Film Review: Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992

Searing images and interviews drive John Ridley’s cogent documentary reconstruction of how escalating tensions finally erupted in all-out chaos on the streets of L.A.
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For all the incendiary language and commentary captured in director John Ridley’s rigorously well-constructed documentary Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, the film delivers one of its most potent statements in its silent, steadfast use of the word “uprising.” Not a euphemism, but a repudiation of the more reductive “riot,” uprising—as in the L.A. Uprising of 1992, as many prefer to call it—strongly suggests that the violence, lawlessness and rage that overtook the city over six days and nights were not in response merely to the brutal beating of Rodney King, and the subsequent acquittal of the four LAPD officers who dealt the blows.

Nor, according to the film, was it just the inevitable eruption that had been augured by growing tremors of racial tension in South Central between black residents and the community’s Asian-American storeowners. The whole world watched in horror as Los Angeles blew up in the spring of 1992, and Let It Fall presents an exhaustive analysis, in riveting detail, from every side of those earthshaking events, to contend that the fuse was lit years and years before everything finally exploded. Ridley, the prodigiously talented, Oscar-winning screenwriter and co-producer of 12 Years a Slave, begins by tracing the historically fraught relationship between black Angelenos and the city’s mostly white police force back a decade prior to another ill-fated traffic stop, one that resulted in the death of a 20-year-old black man at the hands of the LAPD.

The story of James Mincey, Jr.—pulled over in 1982 for a cracked windshield, placed in a carotid chokehold when he allegedly resisted arrest, dead two weeks later from his neck injuries—has long since been overshadowed by the Rodney King episode and all that followed. Yet his death, one of more than a dozen attributed to the department’s use of that particular chokehold, was the tipping point for a community that for years had decried the seemingly excessive use of force applied by the LAPD to arresting and apprehending black suspects. Relying throughout on striking black-and-white photos and copious news footage, the film plunges into the controversy over the chokehold, a method fully supported by L.A.’s then-serving “Police Chief for Life” Daryl Gates, who only reluctantly led a switch to the tactic of “pain compliance.” This switch in protocol, from choking resistant suspects until they were under control to beating them into submission with metal batons, laid the necessary groundwork for the style of training that resulted in four police officers beating King senseless for a grueling minute-and-a-half.

Brandishing a Cameron-esque confidence that the overwhelming destruction and mayhem to come will live up to a lengthy buildup, Ridley spends much of the documentary’s first 90 minutes delineating the human-scale emotions, motivations and choices of the people involved. The Mincey incident is described in one corner by the woman who, at the time, was his teenage girlfriend, still wracked with pain recalling just how young he was; and in the opposing corner, the retired arresting officer, Robert Simpach, who defends the deadly chokehold as appropriate force, as he’ll also defend the Rodney King beating as being merely the result of “a failure of pain compliance.”

A fascinating on-camera subject, Simpach apparently is the lone officer to have been present at both the scene of the fatal Mincey chokehold incident and the Rodney King beating. Among the several ex-LAPD officers who turn up to lay out their recollection of events, only he seems to deliver much of his story wearing what could be construed as a smile, bearing no hint of remorse or guilt. Understandably so, as he presents himself as a former cop who’s at peace with his past actions in the line of duty. The filmmakers manage to show more compassion for those affected by Simpach’s and his fellow officers’ actions, subtly reinforcing that while Simpach has enjoyed decades to tell and re-tell his story about appropriate force, Mincey has had nothing, because he wasn’t apprehended, he was killed.

From the rousing response to Mincey’s death, the film powerfully charts the buildup of tension and unrest in South Central through L.A.’s ’80s glamour years—marked by Olympic triumph, a love affair with Mayor Tom Bradley, and celebrities seated courtside to watch Magic and Kareem lead the champion Lakers. While Jack Nicholson ruled the basketball fans at the Forum, gangs and drugs were wreaking havoc in poor and minority communities. Eventually, the ensuing violence spilled out of the ghetto and onto the relatively peaceful streets of west L.A., culminating in the 1989 gang shooting death of innocent bystander Karen Toshima.

Yet another tipping point, Toshima’s murder set the stage for LAPD’s Operation Hammer, a full-on assault on street crime that exacerbated tensions with the black community even further. As the film persuasively argues, South Central was a powder keg just waiting for a match, when along came Rodney King, pulled over for speeding, and made the inadvertent star of perhaps the most widely seen amateur video ever shot on the streets of L.A. The video itself, deployed quite effectively, in almost just the right proportion to stoke indignation without seeming exploitative, works as a sort of Rorshach test for those interview subjects who address it to assert how it clearly corroborates their version of the tumult that followed.

In fact, many of the interviews are remarkable for revealing survivors who, in the ensuing 25 years, have in no way changed their minds about the meaning of whatever they saw or experienced during the municipal disaster that were those six days of disorder. Ridley’s film, which derives ample emotion from the insistent score by composer Mark Isham (Crash), seeks to move viewers’ minds and hearts at least to reconsider some of what they might have thought they knew, to understand everyone’s side of the story just a little bit better. Called “a war like no other” by one survivor (a Korean immigrant who had lived through actual war), the L.A. Uprising, or L.A. Riots, or Rodney King Riots, had lasting effects on countless lives, as well as the social, economic and political fabric of Los Angeles. Let It Fall ably illustrates the context surrounding that war, delivering a stirring account of what led some members of an oppressed community to take to the streets, attack fellow citizens and set their neighborhoods afire in an expression of pain and outrage.

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