We usually hear the story in the same way. The acquittal of four white police officers in the brutal 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles led to what has simply been referred to as the "Rodney King Riots," one of the most vicious series of lootings, arsons, and utter mayhem that the U.S. had ever experienced—much of which is seen perpetrated by black residents in South Central. Rarely do we hear about the tragic events prior to the beating, the people before King who lost their lives, and the quiet yet steady civil war that had been brewing for years in the City of Angels. Writer/director John Ridley explores each of these catalysts in the refreshingly intimate documentary LET IT FALL: L.A. 1982-1992.
Coming to theaters at a time in pop culture when projects like Ghost in the Shell and Iron Fist have united black and Asian audiences in conversation over a common theme of ethnic erasure and representation, LET IT FALL recounts an era in L.A. when Korean and African Americans were estranged, generally pocketed in their own sections of the city outside of doing business at Korean bodegas or clothing stores. That is, until the senseless murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by 51-year-old Korean convenience store owner Soon Ja Du, just 13 days after the nation witnessed King's beating on videotape, ignited both fear and rage in both communities. Like the four white officers, Du received no prison time.
And all the while in the years leading up to these moments, as LET IT FALL remembers, law enforcement officers (predominantly a white force) were busying themselves in training camps where they were taught how to perform fatal acts like the choke hold, which led to the deaths of countless (predominantly black) victims in L.A. Seen as frivolous and subhuman, black lives continued to be trivialized in 1982 when Police Chief Daryl F. Gates implied that black people might be more likely to die from choke holds because their arteries do not open as fast as arteries do on "normal people."
Thus marks the beginning of Ridley's narrative, detailing a decade of injustice, a rapidly changing landscape, and the perfect storm of racists incidents, bitter silences, and legal complicity. But beyond the retelling of events, Ridley interviews the living victims; including a young black woman who was in the store when Harlins was shot and killed, a black woman whose unarmed husband was murdered by police choke hold, the "L.A. Four" who dragged and beat nearly to death a white man at the infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie, an Asian man who lost his sister in a gang crossfire in Westwood, the amateur videographers who taped the events, the mother and sister of a young man who was killed trying to protect what was left of his ruined Korean neighborhood in the midst of the riots, and several of the police officers who were on the wrong side of the law and the few who struggled in vain to intervene during the riots. In doing so, Ridley presents a thorough, journalistic approach to the decade culminating in the riots, rightly complicating a 25-year-old story that has for so long been wrongly associated with one single event.
In each interview account, Los Angeles' long, fraught history of racism, police misconduct, and civil unrest is brought to the forefront of a narrative that has many faces and was certainly not isolated to any one event. But even more profound, it gives a voice to those who survived, and who offer vivid oral histories of the events like they happened just yesterday—because it's apparent they're still haunted by them (and that the city remains contaminated by them). One of the most striking quotes from the film comes from Damian Williams, one of the L.A. Four, who says in an audio recording, "I'm not a product of my environment. I am a product of bad decisions." It's the kind of accountability that should also be shared by certain law enforcement officers interviewed in the film. But instead, they continue to dissociate themselves with any culpability, perpetuating the damaging cycle.
Juxtaposing footage of the actual events with the narrative of each of their storytellers, LET IT FALL does its part to maintain a sense of urgency around a narrative that still needs to be discussed, interrogated, and accounted for.
Rating: **** out of *****
LET IT FALL: L.A. 1982-1992 is in limited theaters this Friday, and will air on ABC April 28 at 9pm. Watch the trailer: