'Let It Fall' doc offers searing look at LA riots from those who lived through it

Director John Ridley and those who were there for one of the deadliest riots in U.S. history reflect on the violence that erupted then and what our country is still struggling to learn.
8:16 | 04/27/17

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Transcript for 'Let It Fall' doc offers searing look at LA riots from those who lived through it
from south Los Angeles, the city of angels, for this special edition of "Nightline." 25 years ago this week, this community was known as south central. Scene of one of the deadliest riots in U.S. History. Five days of violence and mayhem when race and raids collided sparked by the Rodney king verdict. As you know, I grew up in California in a korean-american family. Like most Americans I will never forget watching in disbelief as chaos consumed one of our own cities. Tonight we don't just look back, we examine the lessons we as a nation are still struggling to learn. A lot of people are driving through right now, they don't know why we're standing here. By all their measures this is just an intersection of los Angeles. This is utter lawlessness. Fires, lootings, beatings. This is where it all came together. This is where it all fell apart. 25 years ago at the intersection of Florence and normandie, the harrowing first hours of unres that eventually engulfed los Angeles. Five long days that claimed the lives of more than 50 people. A defining moment for our nation. To some it's known as the L.A. Riots. To others, the uprising. There's my truth, there's your truth, and then there's the truth. L.A. Had it all. We had beaches. The Hollywood sign. It was magical. Oh, man. It's going to hit the fan. Reporter: How this happened in the city of angels is the story that Oscar winner John Ridley takes on with his new documentary "Let it fall." Based on my experiences, my upbringing, every aspect of it makes me angry. Reporter: The beating of Rodney king by four white police officers pushed the city to the brink. Then when the officers were found not guilty on charges of assault and excessive use of force, the city exploded in violence. That was April 29th, 1992. But Ridley's film begins ten years earlier. This was not something that happened because of one incident, because of one issue, and did not affect just one community. In the early '80s, the street gangs started to connect with the drug dealers. We are determined to take back the streets of Los Angeles. "Operation hammer" was a free ticket to go out there and do overly aggressive police work. Reporter: An untreated wound was festering. Aggressive policing tactics stoking resentment. Koreans and Latinos packed in with blacks, a melting pot about to boil over. The flame was turned up just months before the Rodney king verdict. A Korean American grocer shot and killed a 15-year-old black girl named Natasha harlines. She was convicted of manslaughter and a white judge let her off without any prison time. The message that goes out to this community is, a black life is not worth much. Reporter: The images of violence against black people over and over again, the perception that justice wasn't served. They've all been found not guilty. Reporter: Years of frustration beget protests. No justice this America, not for the blacks! Reporter: Protests beget violence. Anybody that wasn't black was getting their ass kicked. Reporter: In "Let it fall," those days unraveled after a series of fateful decisions. From the genesis of the unrest near Florence and normandie to the moment lieutenant muller gave the order for police to pull back because they were unprepared for a riot. We were resistant. No, lt, no we don't want to leave, we're not supposed to leave. Had it. I allowed my officers to begin to use deadly force at that intersection? God knows what that riot would have turned into. That riot could have been a riot are not just burning down buildings, that could have been a riot of just pure anarchy against the police. It's not worth it, let's go. Reporter: Without the police, the descent to chaos was swift. But there were those who stood up. What kept you from being one of those guys throwing bricks? I felt like I was just as angry as everyone else. That's not who I am. I don't stand by and let innocent people be hurt. Reporter: People like Donald Jones, off-duty firefighter living blocks from Florence and normandie, when a group of men started attacking Chinese immigrant Choi si Choi. I walked out in the middle of the street, said a few choice words to people that were around that I won't say now. But told them to stay away, get back. Once I reached Choi I stood there for a while, stood over him. He did not know where he was, he was disoriented. Someone walked over from the corner and told me, he said, hey. You got about another minute. I picked Mr. Choi up, walked him over, put him in the passenger side of the car, told him to put his head down. I didn't think they would throw rocks or bottles at me but I knew if Mr. Choi raised his head they would. Were you mindful at that point you could have been a victim as well? Very, very much mindful. That the mob could have attacked you? Yeah. Why'd you do it? I don't know. You can't just not do something. Reporter: That he still regrets all these years later that he wasn't able to help that trucker, Reginald Denny, who was being beaten within an inch of his life on live television. The TV is on and we're now watching Reginald Denny be attacked at the same intersection that Mr. Choi was at. We're now watching it on TV. Terrible. And there's no police presence down here. They will not enter the area. This is attempted murder. What was going through your head or your heart? That -- I wish that I was there. 25 years later, it still gets to you. Why? Why? Because I would want someone to do that for me. I have compassion for anybody. But you have to understand, at that time, please. At that time -- the compassion line was closed. Reporter: Told from many perspectives, "Let it fall" reveals the many truths of one moment in time. Even the members of the so-called L.A. Four, the men convicted in connection with that Reginald Denny attack, tell their story. Look at what they're doing to us, they're killing young black men. They're killing threats. Therefore, anything that isn't black doesn't mean nothing to me. At all. Of course we kill our own. You know what I'm saying? And that's not right. I'm not condoning that whatsoever. You understand what I'm saying? But it happens. You know? What was your take of the L.A. Four? I didn't sense any remorse, any regret, that given the circumstance they would do exactly the same thing that they did 25 years ago. I would disagree. I think in those four individuals, we have a very poignant range of what so many people felt then and how it carries over 25 years later. No justice no peace! Reporter: 25 years ago, who could have imagined. It's not a black thing! It's been a black thing for the last 200 years! Reporter: We as a nation would still be debating these same issues. I couldn't. It was here on the corner of Florence and normandie. Reporter: I was sent to cover the L.A. Riots. Can this wider part of L.A. Be restored, race relations improved? Reporter: Today I find myself in cities like Ferguson. Show of hands if you've ever been stopped by police, treated unfairly? Baton Rouge. My hometown of Baltimore. Asking the same questions. 25 years after L.A. Like most reporters in the nation's attention, I get to move on. But for those who lived it, it's far more complicated. Coming up, we talk to some of the people who took up arms in Korea town to protect their American dream. One survivor breaking many years of silence.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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