Oscar winner John Ridley wants us to keep asking questions about the L.A. riots The writer-director — ’12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Red Tails,’ ‘American Crime’ — tells truths via fiction and nonfiction

If you’ve been paying attention these past few years, you see exactly what John Ridley is trying to do. The Oscar-winning filmmaker — he earned Hollywood’s biggest prize for writing the adapted screenplay of 2013’s 12 Years a Slave — has been working on projects that entertain and educate. When you experience a John Ridley project, you end up ordering a book or going down a Google rabbit hole. You figure out a way to learn more. He challenges his audience to think more deeply.

His latest project is documentary Let It Fall, which was released in New York and Los Angeles theaters earlier this year (a shorter version ran on ABC). The film documents the mood and events that led to the Los Angeles riots, which happened 25 years ago in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. Like most of what he does, the work is rich. And now his name, once again, is being whispered in Academy Award circles.

Why do you gravitate toward the kind of work — statement art — that you do?

I started in a space where much of the work that I did was self-expression. I started as a novelist, and the first novel I wrote was made into an Oliver Stone film, U Turn (1997). And with Three Kings (1993) and Undercover Brother (2002), [they] were about me trying to speak to people. That was good, and I think I was successful to a degree. But it was a time in my career where things shifted, and I was very fortunate to be involved in stories that were less about me and more about who we are. And where we came from, and representatives of, I’ll say, our community — certainly in our country, and in general. People of color who, against all odds, and without a desire for much recognition of self, just work to achieve, and to be, and to excel.

So you do things like Red Tails and get involved with the Tuskegee Airmen, and you do things like 12 Years a Slave, or American Crime, which were fictionalized stories but real human accounts. We spent so much time with people, listening to them. Their stories and their struggles. Their hopes, their dreams and their desires. People compliment me on my work, and I go, ‘Look, I don’t know that I’ve gotten better over the years as a storyteller. But I think the stories that I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in, they are more potent and they are more emotional. And they touch people in a greater way.’ I’m absolutely attracted to those kinds of stories.

“These individuals, who on the surface have no connectivity, will forever be connected by a very particular tragedy.”

Let It Fall certainly falls into that. Why did you want to document this horrific moment in American history?

There were so many very personal stories, very personal narratives, that were beyond the narrative. People called it a ‘riot.’ ‘The Rodney King Riots.’ Rodney King didn’t start it; the riots didn’t start right after the arrest. There were so many incidents … that led to these tragic events. They affected many different communities and many different kinds of people. One of the reasons I wanted to tell the story was I thought it deserved to be told from multiple perspectives, and over time. These different points of views, and these different neighborhoods, and these different individuals were given equal weight and equal measure … a tapestry was being woven. One can do that and not obscure a central point that we’re all sharing these spaces. If we don’t see the commonality that we have, on an everyday basis, we will end up seeing it in a shared way, and usually with a shared tragedy. It shouldn’t come to that before we see ourselves in other people.

So much rich material is coming out of the documentary space right now, and black directors and creatives are telling these stories — look at the Oscars documentary category last year.

There are moments in Let It Fall, … [where] I don’t think I could create characters or moments or emotions that are as strong as they are in reality. I also think now is a very good time for telling documentaries because there are so many platforms that are very supportive of the documentary space, and audiences no longer have to go to an art house or see them in a movie theater. You have these great stories, you have audiences that are now being cultivated — and you have artists, whether it’s Ezra Edelman, whether it’s Ava DuVernay — who want to tell stories.

The L.A. riots happened 25 years ago, but so much of what was happening then feels very contemporary. What surprised you most when putting this together?

How raw some of the subjects’ emotions remained, even 25 years later. The stories they’re telling, it’s like they happened yesterday. The sharpness of their pain, or their loss, or their regret, things they wished they could do differently. Things that they wish they could do again. These individuals, who on the surface have no connectivity, will forever be connected by a very particular tragedy. That was my strongest takeaway … just the rawness of the emotions.

What would you hope audiences take away from this doc?

It’s wrong to put something in front of people as though I have the answers and I have the solution. I think people need to be continuing to ask questions. Questions about their environment, questions about how they interact. What would be my decision? What would be my choice? What would I do in a similar circumstance? Or more importantly, what can I do now so that I can avoid ever having to make a choice like that? There’s far too much of that going on right now, people being told what to think. But not enough of us being inspired to ask more questions, dig more deeply and upend expectations.

