[FILM] Spike Lee/John Ridley's 1992 L.A. Riots Film
- Building a mosaic of the 1992 L.A. riots
By Jay A. Fernandez, Special to The Times
On April 29, 1992, a furious seizure gripped Los Angeles and shook it
violently for four terrifying days. John Ridley, then a recent New
York transplant, spent much of that time quarantined in his Fairfax
district neighborhood, where he huddled on street corners with
petrified neighbors and denied rides to white friends looking for his
protection. (As a black man he felt no safer from the random
brutality and rioting.) An attempt to escape via LAX was thwarted by
the unrelenting chaos, and he ultimately had to turn back through the
charred and broken cityscape.
Ridley has spent the last year researching and reliving that historic
convulsion, which left 54 people dead and $1 billion in property
damage in its wake, for a screenplay tentatively called "L.A. Riots"
that Spike Lee is attached to direct for producer Brian Grazer at
Lee and Ridley had previously been developing a law enforcement drama
called "The Night Watchman," for which Ridley had been researching
the Los Angeles Police Department and its Rampart Division scandal.
When that movie stalled a year ago, Lee asked Ridley to write a
script for a film about the riots, so Ridley expanded his research,
dug up reams of documentation and tracked down some of the people who
were affected at the street level.
But the knotty multiethnic cultural history of Los Angeles pointed to
something more comprehensive a film with a scope more like Anna
Deavere Smith's documentary play "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," which
was made into a TV movie in 2001.
Rather than merely focus on the 1992 riots, Ridley's suspenseful
script begins with a prelude about the Watts riots of 1965 and then
highlights notable aspects of the complex racial and political
environment the murder of black, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a
Korean American liquor store owner two weeks after the Rodney G. King
beating, the maneuverings that went into moving the trial of the
police officers accused of beating King to a courthouse in Simi
Valley, the ominous but ignored warnings police officers were
delivering to their superiors, the National Guard's lack of
preparedness that allowed that explosive rage to sweep through the
city again 27 years later.
"The idea is to try to get as accurate a picture of how this happened
as I can," Ridley says. "Beyond race and the hot-button issues, it's
just these little things together that allow for chaos. It was a
Katrina-type systemic failure. Literally and figuratively, it wasn't
just a black and white problem."
Public figures such as LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates and Mayor Tom
Bradley are referenced, but mostly the film will follow ordinary
Angelenos affected by the public outrage triggered by the acquittal
of the four white officers who beat King. "It's not 'Crash,' where
these individuals all weave in and out of each other's storylines,"
Ridley says. "It's more of a mosaic."
Both Lee and Ridley have well-earned reputations for being
Lee's most recent film was his pointed HBO Hurricane Katrina
documentary, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts." And
Ridley is a novelist ("Love Is a Racket," "A Conversation With the
Mann"), screenwriter ("Undercover Brother," "U Turn") and TV writer
("Third Watch") who lately has gone very public with his feelings
about race in controversial essays for HuffingtonPost.com, Time and
But Ridley insists that provocation is beside the point when telling
a story with such deep reverberations.
"To me this story is so real and so true that you don't need to go
out of your way to be provocative," he says. "There's a level of
balance in that everybody is a little embarrassed, everybody is a
Raising a glass to great imbibers
Do L.A. writers still drink?
Thursday night in the cozy glow of the Bar Marmont, screenwriter Mark
Bailey unfurled a detailed dissertation on how writers in different
major cities court this most intoxicating of authorial accouterments.
Strangely, he was not holding a drink at the time.
(My own observations of friends and colleagues lead me to the
conclusion that, yes, many do enjoy a tipple now and then. But only
when reading, smoking, despairing, talking, thinking, eating or on
The occasion for Bailey's musings on regional imbibition was a book
party celebrating the publication of "Hemingway & Bailey's Bartending
Guide to Great American Writers," written by Bailey, a TV and
documentary writer who's currently adapting the Michael Ondaatje
novel "Coming Through Slaughter" for the big screen, and illustrated
by Edward Hemingway, the grandson of one of the most distinguished
writer-drinker hyphenates of all time.
Witty and refreshing as one of Fitzgerald's gin rickeys, the slim
tome highlights 43 famous American writers with each short chapter
One part personal anecdote.
One part drink-besotted excerpt from the writer's work.
Half-part short bio.
It's all topped off with a jazzy drink recipe and garnished with a
playful caricature by Hemingway, whose art has appeared in the New
York Times, GQ and Gourmet.
The book, of course, includes legendary sousers who were also
screenwriters, such as William Faulkner ("The Big Sleep," "To Have
and Have Not"), F. Scott Fitzgerald ("Three Comrades"), Dorothy
Parker ("A Star Is Born"), John Steinbeck ("The Red Pony," "Viva
Zapata!") and Jim Thompson ("The Killing," "Paths of Glory"). But
noir master Raymond Chandler ("Double Indemnity," "Strangers on a
Train") is the owner and protagonist of possibly the best drunk-
screenwriter story ever told, which Bailey recounts in his book.
Beware that merely reading this could induce a hangover:
In 1945, Paramount's biggest star, Alan Ladd, was summoned back to
the war and had only 12 weeks before departure. Chandler, who had a
deal at the studio, volunteered to complete a screenplay for a noir
he was working on called "The Blue Dahlia" in which Ladd could star
with Veronica Lake. But two weeks into shooting, the crushing time
pressure and a sudden mandate from the studio to come up with a new
ending forced Chandler into a terrible blockage.
In desperation, he told his producer and friend John Houseman that
the only way he could finish the script in time would be if he a
now-sober but once world-class boozer selflessly flung himself off
the wagon. In a moment of justly canonized screenwriter chutzpah,
Chandler persuaded the anxious studio to agree to let him work from
home with two waiting limos ready to run script pages, a doctor on
call to inject him with vitamins since he wouldn't be eating, and six
secretaries to take rotating dictation 24 hours a day while he drank
himself into a perpetual, and theoretically creative, stupor.
Although there are conflicting accounts that claim Chandler had
already relapsed and used this whole ruse simply to buy some time,
his complete obliteration has never been in question. It certainly
showed in the script. According to Tom Hiney's 1997 Chandler
biography, the Production Code originally rejected the script for,
among other things, 13 excessive references to alcohol.
Here's the punch line: Chandler's screenplay for "The Blue Dahlia"
was nominated for an Oscar.
An impressive feat for a man who once said through one of his bare-
knuckled pulp detectives: "I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy
who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard."