“It is a provocative show,” says John Ridley.
The name “John Ridley” may not be familiar to the masses just yet, but you’ve no doubt heard his words. After getting his start writing for sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Martin, and cranking out several novels, Ridley transitioned to film, penning the screenplays to movies like U Turn and Three Kings. His breakout year came in 2013, when he won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years A Slave, and wrote and directed the Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side.
In August 2013, just one month after post-production was completed on 12 Years, he was called in for a meeting with ABC brass to discuss a new, timely show that dealt with racial politics—inspired by the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin. “I don’t want it to be about police, prosecutors, or the judicial system. I want it to be about regular people,” Ridley told the network. The result is American Crime, which debuts on the network March 5.
American Crime is “provocative,” to say the least—in fact, it’s probably the most provocative show on television.
The series opens with a home invasion in Modesto, California that leaves a war veteran dead and his wife seriously beaten. But things aren’t exactly what they seem, and the crime sets off a string of events involving numerous victims and suspects—along with their families—that splinters the community. The show stars Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, W. Earl Brown, and more, and features imagery pulled straight out of Ferguson, from protesters clashing with police to a man holding up his hands with "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" scribbled on his palms. It's also been very highly touted by the network (you’ve no doubt seen the promos).
Just one day after the news broke that George Zimmerman would not be federally indicted in the death of Trayvon Martin, I sat down with Ridley at a restaurant in New York for a wide-ranging discussion on television, race, the Oscars, and more.
So many things have happened since August 2013 that have made this show even more current and vital.
Well, that was the odd thing. We started our conversations about the show after Trayvon Martin, since it seemed very much of the now. But there was a moment after Trayvon where it felt like a lot of energy had expended. Production started and, very sadly, Ferguson happened. You realize that you’re not moving beyond things and are always going to be chasing something. Even though this is a fictional story, there was a responsibility to capture the emotional honesty of what’s going on. So we reexamined the story and the imagery that we used. There’s no dividing this from what’s going on in real life. None of us want to exploit what’s happening in real life, but we also can’t operate in a fantasy universe that doesn’t have problems with race, class, and perception.
How did the saga of Trayvon Martin inform American Crime?
For ABC, their desire was: Why do these things keep happening? Why do we galvanize around these crimes and take a certain interest? When you get to the end of it, there will never be a resolution with Trayvon Martin and Ferguson that is commensurate with what happened. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but beyond Trayvon Martin, I wanted to create something that could play at any time. When I was a much younger man in New York at NYU, the Central Park Five case went down, and we were sold al these things—evidence, confessions, this young woman had survived this horrific thing, and couldn’t even testify but her presence alone was enough to sway emotions. And then to find out years later that they had nothing to do with it? It was all about perception.
So you went into production on American Crime, and then Ferguson happened. And in promos for upcoming episodes we see protests that look right out of Ferguson, as well as a character hold up his hands with “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” written on his palms.
There are certainly moments within this that we’d planned ahead of time and seen around Trayvon Martin, and see very often when these types of things happen. When Ferguson happened, there were very specific types of images that came out of it that were very different from what happened around Trayvon.
Like the militarized police response.
Yes, things like that. There were images that became very indelible and those were things that we absolutely wanted to allude to, as well as things that bridge those incidents with all the incidents—from Rodney King all the way to what happened [with Eric Garner] in New York. The responses can be similar, but also very different.
There does seem to be a unifying theme with all these incidents, though—a serious perception problem among law enforcement officials, and also a procedural problem in using lethal force in so many cases when it’s not necessary.
You have to look very, very hard to see the incidents where it’s not white officer-black kid. Or that guy who was in the Walmart with the Airsoft gun who got shot. And then you have open carry guys. If you go back to the Black Panthers, conservatives were trying to get rid of open carry because people of color were doing it. And now, even separate from these incidents where you have trained law enforcement officials and it tends to be a white officer and a black kid, it goes wrong, and they wind up dead, you need to ask yourself: If a bunch of black people came into a Starbucks loaded up, how do you think that would end? It would end horribly. So we cannot pretend that perception does not play a part in it. It begins with two individuals who see each other as occupied and occupier, threatening and a threat. However it is, we can’t get past that. These perceptions are live wires, and when they end up touching, something goes wrong. And we only say, “Oh, let’s have a conversation about this…” when they touch and something goes wrong.
As a New Yorker, the Eric Garner incident was particularly troubling because you had all the video evidence there and the officer who killed him still wasn’t indicted.
