Emmy Wrap Cover Story: ‘American Crime’ Creator on Race, Violence and Justice in Troubled Times (Video)

“We’re putting ourselves in the public square,” John Ridley tells TheWrap

John Ridley, Felicity Huffman, Elvis Nolasco and Richard Cabral
John Ridley, Felicity Huffman, Elvis Nolasco and Richard Cabral photographed for TheWrap by Dove Shore

The original version of this story first ran in the Movies and Limited Series issue of TheWrap Emmy magazine.

ABC came to John Ridley with an idea for the show that became “American Crime” long before the writer-director-producer won an Oscar for his screenplay for “12 Years a Slave,” because the network and producer Michael McDonald knew that Ridley had been exploring issues of race in America for years. Not only did his previous films include the George Lucas-produced “Red Tails,” about the Tuskegee Airmen, but he had been writing commentary on the topic for such outlets as NPR and Esquire.

STEVE POND: It was disconcerting to watch some of the later episodes of “American Crime” followed by newscasts about what was happening in Baltimore.
JOHN RIDLEY: Yeah. Before the show started, we had Trayvon. In the middle of it we had Ferguson. And as we closed out, Baltimore. I went from feeling like maybe we’re not relevant, maybe we’re post whatever we were going through, to a sense of being too timely.

The week that our Episode 8 aired, which was the episode where we showed the uprising [a riot in the streets of Modesto over a racially-charged murder case], I was in New York doing some press. And on a couple of shows, they came out of a package about Baltimore, which was happening at that moment, and started rolling clips from our uprising.

Didn’t you rework some of the show when Ferguson happened during the shoot?
We did. Even though it’s a created show, we have to remind people that this is going on in the real world. We changed some things–more images than words, just to remind all of us that this has an immediacy. And I think it made me keep the show dark a little longer–it didn’t feel right to start bringing in hope as early as I was going to do.

But with Baltimore, I think it was good that we were wrapped. There was not just Trayvon, not just Ferguson, not just Madison, Wisconsin, not just South Carolina, but Baltimore. I was truly getting frustrated. It was good that we were done, because there was the desire: “Oh, man, I wish I could comment on that.” And people didn’t need me using the show to preach.

This is a subject you’ve been exploring for years, including a controversial essay for Esquire in 2006 [“The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger”] that dealt with race, and how the media can be sidetracked from the bigger picture.
My point with that article is that we get focused on the tip of the iceberg. And the reality is that these situations are far more complex than we tend to give the space.

One of the things coming out of Ferguson is that Eric Holder, our attorney general, who I would give deference to, said that there was not enough evidence to indict this officer [who shot and killed Michael Brown]. But what he also found was that there were these daily indignities, these systemic biases that were going on in Ferguson every single day. But we would not know this had this young man not been shot.
His being shot was not necessarily directly related to all these other things, but certainly was suborned by these things. And that to me is the problem: Why does it take a young man being shot to pay attention when people say, “We’re being hurt every day, we’re being crushed every day”?

See video: Obama to Jimmy Kimmel on Ferguson Shooters: ‘There Are No Excuses for Criminal Acts’ (Video)

That’s a systemic problem, but systemic problems aren’t sexy. The real point of “American Crime” is that we all get caught up in the headlines, and the headlines are very galvanizing. But we tend to turn the page and move on. The people in Ferguson aren’t going to be able to move on. People in Baltimore, Freddy Gray’s family are not going to be able to move on. We’ve got a responsibility to stay with these stories.

Watch TheWrap’s exclusive video of ‘American Crime’ cover shoot:

We always hear, “We need to have a conversation about race.” But does the conversation ever really advance beyond that statement?
No. I mean, look: There are folks who, forget about a conversation about race, they can’t have a conversation about lawn care or sports. The people who need to have a conversation about race need to start someplace else. It can’t be, “I’ve never met a person of color in my life. Slavery, let’s go.”

I mean, you can see how sensitive a guy like Ben Affleck was, and rightfully so. Can you imagine? You go through your history and find an ancestor who owned slaves? Oh, Jesus. Who wants to acknowledge that kind of thing? So you can imagine people who have never been in a space where they’ve dealt with things on that level–are they going to start with slavery, start with the Trail of Tears, start with Cesar Chavez? You cannot start at that point.

I hope that this show is not about “conversations about race.” I hope that it is about emotions and commonalities, and people feeling something they did not expect.

Also read: Ben Affleck Apologizes for PBS Slavery Censorship: ‘I Was Embarassed’

What was ABC looking for when they came to you?
They approached me with the idea of looking at one of those “trials of the century,” like Trayvon Martin and Jodi Arias, where people were galvanized about race, about sexual politics or gender politics. The subject matter was interesting, but I thought, how do you separate that from other terrific shows like “Murder One” or “Law & Order?” What about the families of the victims, the families of the accused? How do they behave, how are they forced to behave in front of the camera and away from the camera? How do they interact?

