Building a mosaic of the 1992 L.A. riots

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 Imagine Entertainment.

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 provocateurs.

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 Esquire.

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 little outraged."

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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 deadline.)

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 consisting of:

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."

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Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. For tips and comments, e-mail fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday December 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction Grocery store shooting: An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about plans to make a movie about the 1992 Los Angeles riots referred to the 1991 shooting of a black teenager, Latasha Harlins, by a Korean American liquor store owner as a murder. The shopkeeper was convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
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