It’s bad enough when these things happen, but we believe at the very least that we have checks and balances. And when someone like this happens where there’s what I consider to be irrefutable video evidence, but then that still gets kicked out on the grounds of, “Well, there’s not enough there,” then what is the expectation going to be except for people to say, “Well, you don’t give a damn about us.” Then you cannot be surprised when people spill on the street, then people spill on the street and the response on the other side is too egregious, and it’s this vicious cycle. It starts with one violent act and it only gets worse.
The medium of television does seem to do a much better job than film of reflecting the actual world—that is, a racially diverse place. It’s frustrating, but look at someone like Viola Davis who is hands-down one of the best actresses alive and just a few years removed from an Oscar nomination, and has to turn to TV to find a complex role worthy of her talent. These roles just don’t seem to be available to women on film.
They’re not in general, and once you add an “other” into it, they’re increasingly fewer. It’s certainly true in front of the camera, and also behind the camera. How many female directors are there out there? How many people of color do you find in the writers’ rooms? Doing a TV show like this is great because we have the opportunity to hire more people of color, and more female directors. Nicole Kassell was one of our directors, Rachel Morrison who was the DP on Fruitvale, Jessica Yu who’s a documentary filmmaker. And we’re not trying to get the numbers up. These are very talented people. If you’re going to put a show out there and say it’s about perspectives and is reflective of the world, you’re obligated from every aspect of the show that you’re being inclusive. It is a little nuts when you see someone of Viola’s ability and quality and think, “In that time, not one good role—whether it’s a lead or outstanding supporting role—came up?” But I’m also thankful that in television, someone like her can not only get a great lead role, but she did a 15-episode season so people saw her 15 times, and her name recognition is even greater because people get to see her every week. Listen, it’s great if you’re Jennifer Lawrence and you’re in a couple of franchises and you’re an Oscar nominee. As a working artist, that is a great space to be in. Another great space to be in is one where you’ve got 8 or 9 million people on an everyday basis going, “Oh, what is she doing this week?” and following that story very tightly. And what Shonda [Rhimes] is doing on Thursday nights by having this block of time that is really, really reflective? She’s kicked open a lot of doors for a lot of folks. And ABC is really making an effort to be inclusive.
So the audience is clearly there. Then why, on film, is this still such an issue? This has to be coming from up on high. The powers that be in the film world are not giving women or people of color the right opportunities.
Well, it is. I can tell you right now that the folks at Disney have really made a decision that they want their programming to be reflective. Look at ABC, ABC Family, and Disney Channel, and you’re seeing reflective shows. Coming off last year with 12 Years, The Butler, Fruitvale, and even films like Think Like A Man and Ride Along, these are films that made money. And then you come to another year where the pickings are a little trimmer.
As far as nominees go, it was the whitest Oscars since 1998.
From where I was sitting in the joint, it was. And when we talk about diversity in media, everyone automatically jumps to black. But we’re the minority-minority now, we’re not even the majority-minority, so look at Hispanics, Asians, everybody else. They’re not even close to getting parity. I do consider them to be actively passive decisions at this point. They’re not actively saying they don’t want people of color represented, but they’re passively doing it.
Well, when you look at the makeup of something like The Academy it’s 94 percent white and 76 percent male with an average age of 63.
But you also have Cheryl Boone Isaacs who’s the present and Dawn Hudson who’s the CEO. You have more people of color going in. I think it’s wrong to say that people can’t vote a certain why because they’re old and white, because that’s the same thing as people saying you can’t vote a certain way because you’re young and black. But this was my first year voting in the Oscars and it’s really all about peer groups. Just because I was behind Selma and pushing David [Oyelowo] doesn’t mean I was against Eddie Redmayne because he was a white dude, but that’s a film that resonated with us and we’re going to get behind it.
One of the plotlines in American Crime follows an interracial couple, which is great. We don’t see enough of those on film and television. Film is still very weird about interracial couples. Yes, that movie Focus is out with Will Smith and Margot Robbie, but there isn’t really any sex in it. Me and my coworkers were trying to recall the last time we saw a mixed couple have sex in a movie.
But how many times do you even see black people having sex just… as a couple? It remains a third rail. It remains a thing where it’s OK for a black guy to date a white girl, they could marry, but we don’t really want to see that. Let’s not look at that, because then you’re dipping the live wire into water. One of the things we do is have sex with people we’re attracted to, and even on cable you’ll see same-sex people having relationships, whereas in movies the entire movie needs to be about sexual orientation as opposed to just being two people who are in a relationship. So I think in the TV space, even though broadcast is very governed by ads, you still see a lot more chances being taken, rules being broken, and things being done that are provocative. They say it’s a great time to be in television, and it is, because you get the chance to talk about people and be reflective.