John Ridley may be at the forefront of this year’s bumper crop of awards-worthy films from black filmmakers, but the “12 Years a Slave” screenwriter is convinced that real success for minority filmmakers won’t be measured by Oscar nominations, but by their ability to make “big-budget pieces of crap.”
This year’s awards race also includes “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” with Justin Chadwick’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (with a white British director but a largely black cast) waiting in the wings.
Ridley, who launched his career with films like David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” and the comedy “Undercover Brother” and now has a formidable one-two punch in Steve McQueen’s harrowing “12 Years” and the Ridley-directed Jimi Hendrix film “All Is By My Side,” told theWrap that the last year has been exceptional for films made by and about people of color, but that they need to take that next step.
This year, we’ve seen a large number of high-profile films about the African-American experience, and from African-American filmmakers. Are we at a point where we can sustain it?
I think you pose a really, really good question. I remember “A Soldier’s Story” coming out and people saying, “OK, we’re in a new place.” Spike Lee hitting the scene, or “Glory.” It was always, “We’re at a new place, we’re at a new place.” “Boyz N the Hood.” “We’re at a new place.” But sustaining, that’s the key.
What’s interesting to me is that Hollywood always gets hit up for being a liberal bastion. And it certainly is. These folks out here are writing the biggest checks for President Obama and supporting important causes. But at the same time, no matter how much they wanted to do from their hearts, the money historically did not show up to make these kind of films.
But I think that we’ve finally gotten to a place where those interests – sometimes aligned but unfortunately often competing – are somehow lining up. Look at “Fruitvale Station,” “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave,” or go back to “Flight,” “Red Tails,” “The Call,” “Think Like a Man,” Kevin Hart‘s movies, “Fast & Furious.” Throughout these last few years, these movies would open and what they would write in the trades was, “This movie over-performed.” No, it didn’t over-perform. There’s an audience out there that you’re not tracking, in the same way that the Republicans didn’t track that audience in the 2012 election.
That audience is there, it is hungry for diversity of entertainment and it has the money to go out. I will be very happy when, if these films do well, they stop saying that they over-performed and start saying, as is the truth, “The audience that is there came out and supported this, and we didn’t see it because we don’t have the infrastructure for tracking it.”
How do you account for the new diversity?
The culture has changed. I think the audience has caught up to Hollywood, and I think Hollywood is catching up to the audience. And I do think that next bit, as you say, has to be that sustainability. The money is there, the audience is there, and I think that really what we now need is the people who still have that power of green-light saying, “My own personal relationship to the subject matter, to the story, to the people who are making it doesn’t matter. People want to see it, and it needs to be seen.”
People ask, “Are you surprised there are awards-quality films out there?” No, I’m not surprised. The ability has always been there. I never think there should be a quota, I don’t think most people would want a quota: Oh, we’ve got to make sure we’ve got X number of blacks, X number of women. It will happen if people are given the opportunity.
To me, the big deal – and I mean this kidding, but sincerely – is that we people of color need to get more big-budget pieces of crap along with everybody else. That’s when we’ve overcome. When they say, “Well, we’ve got $200 million to waste on something nobody’s really gonna remember – why don’t you go make one of those?” That’s when we’ll know we’re starting to get into a groove.
On the subject of awards and “quotas,” I took some heat for suggesting that there was a question in Hollywood about whether the arrival of “12 Years” in the awards race would make it harder for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” to also land a Best Picture nomination.
That’s the narrative and the velocity of awards season. It’s just one of those things that happens, and it is definitely happening with these movies.
I do think it’s odd and unfortunate to hear people try to pit Chiwetel against Idris [Elba, from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”] or Michael B. Jordan [from “Fruitvale Station”]. I’m glad there are five or six individuals who are getting support. I’m glad there are five or six movies that are up for it. And that’s all we really need to worry about. The talent is there, and now we’re going to see who works that behind-the-scenes, man-behind-the-curtain magic to make it happen, you know?
How did “12 Years a Slave” come about?
Steve McQueen’s wife found the book. Steve and I had gone back and forth on different ideas about a slavery movie, but nothing was really working until she found the book.
It was a really unique artifact in the sense that it was someone who endured it and could write directly about it. And someone who had a very interesting perspective on the duality of it, because he had freedom and then had it taken from him. That immediacy really carries through in the source material. You read that book, and you think, how did this ever fall out of the American canon? Why is this not taught in schools? Why does every kid not know about this, let alone a person like me, who assumes himself to be educated?
But there’s a pressure in doing justice to material that strong.
I knew going in that if I could find a way to really translate that power onto the page, other people were going to hold on to what was there and not try to fit it into a release schedule or a concept of what was going to sell. Steve is that kind of guy. He goes for it and he does not flinch, whether it is a painful moment, a beautiful moment, a very small moment or a large moment. He was very exacting in terms of what he wanted in the story, but I never had to worry about the next writer coming in.
Was that a priority for you?
It’s taken a few years to get here, but I really try to put myself in situations where I can have ownership of that material. “All Is By My Side,” the Hendrix movie, was written on spec. “12 Years a Slave” was spec.
When you’re young, you can go through all the ups and downs, but when you get older you don’t want to just be one of 12, or one of five. And career-wise, very fortunately I could step away and not chase every single thing that came down the pike. I could go, “This one may take longer or this one may not have that monetary benefit up front, but in the end it’s going to be worth it.”
So how did you get to the point where you could do things where you had ownership?
There was a first phase where the films I got to be involved with had sort of a reckless abandon and a youth to them, like “Three Kings” and “Undercover Brother.” And right at that time I did this L.A. riots script at Universal for Spike Lee, which got to be a little bit of a legendary script. It made the Blacklist, and the people who read it all really loved it. I got paid my full fee, I was working with a manager and Spike who were very protective of me and the process, and then everything fell apart.
The economy fell apart, the city shut down for a while, and when people came back they weren’t making movies on the same scale. And I really was able to look at the situation and go, “What am I going to do next?” And because of things like “U-Turn” and “Three Kings” and “Undercover Brother,” I got to pick a little bit more of what I wanted to do.
Isn’t the L.A. riots script back on the fast track now?
Yeah. Justin Lin just came on that. We’re making some changes to it. He wants to do it phenomenally, something that really speaks to a time and a place of what was going on in L.A. That script was very special to me, so it’s exciting to be back on a track where that’s going to get made.