Let it Fall is available on ABC.com and Netflix.

‘Gook’ director Justin Chon talks filmmaking, race and the Rodney King riots The film is set in a Korean-owned store on the day the verdict comes down in the police brutality case

So far, nothing has managed to unseat Get Out as my favorite film of the year. But Gook, the new movie written and directed by Twilight actor Justin Chon, is definitely a close second.

Shot in black and white, Gook takes place in and around a Paramount, California, shoe store run by two Korean brothers, Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So). Eli and Daniel have, in a sense, adopted an 11-year-old black girl named Kamilla (played with stunning control and depth by Simone Baker). Kamilla’s mother is dead, and she lives with her older sister and brother and works in the store with Eli and Daniel. The movie follows the characters on the day the verdict in the Rodney King police brutality case is announced.

Chon, 36, grew up in Irvine, California, and often worked in his father’s shoe store in Paramount. His father, Sang, a Korean immigrant, was a child actor in South Korea, and in Gook he plays Mr. Kim, the owner of a liquor store. Chon was heavily influenced by La Haine, a 1995 film that examines the aftermath of riots in the projects of Paris when an unarmed Arab man is shot and killed by French police.

Gook’s distributor recently decided to extend its theater run, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you still have a chance.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How did La Haine influence your thinking about Gook?

I really loved the ’90s era of filmmaking where if you could get access to a camera, it had that sort of Clerks way of making films where it was all much cheaper.

[La Haine] was about three friends who were from different ethnic backgrounds, and that just represented when I was hanging out at my dad’s store and would make neighborhood friends. I met this French guy, we were talking about film and he was like, ‘Have you ever watched La Haine?’ When you think of Paris or France, you just think of the tourist aspects and how they enjoy life and how their food is so amazing. And he’s like, ‘You know, you should watch it because it’ll change your kind of a perspective of like what else exists there.’ When I finally saw it, I’m like, ‘Wow, this is exactly like what happened here.’ Same s—, different place. I’m thinking these are American problems. But then I look at them and I identified so much with them being youthful and diverse and into things like break dancing.

When I started thinking about [Gook], I just started thinking about all the social dynamics, and that film just kept popping up in my head. There’s so many similarities. It just never left my psyche. My film constantly gets compared to Do the Right Thing, and I understand that. I was a huge fan of Spike Lee growing up, and that’s just in my blood now because I’ve seen his movies so many times, but it wasn’t exactly the main influence.

Was that a Silent Bob joke I spotted in your film? There’s a minor character who simply goes by “Silent.”

Here’s the thing: I knew, no matter what, I was going to get that comparison just because of how bootstrap the film was and how minimalistic it was and the type of humor that I’m into. I mean, Kevin Smith isn’t exactly my god or anything. I don’t look at his work and say, ‘You know, that’s like the end-all, be-all’ — not even close. Let’s be honest. I really love what he’s done, but, like, I just knew I was going to get that comparison because of the single location, these guys hanging out over the course of a day.

So I was just like, if they’re going to make that comparison, I’ll just give them a little nugget, a little Easter egg. It’s like, yeah, I know what you’re going to think. Even Mr. Kim, the first time you see him, I paint him as the exact thing you’ve seen in every movie like Menace II Society. This is what you are expecting from an L.A. riots film in ’92, right? I felt like my job as a filmmaker was to slowly peel the layers away and humanize them.

You present a full picture of the tensions that exist for Koreans in Southern California, not just with black people but with Latinos. Those attitudes vary a lot depending on generation.

Especially in modern cinema, there’s a fear of offending anyone. I’m totally with that — let’s respect people. I just didn’t want to shy away from everything. If I’m going to talk about this event, this uprising, I felt like it would be detrimental for me to candy-coat anything. At the time, blacks and Koreans were not getting along. But nobody was getting along. It’s always seen as a black and white issue, but then because I’m Korean, it becomes a Korean and black issue. What do I remember? It wasn’t like it was just a black and Korean issue either. It was everybody in this community just trying to make things work.

Within the Korean people I showed — we don’t get along, either! Intergenerationally, we have huge problems because they come from the old country and we all were born here. We have a different set of morality and ethics than they do. We’re Americans. I felt like I can be very nuanced about it, but in the early ’90s there was nothing nuanced. Everything was much more in your face in terms of, like, music, like, N.W.A. — there was nothing muted about that. So I just felt, if I’m going to talk about the riots, this film really needs to be raw rather than me trying to idealize anything.

