Oscar winning director John Ridley spoke recently at the LA Film Festival on race, Hollywood and the current renaissance of black-themed film.
Ridley won the Academy Award for writing "12 Years a Slave", which also scored the 2014 Best Picture Oscar; wrote "U Turn," directed by Oliver Stone in 1997; co-wrote the Tuskegee Airmen WWII feature "Red Tails" in 2012, executive produced by George Lucas; and wrote and directed the 2013 Hendrix biopic "Jimi: All is by My Side." He also created the hard-hitting, racially charged "American Crime" ABC-TV series.
The Milwaukee-born Ridley said "American Crime" is influenced by the Central Park Five, a quintet of nonwhite males who "were railroaded" in 1989 for allegedly raping and savagely beating a white female jogger. They spent years behind bars for the crime, before they were released when they were finally proven innocent.
Ridley criticized the media for ramping up lynch-mob hysteria instead of independently investigating the crime.
"You have that moment where you watch the news and hear about a horrible crime and say 'please don't be black,' and then they're black and you go, 'Well, okay, they're black—but they didn't do it,'" Ridley said, to appreciative laughter from the mostly nonwhite audience. "I remember seeing the mother outside [the courthouse] with a T-shirt [proclaiming her son's innocence]. To think, she was right. She never gave up."
Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager gunned down by a vigilante in Sanford, Florida in 2012, influenced Ridley's show, as did similar cases from around the country.
"Right when we were filming, we did an episode where there was a public uprising ... Ferguson happened," recalled Ridley, referring to the urban unrest that swept the Missouri municipality after a white policeman shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown in August, 2014. "We needed to alter some things, to bring some imagery that spoke to what was happening at that time. We finished shooting in November, premiered in March, and during that run... Baltimore was happening," as the city erupted following April's police killing of Freddie Grey.
Ridley expresses and interprets racism in scripted dramas. In "Jimi: All is by My Side" the guitarist (played by rapper Andre 3000) is confronted by racist London police for the "crime" of strolling while black with a white woman.
The biopic depicts Jimi Hendrix's interactions with black nationalists. Ridley's acclaimed "12 Years a Slave" recounts the enslavement from 1841 to1853 of an actual historical figure, Solomon Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.
In his next project, John Ridley is remaking one of the big screen's greatest slavery epics, "Ben-Hur", set during the Roman Empire. William Wyler's 1959 blockbuster scored eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.
The LA Film Festival ends June 18. For more info see: lafilmfest.com.
Ed Rampell is The Progressive's Man In Hollywood and co-author/author of four movie film history books, including "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book" (http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/). His Progressive interview is included in the new book "Conversations with W.S. Merwin."