The funeral of Edward Jae Song Lee in Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992 (Lincoln Square Productions)

It was more than 25 years ago when Rodney King, an African American motorist in Los Angeles, was videotaped being brutally beaten by several Los Angeles Police Department officers. Setting off a firestorm of controversy, pain, and destruction, this event, and the riots that followed, are well known. What is less known is the history precipitating that seminal event, which is the welcome role the new documentary Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 plays. From writer/director John Ridley, the creative force behind the beyond-relevant show American Crime and the modern classic 12 Years a Slave, the film provides considerable authoritative historical context and insight into the kind of institutional racism that even now has yet to be seriously reckoned with.

Brimming with interviews of former police officers, longtime city natives, family members of those impacted, and an admirable diversity of perspectives, Let It Fall brings the decade 1982–1992 to life. The documentary makes clear that the glory days of LA in the early to mid-1980s, with the Lakers of Magic Johnson winning titles and the wild success of the 1984 Olympic Games, were a superficial facade masking deep socioeconomic crises. Huge segments of the community, disproportionately African American, were living in poverty, resorting to violence, and their interaction with municipal officials and cops contentious. This disjunction between violence, poverty, and despair and the glitzy, high-flying utopian idea of LA was a powder keg waiting to explode.

Considerable time is devoted to the militarization of the LAPD, which in many ways set what would become a national trend of transforming police forces to paramilitary groups. The militarization was the result of a concerted effort to “drop the hammer” on the already despairing members of the African American community—the effort was literally code-named Operation Hammer. Examples include the tactic of ransacking homes, utterly tearing apart all fixtures and furniture, under the pretext of searching for a few grams of marijuana or cocaine. This institutionally sanctioned brutality reminded many of the bad old days of Jim Crow. Making matters far worse was the openly racist leader of the LAPD, Daryl Gates, whose attitude toward the African American community vacillated between indifferent obliviousness and violent persecution. (Gates is not as well known to as he ought to be, and this documentary may change that.) After the release of footage of King, writhing in pain on the ground as he’s viciously attacked by a group of police officers while offering no resistance or threat, everyone in the area knew that if the policemen got off scot-free, there would be hell to pay. The ensuing riots were a storm that everyone saw coming, though the extent of the mayhem and deaths were perhaps beyond anyone’s worst fears.

An unexpected but very welcome feature of the film is the considerable time allotted to telling the story of the many Korean-American shop owners who were impacted by the riots. In remarkable footage, men, with calm confidence, protect their businesses by any means necessary, firing shots at oncoming looters in scenes that seem out of an action movie. As one man recalls, this was not a big deal, since all South Korean-born men have extensive, and mandatory, military training and are quite comfortable wielding firearms and engaging in combat.

This film is every bit as compelling, informative, and timely as last year’s critical and popular juggernaut OJ: Made in America, and should be treated as a companion piece. Though it lacks the celebrity factor, it makes up for it in its ensemble of diverse, compelling interviews and social insight. A comprehensive, informative look at a major historical event with repercussions that are all too easily felt to this day, Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992 is the best way to observe the 25th anniversary of the LA riots.

Written and Directed by John Ridley
Released by Lincoln Square Productions
USA. 145 min. Not rated