Let It Fall Is An Emotionally Masterful Look At The LA Riots
“You could ask me what happened on April 23rd, I probably couldn’t tell you. But I could tell you everything that happened on April 29.”
That quote lays a rock-solid foundation for John Ridley’s stunning retrospective on the 25th anniversary of the LA Riots called “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992.” The two-hour documentary takes a slow, deliberate and thoughtful look at the events and socio-political conditions that created a perfect storm leading up to the riots that caused $1 billion worth of damages, 50 deaths, hundreds of injuries and countless businesses lost.
Featuring interviews from more than a dozen people who lived through and witnessed the riots, “Let It Fall” does a masterful job in not only painting a gritty portrait of the events of that day, but also showing the riots through the eyes of each community impacted by the events leading up to April 29th.
The documentary begins with black and white still images, chronicling some of the violence on the day the riots broke out at the intersection of Florence and Normandie and radiated throughout South Central Los Angeles. The quiet opening quickly shifts to the tragic story of James Mincey Jr., a young African-American man killed by the LAPD in a choke-hold. In one of the most well-orchestrated scenes in the documentary, Ridley carefully pieces together two narratives of the events leading up to Mincey’s death: One from his girlfriend Marjean Banks and one from arresting officer Detective Robert Simpach. Bouncing between both interviews, Ridley is able to subtly underscore the fundamental difference between how the police officers involved were able to legitimize and justify their use of force and how people of color saw the larger issue of police brutality in their community. Mincey’s death begins the slow build that makes “Let It Fall” effective: It shows that the LA Riots weren’t simply a knee-jerk reaction to the acquittal of the officers who mercilessly beat Rodney King, it was an outpouring of anger, frustration, fear and resentment toward an establishment that had, by its very neglect, sanctioned the mistreatment of Black and brown lives in this community.
“Let It Fall” also does a tremendous job in setting the scene for what would mar the greater Los Angeles community years later. From a look at then-police chief Darryl Gates’ history of bias and questionable decision-making to how the baton (the P24) was introduced as a “non-lethal” way of subduing suspects to replace the choke-hold, Ridley carefully selects important developments across the political, social and economic landscapes to highlight all the cogs in the same wheel that drove hundreds to the streets on April 29th. Though passionate in his execution of showing the injustice wielded against the Black community, Ridley is also conscious of showing that African-Americans weren’t alone in their pain. Tensions between the Black and Koren-American communities also rose because of transgressions on both sides of that divide. From a young Korean woman, Karen Toshima, who was caught in the cross-fire between two rival gangs to the murder of Latasha Harlins by a Korean-American store owner, these events created a virtually insurmountable degree of pressure on both communities.
Harlins’ death, just 13 days after the beating of Rodney King, added fuel to a growing fire. With the footage of Harlins and King circulating across news outlets, outrage and anger spread outside of just the immediate Los Angeles community. With so many Black lives being lost, with so many Black bodies being treated with indignity, the stage was set for an explosion. Viewers know what is coming, they know these feelings of fear, frustration and anger all to well, but it doesn’t make the footage of the announcement of the “not guilty” verdict any less tense. As each of the four officers escapes the punishment they so thoroughly deserved, viewers — imbibed with the knowledge of what ultimately would happen on the streets of South Central — are shown a true 360-degree portrait of that single day. From those whose anger drove them to Florence and Normandie, the epicenter of the riots, and pushed them to use violence to breathe life into their hatred, to the lesser-known stories of those who came to the rescue of people nearly swallowed by this anger, Ridley successfully shows how a culmination of events led to a seminal moment in America history.
While Ridley has certainly come under fire recently for his decision to cast Freida Pinto in “Guerilla,” a six-part miniseries telling the story of the British black power movement, it is difficult to find fault in his multi-perspective work on the LA Riots. Though difficult to be wholly unbiased given the clear racism and classism that were at the center of the riots, Ridley isn’t dismissive of the viewpoints of police officers, Black and white. While it is clear for viewers to differentiate the officers who found little fault in the actions of some of their brothers and sisters and those appalled by the state of an organization they devoted their lives to, Ridley gives each person featured in “Let It Fall” the respect of time and the power of their own voice.
“Let It Fall” is an unabashedly real look at a moment in American history that might have just as much resonance today as it did 25 years ago. With a new generation of tragic stories unfortunately added to the cannon of oppression Black and brown people face, “Let It Fall” serves as both a somber reflection on the impact April 29, 1992 had on an entire generation, as well as a cautionary tale. With such divisiveness and frustration looming in our nation, it may not be unthinkable to believe the events of that day could happen again. But where this documentary truly soars is in its emotional connection. Each person featured was directly, and often negatively, impacted by the riots. The human faces from all sides should help us to try and come together. To find ways to work through the pain and find the justice we’ve all been searching for since well before 1992 and long after it.