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The Talented Mr. Ridley 

The author, screenwriter and radio commentator keeps his feet on the ground -- and his laptop at the ready

Wednesday, Oct 9 2002
Photos by Ted Soqui

JOHN RIDLEY WOULD LIKE TO BE HOWARD STERN. THE thought is jarring: Ridley is a flourishing novelist and screenwriter who is reclusive when it comes to Hollywood. He is ruminative where Stern is brash. Ridley is black, Stern Jewish. But Ridley, like Stern, has a talent for acknowledging common sentiments often too discomfiting for public consumption: On both the airwaves and the page, he unhesitatingly roasts the sacred cows of secular black theology. For all the differences in personal style, the two share an essential unwillingness to suffer fools.

"I would love to have a show that pisses people off," says Ridley, the 35-year-old writer behind the movies Undercover Brother and Three Kings. "I want to be an instigator, to be impolite." He would like, for instance, to establish a public forum where he could rail against the snowballing egregiousness of the Bush administration's policies, starting with its clandestine style of operation. "Let's be as rough on Dick Cheney and his withholding information as we were on Bill Clinton," he says heatedly. He envisions such a show running not on commercial radio but on National Public Radio, with all of the unequivocation but none of the frat-boy smut that has become the King of All Media's stock-in-trade.

But no smut does not mean no titillation, as devoted readers of Ridley know by now. The titles of Ridley's books hint at their outsize events and characters -- Stray Dogs, Love Is a Racket, Everybody Smokes in Hell. His people -- convenience-store clerks, bums, slackers, murderers, record execs -- are often stereotypes on steroids or just plain weird; in any case, they're people sketched so big they turn inside out and you're left with either utterly unique characters or cartoon figures, sometimes both. "My characters are out there," he says with some satisfaction. "I like the guy in Everybody Smokes in Hell who deals drugs but who's pissed because everybody thinks he's a gangsta rapper. He's not. He's a caricature, but he's not. I love my characters for their extremeness." His latest book, The Drift, traffics in the Mickey Spillane sort of extremeness common to all Ridley's books -- at least one episode of blood or balletic violence per chapter -- but, like his novel published earlier this year, A Conversation With the Mann, it also connects that extremeness with racism and other peculiarly American social conditions. Thus The Drift's protagonist is an educated black man leading a comfortable but antiseptic life in the 'burbs who one day snaps, renounces his wonderful life for that of a train hobo and adopts the unsubtle tag name Brain Nigger Charlie.

Though the politically astute but popular movie Three Kings put Ridley on the map as a screenwriter in 1999, he had been a force in the industry for years. He came to Hollywood in the early '90s from New York, where he'd attended NYU and done a stint as a standup comic ("my porn days," he calls them) before deciding to channel his energies into television writing. He quickly landed gigs with shows like Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The John Larroquette Show, establishing a reputation early on for versatility. In 1997, a movie that he wrote and directed, Cold Around the Heart, won top directing honors at the Urbanworld Filmfest in New York; a development deal with Warner Bros. followed. That same year, Oliver Stone directed the indie-flavored U Turn, which was based on Ridley's first novel, Stray Dogs. (He fell out with Stone when the publisher released the book ahead of the movie.) In 1999, he signed on as supervising producer and writer for Third Watch, a police/paramedic drama developed by the folks who gave the world ER and The West Wing. He also signed a contract to develop material for Urban Media's Web site, Urbanentertainment.com, and came up with Undercover Brother, a series of cartoon-comedy shorts starring a hip but hapless black hero named Anton Jackson whose alter ego was the ultranationalist but compassionate Undercover Brother, dispatched to fight all manner of race crimes. Undercover Brother briskly and brilliantly skewered and sanctioned racial debates ranging from black economic self-sufficiency to hip-hop's illegitimate white son, Eminem. The feature film subsequently made by Universal, written and executive-produced by Ridley, was the first studio movie to be based on Internet content.

I should stop here and warn any writers reading this story that it may cause psychological damage. That is, it might inflict more damage than writers (including me) already have and have been accumulating year by year, like rings in the aging marrow of trees. Scribes of all colors and persuasions and productivity counts, at all levels of success and/or degrees of self-delusion, will not take the tale of John Ridley, extreme writer, lightly or well. Ridley is a novelist/screenwriter/television writer/radio commentator who has been at all these endeavors for about 10 years; he works on a minimum of five projects at any given moment. If something doesn't fly immediately, he puts it in a drawer, sometimes for years, then takes it out and dusts it off to general acclaim (Undercover Brother and A Conversation With the Mann are recent examples). Ridley finished up a book tour this past spring and is in the middle of another, for The Drift; yet another book, his fifth, is due out early next year. He produces so much so fast -- he outpaces Stephen King in his prime -- that Knopf, one of his two big-house publishers, threw up its hands and gave him a blind book deal.

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