Dir. John Ridley, 2017, 120 minutes
At the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival
On ABC Television April 28
It’s been 25 years since a section of Los Angeles went up in flames as protesters took to the streets and torched buildings after the announcement of the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King after stopping his car.
In Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 , John Ridley takes the long view, looking back at the simmering anger hat reached a boiling point and weaving in testimony from across the political spectrum. The film is an odd paradox, a reminder of where things were at a time that seems far removed from today, and an implicit warning of what could happen if another event ignites the same emotions.
Let It Fall played as a Surprise Secret Screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Wednesday night, April 12, after the festival screened Ridley’s new tv series, Guerrilla, in a tribute to the filmmaker. Let It Fall will air on ABC (a producer of the film) on April 28.
Ridley has taken a huge subject, which means that he couldn’t have included everything. Anyone who has his or her own recollection of the LA riots will find gaps, just as there were in Ezra Edelman’s award-winning marathon doc on O.J. Simpson. There’s still plenty to ponder here.
And that means plenty of archival footage from what looked like an apocalypse on television. (No surprise, co-producer ABC TV had a vast archive to supply.) An apocalypse, that is, or a war. As the numbers of protesters in the streets increased, police engaged, and then withdrew, a ominous decision for which no one seems to take responsibility today. Rioters felt emboldened as business owners felt abandoned. Both sides fought with the weapons that they had. In street fighting, as in any battle, civilians pay the highest price. As Ridley revisits the chaos of those days, you wonder why the body count was as low as it was.
The parallels with earlier unrest in LA make you wonder whether police or politicians ever learned anything, or whether they ever will. When the fires were raging, Police Chief Darryl Gates was at a political fundraiser in Beverly Hills. It points to where he thought his constituency was. If you back to a CBS documentary from December 1965 which looked at the August riots of that years in Watts, you’ll be reminded that LA mayor Sam Yorty travelled for a speech in San Diego as Watts burned, and then went to San Francisco the next day to address the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. The governor of California, Pat Brown (Jerry’s father), was vacationing in Greece. Who was in charge? The ponderously narrated 1965 doc, Watts: Riot or Revolt?, raised the same questions as Ridley’s film does now. You can watch it on C-SPAN to see how much and how little has evolved.
Bear in mind that the presence of so many cameras brought the riots to the public from multiple sources, far more than in 1965, when network television had monopoly on the moving picture imagery. Look at Black Lives Matter, or at Aleppo, and we can see how a riot might be documented today.
In Watts: Riot or Revolt of 1965, you’ll also see that anger was simmering, as it was in 1992, and that young black men had lost contact and confidence with their more established leaders. Let’s not forget that Tom Brady, the first black man to be elected mayor of Los Angeles (and a former policeman), was mayor at the time. Not that Bradley had much success quelling the rage in 1992.
Or that the legacy of Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House can be seen as a transformative experience in South Central today. Films like Let It Fall can’t help but be viewed in the context of the present, when on any given night a confrontation between cops and citizens can turn deadly. Could the riots happen again? Emotions can detonate in a moment. We can assume that there are more guns on the street than ever before. Did the LAPD learn anything from 1992? It may take another riot to find out.
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