Guest of Honor

John Ridley’s Lens on the L.A. Riots: ‘We wanted to make it as personal as humanly possible’

The award-winning director shares his own experience during the riots, the creative choices behind constructing the documentary's narrative, and more.

(Photo Credit: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards)

John Ridley is one of the busiest guys in Hollywood. After winning an Oscar for writing the film “12 Years a Slave,” he created the award-winning series “American Crime” and the new Showtime miniseries “Guerrilla.”

This week, he releases a documentary coinciding with the 25 anniversary of the L.A. riots in which portions of that city exploded into violence after police officers were exonerated for the beating of motorist Rodney King. It’s called “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992,” and it takes in not just the riots, but the 10 years leading up to them, including a series of incidents involving black victims. It’s a panoramic view of the Angelenos involved, from law enforcement to victim’s families.

The film will air on ABC on Friday, April 28, at 9 p.m. When Brendan met with John, he started things off by asking the director where he was when the riots started.


John Ridley: I remember being out of the house when things really started jumping off. And I remember I was in a Ralphs [supermarket]. It wasn’t quite, “Stock up because the end is coming,” but just that sense of, “Get what you need, and get out. Get home.”

If you’ve not been to Los Angeles, this is a vast city. It is vast, but man, you could already smell the smoke, you could see the smoke. And, in that second day, my memories are much more vivid because I lived in the Fairfax district, but I remember standing on a street corner with people and just that sense of people… night was coming, nothing had changed during the day, and we’re all just sort of standing there sort of like, “We’re friends, right? So, we’re all cool. We’re going to be looking out for each other.”

Honestly, that sense of just trying to convince other people that you’ve never spoken to before that everything was going to be cool, it was all going to be good. And it clearly was not.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So even though you were there that day, in Los Angeles, you talked to so many people for this film that had a different perspective: people of different races, police officers, prosecutors. I wonder, was there one perspective that really changed how you thought about the riots?

John Ridley: I would sincerely say there wasn’t one. In coming into it, I had hoped and believed that all of these stories, in some way, would carry some equal weight. And our desire was to try and show that all of these stories are really interconnected. They really are.

And I think that when people sit down with “Let it Fall,” there are moments at the beginning, very much by design, where it’s like, “Who are these people? Why are they talking? Is this just going to be a lot of folks randomly recalling moments that are built-up around this uprising?”

But then arriving to the point where very specifically, almost every individual who is represented on screen can say, “And then I did this.” Or, “Then I picked up the phone and someone told me about this,” or something else. We wanted to make it as personal as humanly possible.

Photo Credit: ABC News
Photo Credit: ABC News

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re talking about an interesting decision, which is to reveal the identity of the subjects in the film later on. And you’re disoriented at first. Why did you make that choice?

John Ridley: There are individuals that if we told you who they are from the jump, it would be very difficult to see them as any more than what’s rendered on that tape. It was not my desire to exonerate people, but we also didn’t want to come in and just indict people and make straw individuals.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, someone saw that it was a detective that was involved in one particular stop, someone would just shut off listening to that person.

John Ridley: As old as I’m getting now, it’s hard for me to talk about things beyond my experience. But I do think that it is very easy for people to arrive to stores with their agendas already in place, and myself included.

I believe it was very important in this story for people to meet these folks as people, as human beings, to get a sense of them, and then have them talk about their connection to those events. And that’s a whole different thing when people then have to go, “OK, I see you as a human being. I may not agree with the choice you made, but I see you as a person now.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Many people you talked to kind of have a complicated relationship to the events of that day, but there are definitely some clear heroes in this stock.

John Ridley: There are certainly individuals — Bobby Green, Don Jones, Lisa Phillips — who went above and beyond on that first day, and were amazingly selfless. Even now, they don’t think of themselves as heroes. They saw someone who was not necessarily like them, did not look like them, just knew that they needed to do something because if they didn’t do something, there was a real chance that someone was going to die. Not just die, someone was going to be killed.

[Clip from the documentary plays of an interview with Bobby Green.]

Brendan Francis Newnam: So that was Bobby Green, who saved Reginald Denny. And he [Reginald] was a man who had been dragged out of a truck and beaten within an inch of his life. Someone threw a brick at his head. These are iconic images that anyone who was alive at the time will remember. One of the eeriest parts of this movie for me was watching how fragile civil society is. It’s really rattling.

Photo Credit: ABC News
Photo Credit: ABC News

John Ridley: It is because, you know, look, not to get too political, largely, on the West Coast, people have a very particular feeling about guns, about firearms. But there is that moment where you go, “OK, what would happen?” We put a lot of faith in the system, and that was a day where either people would not or could not intervene… they’re both very unsettling.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’ve made a lot of feature films that tackle serious topics, and a television show that does. Why did you decide to make a documentary about this? And what are the pros and cons of going this route?

John Ridley: I think a lot of it — and I say this as someone who has benefited greatly from what we could call Hollywood — it wasn’t so much about deciding to make a documentary, and I’m very happy I had the opportunity. It was more about it was just very, very hard to get a story like this made in Hollywood.

If you talk about a story that is told from multiple perspectives, there’s not a traditional hero’s narrative. They’re not traditional villains. People make horrific mistakes. And I maybe saying that gently, to even call some of them mistakes. But they’re not typical villains. It’s a balancing act between being very honorific with the facts, and still having an emotional honesty, an emotional velocity to the story as well.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Watching this film, there are things that happened in 1992 that it’s hard to imagine happening today. But at the same time, we have an attorney general and national leadership that’s been talking about law and order, they’re rescinding consent decrees…

Photo Credit: ABC News
Photo Credit: ABC News

John Ridley: Yeah, I mean, at a national level, at an international level, there are things that are happening that are just… A person my age now, you think that we would’ve moved to a better space. I mean look, the fact that I’m sitting here talking to you about these issues… You know, we are a progressive nation. We are, that’s a fact. Sometimes, progress, unfortunately, isn’t directly forward.

I do think that in Los Angeles, by and large, we are living in a better space. But in 1984 in Los Angeles, people would’ve said the same thing. I think there is no denying that at some point, there are going to be issues that we are going to be directly faced with that we need to resolve.

There are obviously similarities in and among what happened in Los Angeles to Cincinnati, Ferguson, Detroit, Baltimore, but we have to treat all of these circumstances as being singular as well. They deserve their own examinations, they deserve their own interactions, they deserve their own answers. But it is painful, to continue to see people demonized, marginalized. It’s certainly painful when you see the people up top doing that, but as in our documentary, we also have to be aware that as individuals, as neighbors, we have the capacity to do that as well. So, you know, I have to hope for the best.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Maybe you’ll have no more subjects to make American crime about.

John Ridley:  I’m very thankful we’ve been able to do “American Crime.” There’s part of me, and I know that day’s not gonna come, but it wouldn’t be that bad to go, “Oh, I’m just going to have to do romantic comedies. The ‘American Crime’ well has run dry, let’s do a musical!”