By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Ridley traces his extraordinary discipline to Midwestern, very middle-class roots in Milwaukee -- his mother was a schoolteacher and his father an ophthalmologist -- and to college in Wisconsin and Indiana, where he ran track (later, at NYU, he majored in East Asian studies). Competitive running ingrained in him the importance of schedules and persistence, he says, and he took to heart the old saw about teamwork and winning really not being the only thing. But learning to work alone effectively was key too, as was developing the habit of perpetual motion; to this day, Ridley says, "I'd always rather be doing something than nothing. That's why I work a lot. I hate sitting around waiting for somebody to give me something." Sitting around waiting to get his first novel, Stray Dogs, published felt interminable, but its ultimate success gave him fundamental direction as a writer. His boundless energy is matched by a boundless patience that allows him to back-burner projects for however long he needs to. "I just sold this script for [wrestler-turned-actor] The Rock," he says casually. "It's years old -- I dredged it up. I sat down and wrote it because I said, I'm sick of this, I'm not going to wait for a deal."
Though he has no illusions about being an artist, Ridley does write for impact and provocation, and if he falls short of those things he wants to know. His books have been described as neo-noir with a socio-analytical twist, literary pulp fiction similar to Walter Mosley's, but louder and less subtle. He writes for the post-boomer generation, a demographic that's had to sort out the complicated legacy of race while embracing the American Dream, with its gigantic sweep and its obsessively small considerations. In addition to his radio-show fantasy, Ridley imagines a Seinfeld-like show in which the clueless, transparently ambitious characters happen to be black, or at least not white. That, to him, is real equality.
"It's the idea that the things I write don't have to be aboutrace, even though the characters are people of color," he explains. "In real life you can't be colorblind -- you don't sit down next to me and say, 'Gee, you're black! I didn't realize that.' But let's say that the average black person spends about 10 percent of their day dealing with race, and the other 90 percent dealing with everything else. Can't we get those two things together?"
He thought critics as a group missed the mark on Undercover Brother, which got generally glowing reviews as a witty but edgy spoof of the exaggerated styles and misguided militancy of the blaxploitation '70s. Ridley says the movie could have, and should have, been much edgier; the original draft that he wrote hewed close to his animated Internet series, which often had as much comic punch as real pathos. The sharpest observations were softened or dropped altogether for marketing reasons. "At the end of the day, they got nervous," says Ridley of those who worked on the film, including director Malcolm Lee. "Actually, Undercover Brotherwas never a blaxploitation parody -- they got it wrong. It was originally more like The Manchurian Candidate. They were fooled by the big Afro, the costumes. It was easiest to look at it that way. It was like, 'Oh, it's a black movie and there are these references, therefore it's blaxploitation.' It allowed a certain comfort level in talking about race. It was weird all the way around." He adds that once the film was released, critics worried about political correctness were also guilty of a similar oversimplification. I remark that mediocre black films have always tended to be overpraised, and Ridley exclaims, "Oh, I think so! I think it definitely happened in Undercover Brother." He rolls his eyes. "Roger Ebert loves anythingblack. If they put Amos 'n' Andyon the screen, he'd love it. It's bad, really. I think it's more correct to be as honest as you would be with a white thing. It's patronizing to have this double standard."
Ed Bernero says bluntly that the film was "whitened" for the masses. "It was sad," he says. "The [Internet] strip wasn't a joke. There's a difference between a joke and a satire. They didn't get it. It's like trying to play a violin sonata on a harmonica."
Ridley is discerning but never gets too worked up about the finer points of interpretation of his, or of any, projects; there's plenty more where those came from. Movies are a rush, they're big, but they're disposable. He finds the film industry's self-patronizing in the wake of September 11 especially reprehensible. "On Oscar night this year, you had Tom Cruise making this speech about, 'Entertainment matters now more than ever.' It doesn't matter." He makes a sound like a snort. "Three thousand people died. We say those things because we've got to justify why we're all there in our tuxedos and limos and going to our Vanity Fairparties. 'Entertainment matters.' It's ridiculous."
It strikes me that Ridley has amended W.E.B. Du Bois' famous notion of double consciousness -- that blacks are tragically suspended between being black and being American -- for the 21st century: We are now between feeling that all things American that we strove so hard to attain matter entirely and that they matter not at all. Ridley doesn't resolve the tension (as Du Bois never resolved his), but he does maintain a postmodern equanimity that keeps him sane and loose-limbed, that allows him to assume as many positions as he thinks credible and write as many words as he wants, and get handsomely paid for them to boot.
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