John Ridley: Race Relations and Hollywood

In July, John Ridley turned up at San Diego Comic-Con with an announcement. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of “12 Years A Slave” and creator of the television series “American Crime,” has a comic book series coming out through Vertigo called “The American Way: Those Above and Those Below.” That might seem a little out of the ordinary to those familiar with Ridley's work for the big and small screens, but it's not. “Those Above and Those Below” is actually a sequel to “The American Way,” which was published in 2007.


Ridley is the rare writer who can handle just about any task. His myriad projects have included everything from feature-length dramas to the television miniseries “Guerrilla” to the documentary “Let It Fall: L.A. 1982-1992.” He launched his Hollywood career writing for sitcoms and has several novels to his credit.

This year, Ridley has been in the midst of a whirlwind of headline-grabbing projects. If there's a through line between his recent work, it's struggle. Ridley's stories aren't confined to a single decade or a specific place, but they tackle subject matter that are incredibly relevant to the America in 2017. Ridley brings issues like civil rights, immigrant rights, institutional racism and exploitation to the pop culture conversation, whether you want to talk about television or comic books.

Ridley's wave of 2017 press started with the third season of “American Crime,” which premiered in March although buzz surrounding the acclaimed series began to swirl months earlier, right before the inauguration of President Trump. For the third season of the anthology series, “American Crime” delved into immigration and the dark side of farm labor. Ridley, though, told Hollywood Reporter that the show wasn't inspired by the then-President Elect's immigration stance. Instead, he noted that immigration issues are neither a recent phenomenon, nor a specifically American one.

By the spring, attention had moved on to two other Ridley-helmed projects. “Guerrilla a miniseries looking into the black power movement of the early 1970s in the United Kingdom, starring Idris Elba, Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay. The series aired on Sky Atlantic in the U.K. and Showtime in the U.S. It stirred up some controversy upon its release, at the London premiere, an audience member question struck up a debate about the lack of black women in the series. Those questions persisted in other interviews such as one with Rolling Stone Magazine and a conversation with “American Crime” star Felicity Huffman at Aspen Ideas Festival. “I won't be provocative for the sake of being provocative,” Ridley told Rolling Stone. Still, he added, that's a side effect of writing stories that deal with big issues like race.

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The American Way: Those Above and Those Below, DC Comics
The American Way: Those Above and Those Below, DC Comics

In April, Ridley earned rave reviews for his documentary on the L.A. Riots, “Let It Fall: L.A. 1982- 1992.” There's a personal connection for Ridley in this project. As he told the L.A. Times, Ridley moved to Los Angeles shortly before the uprising and he definitely had his own observation of the events. Still, making the documentary required taking a step back. He let the story unfold from others who were there in the years leading up to the beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers, to the years of tension that erupted in the aftermath of the trial.

His approach worked. The New York Times called the documentary “wrenchingly human.” Deadline says that it “takes a real new look at a tale we think we know but only barely gleam in many ways.” Variety called it the “clear towering achievement” amongst documentaries released in time with the 25th anniversary of the events.

Where Ridley looks at race and history through a very real series of events in “Let It Fall,” on DC comics’ “The American Way” he explore the U.S. of the 1960s and 1970s through superhero fantasy. 

Ridley wrote for the original “The American Way” series in 2006, this year he’s back with DC for “The American Way: Those Above and Those Below.” He told the Orange County Register that the story was initially inspired by learning that in the early 1960s, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson had lobbied for bringing a black astronaut into the budding space program. In the sequel, he tells Gizmodo, the characters are dealing with the “cynicism” of the early 1970s.

In that Gizmodo interview, Ridley also discusses one of his comic book influences, a DC character called Question and the ambiguity involved in the character's story. Similarly, Ridley is more concerned with questions. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, he talked about not giving the audience a very clear ending to a story, saying,  “I think that if there's an answer in the work that I do, then I've probably made a mistake somewhere.”

This story was originally published on July 31, 2017. 


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