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The beating of an unarmed black taxi driver named Rodney King by four white Los Angeles police officers in March 1991 didn't occur in a vacuum. It was the incendiary culmination of 10 years of escalating conflict between law enforcement and the African-American community of the city.

Famously caught on video by George Holliday using metal batons, kicks, blows and stomps against a seemingly defenseless victim, the officers were eventually charged with using excessive force in arresting King in the aftermath of a high-speed chase. Despite the city residents' overwhelming belief that they were guilty, the officers were not convicted. Within hours of the verdict, the city erupted in riots. When the nearly weeklong uproar ended, 54 people were dead, 7,000 had been arrested, and millions of dollars worth of property had been destroyed.

Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992

88 Cast: Documentary with Terry White, Tom Elfmont, Kee Ha, Donald Jones, Bobby Green

Director: John Ridley

Rating: not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes

It was a tragic situation, at least 10 years in the making. Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, a troubling, captivating and precisely edited documentary by John Ridley (Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave), shows why.

The usual components of a modern-history documentary -- archival video, photographs, interviews of observers and experts -- are all here. What stands out is that the director found people who really, really talked. The interviewees, among them cops, city officials, victims, jurors, family members, astonished and often resentful bystanders, and those that contributed to the violence and destruction, seem to have removed all the politically correct filters that often mark talking-head statements in endeavors like this. From smirking cops to sleazy street thugs to incredulous residents and sufferers of collateral damage, the words of these on-camera witnesses animate a complicated story that, although constructed on a hard-to-argue premise of who's right and who's wrong, goes far beyond.

Potent clashing accusations and defenses are provided by then Mayor Tom Bradley and longtime L. A. police chief Daryl Gates (thought by many to have turned the police force into a paramilitary operation). At the heart of the conflict was the police insistence that use of the drug PCP (also known as angel dust) made criminals into invincible superhumans, and chokeholds were necessary for police to subdue them. (They worked, often too well: chokeholds killed many, including a 20-year-old named James Mincey Jr., whose story is compellingly told by Mincey's then-girlfriend here, and were eventually banned.)

All the components work together to assemble the narrative, told through archival footage (that's how we get acquainted with the thoroughly unpleasant Gates), but mostly from a contemporary point of view by those whose reactions haven't been dimmed by the passage of time.

The core of the problem, as explained here, is that pulling over a white motorist meant enforcing the law. Pulling over a black motorist meant enforcing control. The graphic, unemotional on-screen descriptions of violence by officers is summed up by a defiantly unrepentant interviewee: "That's our job."

MovieStyle on 11/17/2017

Print Headline: Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992


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