdand doesn't really apologize. When you in charge of the LAPD and you set the tone, words do matter. Regret, remorse and empathy do matter as well.
People ask me why I try to humanize him in this storywell, it's because he's a human being. Many people are taking responsibility for their actionsand I would've loved for the chief to have done so, or at least speak to these circumstances in his own voice and words.
WCT: We talked about surprising things earlierbut something that surprised me about you, especially after watching this, is that you have a background in comedy [including stand-up]. [Ridley laughs.] How would you describe your own professional journey?
JR: I would use that word exactly: a journey. Moving from being a comedianwhere you're on stage and it's all about youto where I am now is a journey. I don't know if I'll remain in this space, but it's about creating an environment where other people can share their stories or experiences; that was the case with Red Tails, 12 Years a Slave, American Crime and Guerrilla.
I'm about educating myself about history, experiences, other spaces and other places, and then taking other people's experiences and putting them in a public space. I'm thankful for the space I have now to share those stories.
Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982—1992 is available on YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu and Google Play Movies & TV.