The Oscar-winning writer of “12-Years A Slave” sheds new light on the social upheaval of L.A in the late 20th century.
Los Angeles in the 1980’s and early 1990’s were fraught with unrest and dissatisfaction over a number of injustices and blaring bouts of racism. Oscar-winning writer John Ridley sought to shed light on that era and tell that story from an untold angle, not from the key players of power during that time, but from the every day people who were caught up in the violence and its consequences. The beauty of the film really lies in the fact that its stars are really just regular people. Ridley spoke about this in depth saying “That was the arc of it. To know and understand so many facts that, even someone who lived there was not aware of and take those facts and weave it into a story to bring to an audience… To find these individuals and go out to these communities and not just say ‘Hey, we’re doing a documentary’. We’d go, we’d sit, we’d break bread. We’d say, if you’d want to share this story, know that there is a space where we can give equal weight, equal treatment, equal respect. That was the amazing thing”. By using the viewpoints of these people, he gave a voice to people who still give new facts to a story decades old. This sort of storytelling and exhausting ingenuity and detective work is what a proper documentary not only wants, but needs to be relevant.
As with any documentary, once a compelling subject is found, the difficulty then lies in properly telling the story without forcing a particular viewpoint or agenda on the viewer. Not only does Ridley manage to beautifully unfold this tapestry of a story by masterfully creating and releasing tension and thrills at key moments, but he does so without demonizing any figure nor praising any individual. He tells a story without bias and lets the audience, to my pleasant surprise, make their own conclusions.
Ridley gave a lot of insight into the film during a talk he gave after screening the film. He spoke about the film he made and everything he tried not to make. He explains why he selected this very relevant subject matter to cover and why that specific time frame was chosen, and he expounds on a theme was prevalent throughout the film — decision making. Check out the talk below:
This is the film you wanted to make. What was the film you didn’t want to make about the L.A Uprising?
Ridley: I didn’t want to make a film that came in with my opinion. I stated that at the beginning and I did it at the end. When I was a much younger man, my whole desire was putting my opinion in front of other people and that worked with the films I did, as a novelist. As a young person, and I’ll be honest, as a young black man from Wisconsin, I didn’t have a shot out there if I didn’t get in front of people and say ‘this is what I think’, ‘this is what I believe’. Years later, as I started working with people like the CEO of Red Tail, where you realize, this film doesn’t work if this is about more you than these gentlemen. When you work with material like 12 Years A Slave, a memoir, you need to step back and when you arrive to a story about community, stories, a mosaic, that is only really affective when it is about hidden communities that are not normally given a voice… You realize you’re being tasked with carrying on some history and I don’t think I could’ve done this movie at 25. I think I could’ve done the film, but it would’ve been John Ridley’s version of those events. I think it would’ve potent, it would’ve been powerful, but I don’t think it would’ve been as powerful as saying this is about Mrs. Lee, this is about Mrs. Williams, it’s about Lisa Phillips. The emotional velocity of their storytelling is not shaped in any form by my opinion. My opinion goes as far as the subject matter, making sure that we have a representative presentation of the individuals with as many sides of the story as possible, but that velocity comes right to the audience. That’s theirs. That’s theirs.
I felt the film had great authenticity with it. You could’ve gone macro and say this is the history of California that brought us put to 1992, or you could’ve gone micro and say it’s just about these three days but you choose this decade. Why that period of time?
Ridley: For us, there came a point where ABC and the Disney Company said “Alright, we know you can’t do this in 42 minutes. We don’t think you can do it in 88 minutes, do what you think is appropriate”. To have these major companies first come to us and say be mature, be adult and bring it in where you think it needs to come in, that’s absolutely huge. Also, we could’ve gone back to 65’, we could’ve gone back to the foundation of Los Angeles. California, where I live in Los Angeles, very progressive space but it’s had it’s problems. There’s something to excavate in that, but for us, what one would consider the chokehold of the era came to something of an end, the introduction of pr-24, the metal baton, the olympics, when L.A was at it’s best, the beginning of what one could call crack cocaine era, the shooting of Westwood. Those events that were very specific on the obelisk on the timeline of Los Angeles and those individuals were intimately involved in those moments. To us that felt like an arc.
The film also emphasizes the power of decisions. As you were filming this, what did you learn about decision making?
Ridley: The amazing thing, for me, there were many times going into this where the suppositions weren’t made, where many people abdicated decision making or absolved themselves or what I really learned walking around this was the individuals who made decisions but did not follow through. This gentleman, Tom, who I believe is a good guy, and you hear him talk about the 39th and Dalton raid and his desire was to help a family that was being terrorized by gang members. He said we gotta do something, we gotta round these folks up. He signed a warrant, passed it off, and he says, he kind just forgot about it. He wasn’t there and in that, that raid went a long way. That was a moment that not only specifically affected families, it turned a community. If they weren’t already against the police, if there weren’t already looking at them as occupiers, it really turned the community. For Tom to talk about this 25 years later, his regrets that he wasn’t there and to someone who is by all other accounts a decent individual who was trying to do the right thing. It was the same thing with Damian. Damian talks about “I could’ve stayed on that street corner” and people talk about bad environment, bad environment, he said “I was a product of bad decisions”. That to me was the stunning thing… The continuity of responsibility can never be underestimated.