By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
But race clearly remains on the table. Ridley may be a Renaissance man bent on changing the world through example, but he's also a realist, and he doesn't forget. He re-imagines Seinfeld, but he remembers the lessons of Three Kings, the disappointment he nursed when the lead role, written as a black man, went to George Clooney (the presence of Ice Cube was a consolation prize). He fumes over the clumsy, fatally fixed ideas Hollywood has about black characters; he hated that Samuel L. Jackson in Changing Lanes started out as an angry, stressed-out man and spontaneously combusted into a black, angry, stressed-out man about two-thirds of the way through the film. Ridley once called Boyz N the Hood, Hangin' With Mr. Cooperand Diff'rent Strokes"black movies and TV shows too cool to need all the proper letters in their title." He calls the ongoing crusade to bolster black Oscar nominees meaningless. "If Halle and Denzel hadn't won, would they be any more or less talented?" he snaps. Purely numerical quotas are stupid, he says, "but so is the fact that [Denzel and Halle] won for being a crook and a prostitute. It's not progress, and it's not notprogress."
Halle Berry herself has argued that she represents only herself in all of her roles -- with clothes or without -- but Ridley says that for blacks to consciously ignore the bigger issues of representation, however tiresome they may be, is dangerous. "The question is, how many times do black women get to play things besides whores?" he says. "Look, there are black people who are gangster rappers -- fine. Now show us the black people who aren't. I don't mind George Jefferson being stupid as hell, now show me a black guy being as smart as hell. It's a problem of balance. Sure, Friends is stupid, but there's ERand a spectrum of other stuff." I suggest that real freedom may lie in the fat middle of that spectrum -- developing perfectly mediocre shows with black characters who are neither geeky nor ghetto-awful. Ridley widens his eyes in a eureka moment. "That's it!" he exclaims. "That's what I'm aiming for."
He believes that in the end, Jackie Mann, buffeted as he is by the forces of history, is his own biggest impediment. I don't entirely agree, but Ridley says, "It boils down to the choice you make. Jackie says once that Lenny Bruce was brilliant, but he worked in coffeehouses. Jackie didn't want to work in coffeehouses. You can't have both. He made a choice." I persist: What if it's the world at large that's forcing the big questions and big choices into a racial or unnatural context? What then? Ridley snorts for the second time. "Screw the world at large," he says. "The world at large reads InStyle magazine. The world at large doesn't know the name of the vice president of the United States. We should be telling Dick Cheney, 'You work for us. Fuck you. End of discussion. If you don't want to have hearings on all the information surrounding the events of September 11, don't sit there and call us un-American.'"
Ridley doesn't like gratuitousness of any kind, but he also doesn't like rules. Like Stern, he's a student of the public id who specializes in forcing certain taboos to popular entertainment's -- or to patrician NPR's -- glossy surface and creating altogether new potions. Of the dozens of commentaries Ridley's already amassed for NPR, his favorite is the one that blasted tourists who regularly file by the cavernous hole where the twin towers used to stand in New York; those who claim piety and paying of respects, he said, are really satisfying a morbid curiosity to see leftover blood and bones and ruin. The piece elicited a record amount of hate mail, to Ridley's enduring satisfaction. "I will maintain to my dying day that people weren't being honest about their voyeurism," he says. "It had nothing to do with honor and memorializing. If you want to observe or pray or mourn, go to church. I don't have to go see a hole in the ground to feel something."
After a pause, he adds, "Voyeurism doesn't bother me. It's the hypocrisy surrounding it."
RIDLEY DENIES -- AGAIN -- ANY PERSONALIZING of his characters, though he does admit that Brain Nigger Charlie cuts close to a bone or two. The book is based on real experience, if not quite fact: Ridley once covered a hobo convention for NPR, and was intrigued enough by the scene and the story possibilities to ride the rails himself in the Pacific Northwest. "We all said, 'You're crazy,'" recalls fellow television writer Adam Fierro. "John is the furthest thing from that seedy kind of life. He's smart, political, racial, but he's notstreet. He can't even fake it. But," he adds, "it's all part of the rush. He liked it in the way that Hemingway liked war."
So Ridley makes a lousy thug, but he does know firsthand the internal struggles of race and place that continue to defy social strata, that blacks tote around like so many shabby but permanent belongings. Part of Charlie's madness is that he feels properly assimilated to the precise degree he feels like a nigger; the only solution, it seems, is to cut the labels and locales that bind and hit the road, but even that, predictably, doesn't work. Though Ridley puts the race stuff in your face -- beginning with the moniker Brain Nigger Charlie -- he insists that throughout The Drift, "Race bubbles up. It doesn't dominate, but it's there when it makes sense. The story is about carving out a particular life and then having it collapse under its own weight."