Filmmakers see hope, paralysis – 25 years after LA riots


A documentary, “Let It Fall,” which opened theatrically in Los Angeles and New York on Friday, is among a number of films timed to mark the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots that took place in the late afternoon of April 29, 1992.

Written and directed by John Ridley, who won an Oscar for his screenplay of “12 Years a Slave” (2013), it offers first-hand testimony from black, white, Asian, and Hispanic Angelinos of all classes caught up in the violence.

If a suspect resisted, “you beat him,” retired detective Robert Simpach tells Ridley, remembering the interrogation techniques used by the LAPD in the early 1990s.

“If he doesn’t do what you told him, then incapacitate him by breaking a bone or a joint,” he adds.

Simpach, who was present as King was beaten but was not one of the four officers involved, says his colleagues’ behaviour was “100 percent LAPD policy.”

Ridley, who moved to LA a year before the riots, shows the violence as the almost inevitable culmination of a decade of heightening racial tensions, gang wars, drug crime and police brutality.

“With a white man, their attitude is enforcing the law. With a black man, it’s about control: ‘Put your hands on the steering wheel, don’t move until I tell you,'” retired fireman Donald Jones says in the two-hour film, due to air on ABC on April 28.

Other documentaries looking at the LA riots include “L.A. Burning,” co-produced for the A&E channel with “Boyz n the Hood” director John Singleton.

– ‘Still victimised’ –

On the narrative front, “Kings,” a romance starring Daniel Craig and Halle Berry which is due for release later in the year, is set amid the civil unrest while “Gook,” by Justin Chon, focuses on tensions between African Americans and Korean traders.

After several lawsuits, King ended up with $3.8 million in damages from the Los Angeles authorities. But he was dogged by depression and nightmares, and in 2012 was found dead in a swimming pool after taking a cocktail of alcohol and drugs. He was 47.

“Twenty-five years ago footage like the Rodney King beating was very rare. Now, unfortunately, people see these incidents happen with regularity,” says Ridley.

One of the main reasons is the ubiquity of cell phones with video cameras, which didn’t exist then, rather than the situation worsening. Indeed, Ridley acknowledges that there have been “positive changes” in the LAPD since the riots.

But these films serve as a reminder that, a quarter century after the riots, relations between law enforcement officers and ethnic minorities, the militarization of police and the use of force remain hugely divisive issues across the United States.

“L.A. Burning” ends on images of the 2014-2015 Ferguson riots which followed the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by white policemen, and unrest in Baltimore after the 2015 death in police custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.

“There are still issues. They’re complicated, they’re beyond race,” Ridley told foreign media.

“You look at Baltimore. You see people of colour represented in uniform and still people being victimised. These are complicated issues.”