Simone Baker as Kamilla in Gook.

Courtesy of Birthday Soup Films

It’s astonishing that you have a black girl at the center of a film whose name is an Asian slur. What made you want to tell this story through her eyes?

One of the main reasons was that if I’m going to make a film outside the system, I want to represent some of the most underrepresented demographics, which to me are Asian-American men and African-American females.

At first Kamilla was Kamal — it was a boy. And I just was, like, you know what, this is a good opportunity for me to balance it out. There’s a lot of testosterone in the film. I explore themes of masculinity and how it’s toxic to every community. The archaic idea of masculinity and what our parents taught — well, at least for fathers and sons — what they taught us about how to be men:

Defend yourself. Don’t let anyone take advantage of you. All those things, a false sense of protection and ego and all that stuff. But because of that I was like, man, you know, I just need some balance. And I knew that character was going to be the bridge between these two communities. There was a point in the rewrite I figured if I make her a little girl — you just treat little girls differently if you’re a man. You’re not going to be so rough with them. I realized quickly that [Daniel and Eli] would be more of themselves. They would let their guards down. They would treat her with more respect and more gently than they would with a boy. She’s so resilient and so positive, I just thought it was refreshing to see a girl like that.

It makes the end that much more gutting.

With Keith [Kamilla’s brother, played by Curtiss Cook Jr.], how he interacts with her — I don’t think he could ever hit her. I knew when she asked, ‘Tell me something good about Mom,’ if it was a boy, being an older brother, he could be like, ‘Just toughen up. It’s all good.’ But with a girl, you’re kind of forced to deal with it at some level.

Justin Chon (left) as Eli and Simone Baker as Kamilla in Gook.

Courtesy of Birthday Soup Films

You use her to draw out everyone’s emotions, like when Daniel and Eli are dancing in the store with her. The two of them are so protective of her, and it’s sweet.

Especially when Mr. Kim comes and slaps her. It’s just like, you can’t let that happen! Who’s going to think that’s OK? That’s an important moment because the audience — you’re going to decide right there. What is this going to be like? What kind of relationship is this? How do these communities come together and what is this all about? As soon as you see these brothers stick up for her, it’s like, yes, they’re doing what should be done. It doesn’t matter whether they want her to be at the store or not. The point is that should not happen and these two brothers need to be there for her and stick up for her rights as a human being.

Everyone in this film is complicated, and you don’t see the filmmaker’s ego.

The reason I’m an actor, the reason I’m interested in directing and writing, is all because of collaboration. I really believe in a group coming together. You can’t make a film by yourself. It’s impossible. I mean, you can, but it will take a long time and it probably won’t be interesting.

We’re talking about human beings. It’s such a complicated thing, and there’s so many things that make it so beautiful and unique. Ego, in singularity, in terms of storytelling — it doesn’t serve our collective human experience.

So, you know, when it comes to fully fleshed characters, I wrote them, but I can’t play — I’m not doing Nutty Professor. I’m hiring these people because they exemplify what I was envisioning, but at the end of the day, they are still the ones that are performing. When it comes to the characters, they feel real because I included them in the process. The one person I didn’t get that much rehearsal time with was Curtiss Cook Jr., who plays Keith. At first, I didn’t tell him anything about the role. But I sent him the script after I hung out with him and he was like, ‘OK, I love this, but I have concerns.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s talk about it.’

Curtiss is like, ‘How do you feel about how you’re portraying African-American men?’

The first thing I said was Eli and Keith are the same character. They both are orphaned. They both are trying to take care of younger siblings, both trying to make ends meet and struggling to make that happen. It’s just that they can’t see eye to eye and realize that they share some of the same pain.

Curtis was like, ‘OK, that’s fine. But you have to understand that everything I do as an African-American male, I’m representing. I just want to make sure that this is done correctly.’ So we had hours and hours and hours of conversations.

I wanted him to know I was going to make his character three-dimensional. He wasn’t going to be an angry black man.

Curtiss Cook Jr. as Keith in Gook.

Courtesy of Birthday Soup Films

I’m familiar with Cook from Naz & Maalik.

