TheWrap Emmy magazine: “It’s almost 30 years since I started, and there still are not enough showrunners of color or directors of color,” says the writer, director and producer
A version of this interview with John Ridley first appeared in the Limited Series & Movies issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
John Ridley has been a leading voice in television for decades, earning two nominations in 2015 (and another the following year) for his ABC limited series “American Crime.” When the cultural and political landscape began to change in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last month, we figured it was time to check back in with Ridley, whose other work includes his Oscar-winning screenplay for “12 Years a Slave,” the series “Guerrilla,” the documentary “Let It Fall” and an annual Social Justice Summit at No Studios, his arts production and studio complex in his hometown of Milwakuee.
I went back and I looked at the conversation that we had about “American Crime” in 2015. It was a show in which police violence against people of color was part of the story, and you said, “Before the show started, we had Trayvon. In the middle of it, we had Ferguson. As we closed out, Baltimore. I went from feeling like maybe we’re not relevant to a sense of being too timely.” But at this point, is timely even a consideration anymore? It feels as if there has never been a portrayal of injustice or racism that wasn’t timely, because it’s always been there.
I think you make a really good point with that. When “American Crime” went off the air, I was happy for the run that we had, but I felt like, it was three seasons of incredibly powerful, socially relevant material. And it did feel for a couple of years like, “Yeah, it’s fine (I’m not doing that show anymore).” And now people go, “Wow, it’s time for ‘American Crime’ or a show like that to come back.”
And in some ways, it’s painful. Certainly as someone who loves that show, I appreciate that people are saying it. But why they’re saying it, and the fact that this stuff does not go away — not only does it not go away, it feels like we’re doing this archaeological dig into our psyche. And every time you think you hit that burial ground, you realize, no, it’s just a mound on top of a mound on top of a mound.
And these are the ones that are caught on video — these are the ones that we’re aware of. Whether it’s what happened to Mr. Floyd or the gentleman who was birdwatching or Ahmaud Arbery, who was just out running and was shot and killed. I mean, these are the ones we see. Back then, I felt this is an extraordinary moment in time when people are so hyper aware of what’s going on, and I happened to be working on a show just about that. But for “American Crime,” if this was going to be the first season all over again, it would be just as relevant, sadly.
In times like these, what should the role of Hollywood and particularly the role of television be?
I like to think that television in particular, because it’s so immediate, our role is to be consistent. I don’t think it’s to take a moment like this and say, “Oh, we’ve got to rush out a story about this.” At the same time, when extraordinary moments like this are not happening, I think it’s important that if you’re dealing in history or in socially relevant material, that there is a consistency to how it’s presented — not just in extraordinary moments and certainly not reflecting just one struggle.
And more importantly, I would love to see consistency in the practices of Hollywood behind the cameras and in the executive suites and in the writers’ rooms. I think that’s far more important. As those of us in Hollywood look around the country at other industries and either point fingers or write checks, what are we really doing in Hollywood to ensure that as many different kinds of people have the opportunity to tell as many different stories as there are out there in the world?
Have you seen any significant change in that regard during your time working in Hollywood?
Significant change equivalent to the per-capita workforce? Not really. I mean, I’m proud of the individuals, the men and women of color of different backgrounds who are making strides. But if you look in the day-to-day places — the number of female directors who are on sets, the makeup of the writers’ rooms and the number of shows that are out there — those numbers have been stagnant. It’s almost 30 years since I started, and there still are not enough showrunners of color or directors of color. Women are traditionally marginalized. And it’s certainly not because there’s not the talent. We have to be part of the solution in our spaces.
You recently published an op-ed in the L.A. Times asking HBO Max to pull “Gone With the Wind” off the service, and the next day they did. Is it naive to think that we might be at a tipping point when it comes to acknowledging systemic intolerance and injustice?
I think we’re at a point where a lot of us can be hopeful. Folks can see that when we talk about systemic injustice, when we talk about things that are baked into the equation, when we talk about things that are so very there, many people of the prevailing culture just don’t see it. I think we’ve arrived at a moment where so many people see it, know it and acknowledge that we’ve got to start addressing it.
In 2006, you wrote an essay for Esquire about the issue of race in America and how it’s more complicated than the media acknowledges. What should the media be doing now? And I’m talking about the news media, but also about people like me doing entertainment coverage.
I would honestly say, and I mean this very sincerely: Do what you do, and do what the media in its best circumstances always does — report the facts. You see, even in the United States of America, the consequences when reporters are being arrested, when reporters are being targeted out of a crowd, when there’s a consequence to trying to tell the story as it is. I think the media then is doing what it’s intended to do, what it needs to do and what we need the media to do.
Your documentary “Let It Fall,” about the uproar that followed the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles, recently ran again on ABC. Did you go to them asking them to air it?
I really think we came towards each other on that one. Having done that documentary two years ago in commemoration of the 25th anniversary, I felt it was all I could do, all I could say about these very tragic times — not just the Rodney King uprising, but the 10 years preceding it, with many of the unseen stress points in Los Angeles. So with everything that was going on in the world, I didn’t know that I had anything more to add.
And I felt like in some ways that if the individuals who were speaking to what was going on (in “Let It Fall”) clearly made no difference, what did it matter? But as the weeks progressed, I did think that maybe there was value. You can’t compare tragedies — but empathy, pain, understanding, those are consistent. And by the time that I reached out to ABC and said, “Hey, have you thought about this?” they were receptive to the idea of revisiting it at this particular time.
As somebody whose work has always been concerned with social justice, does what’s happening right now change what kind of work you want to create from here?
Yes and no. I’m always going to lead with my perspectives on race and life and community, sometimes represented by the kinds of people who are in front of the camera or the kinds of people who were behind the camera. Maybe the break that I took from “Let it Fall” to some of the other things that I’m working on is an in-between-rounds breather, and it’s time to get back in there and to excavate certain stories and to tell those stories. That urge, if it diminished at all, is returned.
To read more of the Limited Series & Movies issue, click here.