“12 Years a Slave” Writer John Ridley Is Turning Real-Life Tragedy Into Powerful Forms of Art (Audio)

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John Ridley is an award-winning screenwriter whose celebrated works in film include 12 Years a Slave, a powerful film for which he won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Longtime fans of his love him for the writing he did on iconic television shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Martin. As an author and writer, his poignant appraisals of race in America include a 2006 essay for Esquire entitled “The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger,” and earlier this year, he launched American Crime, a ten-time Emmy-nominated television show he created which focuses on the intersection of race, gender, and class against the backdrop of a murder trial. And, although his extensive body of work also includes graphic novels and science fiction, a large chunk of his art is clearly centered on race and the experiences of African Americans. Furthermore, many of his works are inspired by real events, making him an artist whose ability to address historical tragedies while creating thoughtful entertainment is at an expert level.

john ridley award

Back in May, Ridley visited  Shadrach Kabango (better known as Shad) on his “q” radio program, and the two discussed at length the “humanizing of racial tensions.” Although now several months old, the conversation remains relevant and even prescient, as the topics covered remain predominant in today’s sociopolitical atmosphere. For starters, it’s shared that much of Ridley’s inspiration for the backstories on American Crime was drawn from the headlines, including the Trayvon Martin case and the explosive clashes in Ferguson, Missouri over the murder of Mike Brown. Another real-life inspiration was the Central Park Five case, a 1989 rape of a female jogger for which five were men convicted. Years later, four of them were freed after it was determined they had been wrongfully imprisoned and were innocent. At the time of the highly publicized trial, Ridley was living in New York City. As he tells Shad, being “a young person of color in New York at that time, uh, to feel as though you are by association under a microscope, and to be sold that these young men did it…and then to find out years later that it was such a set-up, such a constructed set of events, to not only feel lied to but to feel complicit in those lies, and then to realize how many years of my life had passed, how many things that I was able to go on and do, these men were still, and are still, and will always be dealing with what happened to them…that was something that just had such a real emotional honesty that I related to and something that I wanted to try to invest American Crime with.”

Shortly thereafter, the conversation turns to how one can take the horrific stories happening to real people and translate them into a television show without disrespecting the honor or memory of those who have lost loved ones, or the ones who themselves lost their lives. “It’s tough. You want to be relevant. But at the same time, to see those images [of uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson] and to be a father myself, it’s difficult.” However, he maintains that his goal with the latest show was to be “emotionally honorific” without attempting to recreate real events. “If we went with a real ripped-from-the-headlines approach, I feel we’d be exploiting more than exploring,” he explains. “The hardest thing, I think, was to not turn it into the ‘John Ridley Show.’ We really just wanted to be very observant. What we don’t see in the headlines is a real emotionality and what people are going through in the quiet moments when they’re away from their family members, when they’re away from those they trust the most. That’s the program we wanted to do. Rather than have page-long monologues where people go on and on about the state of race relations.” Shad closes the interview by building on the notion of emotional honesty, asking Ridley “are you hoping to make emotional truth the contribution you’re making with this new show?” Ridley replies by saying “I would hope. I think at best, entertainment is an apparatus for delivering emotions, and if we have constructed this apparatus correctly, I hope and believe that at the end of an episode, where people come in maybe expecting a lesson, or thinking that they’re going to get preached to, they find out they’ve just been moved, and moved in unexpected ways.”

Check out the compelling conversation in its entirety, below.

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