There was something about it that John Ridley just could not let go of.
For 10 years, Ridley, the Oscar-winning writer, actor and producer, shopped the idea of a film dealing with the savage beating of Rodney King in 1991 by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, and the subsequent trial of four of the officers and acquittal verdict that turned parts of L.A. into veritable war zones for a five-day period (punctuated by the violent beating of truck driver Reginald Denny by rioters).
‘LET IT FALL: LOS ANGELES 1982 – 1992’ Film screening and discussion with John Ridley When: 8 p.m. Aug. 12 Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State Admission: $6-$11 Info: siskelfilmcenter.org
“I was very fortunate that 10 years ago Spike Lee was interested in doing a narrative film about the L.A. uprising and he invited me to work on it as a writer,” Ridley said in a recent phone chat. “It wasn’t about one person, one night. It didn’t just affect one community. It was a story that [absolutely] lent itself to narrative film, but it was difficult to get a studio behind it.”
Eventually, the project, with Ridley as director and writer, attracted ABC and Lincoln Square Productions, and the film became the critically acclaimed 2017 documentary “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992.” The doc premiered in April on ABC, but will have its big-screen Chicago debut Saturday night at the Gene Siskel Film Center, as part of the Black Harvest Film Festival. Ridley will be present for an after-screening conversation with the audience.
Much like the now-defunct ABC anthology series “American Crime,” which Ridley created, executive produced, co-wrote and directed, and which also dealt with the issues of race and social/cultural inequality, the documentary focuses on the personal narratives of the people involved to tell the story. The film, Ridley said, unfolds like a book, with characters and emotions that enter the story in ways the viewer may not expect. The “expert talking heads” that so often invade a documentary’s space are nowhere to be found in “Let It Fall.” Instead, the persons doing the talking are the real-life people who were directly involved in and affected by the events leading up to and after the King beating.
“I really wanted to avoid experts who know things about Los Angeles,” Ridley said. “It was very important in a story like this [to have] the real people connected with it, who can say, ‘and then this happened to me.’ … The real moments outweigh anything I could have created. You can’t compare anything to these individuals telling their stories in their voices with their emotions, for better or worse, from their perspectives. …
“We’re still dealing with systemic inequalities, very hardened views about certain things. Then events happen and they can’t help but become politicized,” said Ridley, who moved to L.A. one year before the King incident. “And we forget at the center [of the storm] there are people. They’re looking for justice, empathy, understanding — not to be held up as symbols, but as people. … We rise or we fall as people.”
Raised in the Milwaukee suburb of Mequon, Wisconsin, Ridley would eventually move to New York, performing stand-up comedy and making the rounds of late-night talk shows. He eventually left that arena, moving to L.A. in 1990, where his writing talents snagged him sitcoms including “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “The John Larroquette Show.” He would turn to penning novels, including “Stray Dogs,” which was co-adapted by Oliver Stone for the big screen as the 1997 film “U Turn.” Another Ridley novel, “Spoils of War,” became the 1999 film “Three Kings” (he has penned seven novels to date). Other television credits include “Third Watch” and this year’s Showtime miniseries “Guerrilla.”
In 2014, Ridley won a best adapted screenplay Oscar for the film “12 Years a Slave.” “I’ve been very fortunate in my career,” Ridley said. “Having that kind of peer review solidified in a lot of people’s minds what they may have thought about me as a writer and as a talent. I was fortunate that I wasn’t so young I couldn’t deal with it, or so old that it was a lifetime achievement award. It was an amazing thing to happen at a very good time in my career.”
As for similarities between Los Angeles and Chicago, Ridley said: “I would never classify myself as a historian. But I’ve dealt with history a lot and find these things are cyclical, they never really quite go away. Detroit in 1968. Baltimore in 1967 … We have to recognize there are systemic issues that go beyond black and white.”