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It wasn’t about Rodney King: filmmaker John Ridley on the LA riots’ forgotten history

“This was not just folks losing their mind on one day; this was a series of events.”

Rodney King
A man holds up a sign reading “We Will Not Rest” on the evening of April 29, 1992, the day of the verdict finding officers accused of assaulting Rodney King not guilty.
LA Times via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Viewers who check out director John Ridley’s new documentary Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 on Netflix (where it’s available after debuting on ABC and in theaters earlier this year) might be surprised by the word “uprising,” which is the term most frequently used in the film to describe the events that followed the not-guilty verdict for the police officers who stood trial for the assault of Rodney King in 1991.

20th Anniversary SCAD Savannah Film Festival - Day 3
John Ridley.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SCAD

Yes, some of the interview subjects Ridley talks to use the term “riots” — which is still the most frequently used word to describe the events — and Ridley himself admits he uses it as well. But he wants to recontextualize those events and everything leading up to them with Let It Fall, and “uprising,” he says, captures the true tenor of what happened better than “riots.”

Ridley, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for 12 Years a Slave and created the tremendous ABC drama series American Crime (also available on Netflix), joined me on the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, to talk about the rest of his career, too. But he’s particularly interested in how his documentary can force us to look again at what happened.

Ridley isn’t using Let It Fall to try to completely change the way people talk about these events. “I don’t want to have a litmus test for what anyone should be able to say ... or what word is correct,” he tells me. But he does want those who see his film to grapple with the full story of what happened, not just the simplistic series of events it’s been boiled down to in the memories of many who don’t live in Los Angeles.

After all, he points out, what happened in April and May of 1992 happened all over Los Angeles, not just in one centralized location, making it a more widespread experience than the word “riots” would imply. He explains:

This was not one event, one night, one neighborhood. This was many events over many years that affected many different kinds of individuals.

For people who’ve never been to Los Angeles, where Rodney King was stopped and assaulted up in Lakeview Terrace, that’s nowhere near South Central. Simi Valley, where the trial took place, nowhere near South Central. Where Karen Toshima was shot and killed in Westwood, [is] not really near South Central.

Unfortunately with history, things get reduced, and people now, if they look at it at all, they call it the Rodney King riots, which Rodney King had nothing to do with. They look at it and say, “Okay, Rodney King was beaten, and Reginald Denny” — a white truck driver who was pulled from his truck during the riots — “he was beaten. So black guy gets beaten, white guy gets beaten. There’s some kind of universal justice.” And we just move on.

In calling it an uprising, we just want to put in front of an audience that this was not just folks losing their mind on one day, but this was a series of events. And people did rise up. Now what they did with it, and how they rose up — very different ways. People can look at it and agree or disagree, or say, “That method of expressing oneself is appropriate; that is not.”

I didn’t want to come into it and say, “Well, this is my opinion, and this is my thesis.” But I do believe in reflection of the title, Let It Fall, systems fall; people rise. We see in this film people rising in the most humane ways and trying to truly look out for their fellow person, irrespective of race, color, gender, and even orientation. There are other people who rise up and say, “You had your chance. I tried to talk to you. I tried to reason with you.” As one individual in this film says, “On that day, the compassion line was closed.” Not even so much about hate. It’s just, I don’t have any compassion. Something’s happened to you, [then] you’re on your own.

That is what we want to get into when we talk about uprising. This is more than just individuals who spontaneously, for no real good reason, just wanted to conduct mayhem. This is individuals over a long period of time who felt like there was no other means to get recourse or express themselves or even have attention paid to themselves.

As we get into in the film, the initial moments of this uprising, people who were there say they had nothing to do with Rodney King. It was about another incident in that 71st and Normandie area, and all of that becomes conflated over time. We just want to separate it a little bit.

There’s much more with Ridley in the full episode, where we talk more about Let It Fall, about the fallout from the 2016 election, and about Hollywood’s problems with sexual harassment. But we have time for less weighty topics, too, including a discussion of the run of comics Ridley, a lifelong comic book fan, would most want to turn into a movie or TV show.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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