That’s why I hired him — I saw the movie. He’s so good in that. He’s just so honest, so present. He’s dynamic. When you watch and you’re like, ‘OK, here’s a human just being a human.’ This guy, even if he’s aggressive in this film, he can bring the humanity and sensitivity that I needed.

What do you remember about Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old girl who was shot and killed in 1991 by a Korean shop owner who suspected her of stealing? What were the discussions of that like with your parents, within your community?

I was 11 when that happened. The thing about Korean culture is we just don’t talk about current issues. We don’t talk about trauma or problems. That was one of the difficulties making this film. Mr. Kim is my dad. And he didn’t want to do the film. He didn’t understand. He’s like, ‘Why do you want to go back to that?’ We’re so used to not talking about even family issues. We don’t have family meetings or, like, discussions. It’s just like, let’s move on. The Korean War is bad, but we don’t talk about it, so let’s move on. It happened. It doesn’t help us to revisit that. It’s a difference in cultures. So as an 11-year-old, no one was talking about that. But what I do know, though, is a lot of Koreans were angry at that verdict. Why? Because it made everyone’s life 10 times more difficult. I don’t think anyone thought you should end someone’s life. That’s crazy. I don’t think it was a conversation of whether people thought it was right or wrong. I think everyone unanimously was like, ‘OK, that shouldn’t have happened.’

It’s a very delicate thing to talk about. That’s the thing about authenticity. In my film, people ask me, ‘What kind of research did you do to accurately represent the African-American experience?’ It’s the same thing with Latasha Harlins and how we talk about this. I can only tell the story from my perspective and my experiences because I will never understand what it feels like to actually be African-American in this country.

That whole incident was unfortunate and it was not right. The fact that [the shop owner, Soon Ja Du] didn’t do any jail time, that’s — that’s f—ing crazy. So in terms of the rage, that’s just understood. That’s a given. People feel like justice was not served, and rightfully so.

Daily Dose: 8/25/17 How the Browns’ national anthem protest came together

What’s up, gang, hope your week’s gone well. I’ll be hosting #TheRightTime with Bomani Jones on Friday afternoon from 4-7 p.m. EST on ESPN Radio. There will be quite a lot to discuss heading into this weekend.

When multiple Browns players took a knee in Cleveland during the national anthem last week, it wasn’t impromptu. As it turns out, this was a decision that went through multiple channels and happened with the blessing of the franchise. You might recall that head coach Hue Jackson made some comments on the matter a while back that some viewed as unproductive. Well, he felt he was misinterpreted. Check out this in-depth look at how it all came together for the Browns. Also, let’s not forget what one Ohio Supreme Court justice said on it.

We’ve all been on family vacations. Sometimes there are multiple parties involved, as in, different constituencies who don’t necessarily live in the same household. So interests are not exactly congruent, and even though you all love each other, so to speak, that doesn’t mean you’re always going to get along. In many ways, it can feel like a competition. And if you were to hold a news conference after one in which people had to answer questions like athletes, you’d probably get a hilarious scene.

If you’ve never been to Africa, you don’t know what it’s like. Ancient and modern depictions of the continent are typically rooted in racist, colonialist and otherwise just stupid, misguided generalizations. As a result, people still believe that Africa is full of jungles and darkness. FYI, that’s not the case. So when a Harvard professor decided she wanted to re-create the Heart of Darkness boat cruise and write about it, we knew we were in for a trip. But there are ways to report on the continent, which ain’t one country. Take some time and learn something.

Saturday’s finally the night. Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather Jr. will get into the ring Saturday night in Las Vegas, and hopefully McGregor will deliver a vicious roundhouse to the face of Mayweather and set off a vicious brawl that will be far more entertaining than the described bill. Alas, most people want an actual fight, but we all know that’ll likely be super boring. That said, multiple $1M bets on Mayweather have come into Vegas, which have caused the odds to move a little bit. Awesome.

Free Food

Coffee Break: The 1992 riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict were a seminal moment in U.S. history. Not because riots were anything new, but these were all over TV in the news cycle in a new way. Nonetheless, there were two sides. A new movie explores the Korean store owners’ side of the situation.

Snack Time: If you think the New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony’s relationship is somehow getting better, you’d be wrong. He’s been left out of their marketing plans for next season.

Dessert: Happy weekend, y’all. This is how you educate the youth.