So that’s what I came back with: Let’s not do a procedural. Let’s not make it about the police or the prosecutors. It’s about people.

This was before “12 Years a Slave,” wasn’t it?
Yeah. ABC and Michael McDonald came to me at the end of July or early August of 2013. I had been away directing [the Jimi Hendrix film] “All Is By My Side,” and they had finished up “12 Years.” They hadn’t seen the film, but I think Michael had read the script. I was surprised when I got the call, but Michael was interested because I had written about the subject matter before, and they thought I would come at it not in a typical fashion.

So we screened “All Is By My Side” for ABC, and they were very taken with that very particular style of storytelling. I did not expect that. It’s one thing to be at a film festival with a movie like that — that’s the point of a film festival. To have a network look at that kind of filmmaking and say, “We want you to do that,” that was very special.

See video: Andre 3000 Wants Love to Overcome Power in First ‘Jimi: All Is By My Side’ Trailer (Video)

The way you shot your uprising scene was very dramatic, with brief flashes of action and then cuts to black. How did that come about?
It came for a couple of reasons. One, people have shot a lot of uprisings. In real life, in America, around the world. And we had a limited number of resources. And we thought about it – myself, the director, Rachel Morrison, our editors – how do you tell a story differently from people who have the resources to tell it on a larger scale? What do you remove so the audience is writing that story themselves? What are those moments that are happening to this person, happening to that person? Make them less about a crowd that is trying to express itself, and have each moment mean something.

I think Rachel did a great job of shooting really beautiful images – people arriving, the prayer, people assembling, some in peace, some feeling on the dark side, very bereaved that they have to express themselves. And it hits that boiling point, and when it boils, it’s not just this nameless, faceless mass of individuals that we see on the news. It’s this person, it’s that person, it’s Barb moving away…

Uprising scene from American Crime

Speaking of Barb, Felicity Huffman‘s character – she starts out very hard to like or even understand, but by the end we do feel for her. It’s like that with a lot of the characters.
I can’t say enough about Felicity. I can’t give her enough credit. First of all, because she chose to work with me at all. I look back on it and think, How did that happen? Same with Tim [Hutton], Regina [King], everybody. But very particularly with her character. Because it wasn’t, “OK, you’re going to be a person with deep-seated biases, but we’re going to give you a puppy. You’re going to espouse these very very difficult ideologies, but you’re gonna have a garden.”

Also read: ‘American Crime’ Will Feature Same Actors in Different Roles in Season 2

There was never that wink, never these things that ameliorated her stances. But then you get to Episode 8, and you see her fear that she’s not better than this or that random bigot. She’s fearing for her life, she’s no longer this strong woman, and you see that in Felicity.

The immediacy makes this a very different approach to the topic than, say, your script for “12 Years a Slave.”
It’s looking at race or class or orientation or biases in the now. When I did “Red Tails” or “12 Years a Slave,” it was looking at ourselves in the past. That’s more comforting, because I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about those bad people back there. People can go, “Wow, haven’t we evolved?”

It’s a whole other thing to say, “I’m talking about us now.” We are not doing history. We are doing something that is far more immediate than any of us ever believed when we were getting into it. And on a broadcast network, people are going to come to us in a different way than they would if we were on Netflix, than they would if we were on cable. So we’re very much putting ourselves in the public square as far as faith, race, biases, ethnicity. And for a network to have the capacity and the wherewithal to withstand all that is really pretty amazing.

Also read: Baltimore Unrest: Will the Media Keep Its Word on Having a ‘Conversation’ About Race?

It felt so unlike a network show that every time it cut to commercial, it was doubly jarring.
Yeah, those were hard to work in. But they’re reminders that no no no, we’re here on a network. As someone who really loves the tools of cinema, it’s easy for me to say, “I would love to try this. I want to bring in directors from independent film and documentarians, playwrights, people from different backgrounds who had never written television before.” But in the final analysis, you don’t expect a network to say, “OK, do that.”

And they have been supporting the show in the ways it succeeds outside the normal metrics of success. I wish we were getting “Empire” numbers, but at the same time there was never that fear that if we didn’t get a big number, they’d take us off the air. It was just, ‘That’s OK, just do what you do. The plus-threes and plus-sevens are really good.” I found it really really supportive.

Do you see yourself sticking with these themes?
This is a subject matter that’s not going away, and I feel like I’m staying with it in some way, shape or form. Two years from now, three years from now, I can promise you I will still be exploring this space.

I’m not going to kid myself: this show is not going to change the world. But there is a conversation to be had around it. I feel like I’m affecting things as much as I possibly can. And that’s my intention.

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Wrap Emmy magazine cover - Richard Cabral, American Crime