The Rumpus Mini-Interview #118: John Ridley
What should have been a no-brainer for Oscar contention, John Ridley’s Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 is a mesmerizing documentary investigation into the dysfunctional history of the City of Angels in the decade before, during, and immediately after the LA riots, which were infamously sparked by the acquittal of four LAPD officers, caught on camera beating a man named Rodney King.
Unsurprisingly, given that Ridley won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, it’s also the most thrillingly literary approach to the documentary form I’ve seen all year.
In early November, I was fortunate enough to chat with Ridley as Let It Fall was still making its post-theatrical festival rounds.
The Rumpus: One interesting choice you made was choosing to keep your interview subjects initially anonymous for the most part. You only reveal who these people are, and thus their place in history, slowly and organically as the film progresses. In this way, we get to know each and every one of them as individuals early on, which circumvents any preconceived notions we might have. Was it always your intention to keep their identities hidden at first?
John Ridley: It was certainly my intention to reveal the subjects over the course of the film. For many of the subjects, it would have been very easy for some portions of the audience to arrive already with their beliefs both in place and unalterable. By presenting the subjects first and foremost as people, then revealing their personal connections to the story, it really forces the audience to have to reconcile the individual with their actions. For me, it was a way to make the story more emotional than purely analytical.
Rumpus: Let It Fall also feels very literary, divided into chapters with titles, and the names of many of these real-life characters seeming practically fictionalized. How did your background as a writer influenced your approach to making the film?
Ridley: I really wanted the narrative of the film to unfold like one was reading a novel. There is a patience with which the story is presented, but there is also an emotional velocity that gains momentum, turn by turn. From the prologue, through the chapter markers, I wanted to try to express in every way possible the scope and scale of the events that led to the uprising.
This story isn’t about one event that happened one night and affected one kind of person. It is a history of the people of Los Angeles—a true-life drama—and I wanted its expression to feel as literary as possible.
Rumpus: “Where It All Started,” one of the film’s many “chapters,” could easily have been an entire movie unto itself. The eye-opening accounts from all these resident witnesses take some tremendous twists and turns. I saw the two-hour-twenty-minute theatrical cut—and I know you have an even shorter version for network release—but I thought the film could have been much, much longer. Did you ever consider just doing this as a multi-part series?
Ridley: No. Originally it was going to be much shorter, only forty-two minutes (a TV hour), but very early on I felt there was no way to do the story justice in that amount of time, and asked ABC/Disney if I could make a film. Very fortunately they agreed. I had done multipart storytelling with American Crime and Guerrilla, but I felt very strongly that this should be a rendering the audience digests in a single sitting.
Multi-parts can be very powerful, but in this case I felt breaking the story up might dissipate its impact rather than enhance it. In the end, the two-hour-twenty-five-minute running time felt appropriate.
Rumpus: I was recently speaking with a filmmaker whose biggest pieces of advice to “outsiders” shooting in a community not of their own was to seek out interviews with those who decidedly don’t want to be in the spotlight. You certainly did this with your film; the majority of your interview subjects are media unknowns. How did you find these people?
Ridley: I just have to give so much praise to the producers with whom I worked—Jeanmaire [Condon], Fatima [Curry], and Melia [Patria]. I was intimately aware of all of the subjects, but they most certainly did not want attention for attention’s sake. Our producers really spent the time with them to help them understand their stories would be not only treated with respect, but would be given equal weight within the overall mosaic we were creating.
Many of the perspectives in this film have been historically left out, or marginalized, or demonized. You can understand why some folks might not want to share such raw memories. It was really about spending the time to let all of our subjects know we were not trying to exonerate or indict anyone. We merely wanted to create a space where they could share their stories in their own voices.
Rumpus: For me, one of the crucial revelatory aspects of the doc occurs towards the end, when you dismantle both the blue and black “codes of silence.” On the one hand, you’ve got Chief [Daryl] Gates, who basically throws his officers under the bus to save himself. And on the other hand, you’ve got these heroic residents testifying in court against members of their own community simply because it’s the right thing to do. It really turns our entire understanding of history upside down. Can you talk a bit about why this facet was so important for you to address?
Ridley: It was about showing people taking, or denying, responsibility. Some of the most indelible images from the uprising are the police retreating, or some black people committing mayhem. It was very important to show that not all black people resorted to violence that day, and were willing to testify against some of those who did in court. It was also important to show that a lack of leadership in the LAPD was a central part of the loss of control of the city. The uprising itself was not the end of the story. The story ends, as it always does, with accountability.