John Ridley: The 12 Years a Slave Oscar Winner Isn't Just a Black History Screenwriter
Photo by Ryan Orange
John Ridley is on his cellphone, talking to his sister for the first time since he won an Oscar for writing 12 Years a Slave.
"It's like Excalibur. I should give it to the Lady of the Lake," he says, dismissively: The statuette has ended up in a drawer. When it was in the kitchen, "We had to dust around it."
It's not that he's ashamed of the honor. But he wants to force himself to focus on the future.
In recent years, Ridley has been pegged as a black-history specialist. In addition to 12 Years, he wrote a still-unmade L.A. Riots script. A Jimi Hendrix song, "Sending My Love to Linda," inspired him to write and direct Jimi: All Is By My Side, starring Outkast's André Benjamin; it comes out in June.
Still, Ridley, 48, is determined not to get typecast. He's sitting in the postproduction offices of the ABC pilot he just wrote and directed, American Crime, about a murder that becomes a Trayvon Martin - esque media frenzy. He explains that he's recently received offers to write movies about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and Sammy Davis Jr. - and turned them all down. "It is very important for me to let people know that's not all that I want to do," he says.
Ridley has spent his career escaping pigeonholes. After growing up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, he landed at NYU, where he studied East Asian languages and culture and performed stand-up comedy, then moved across the country to an apartment on Hollywood Boulevard. He wrote a spec script for Married ... With Children, and eventually wrote for sitcoms Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The John Larroquette Show. He jumped to the drama Third Watch, wrote Oliver Stone's crime film U-Turn (based on Ridley's novel Stray Dogs) and banged out the first draft of David O. Russell's Gulf War satire Three Kings in seven days.
But a fallow period came around 2007, when Ridley decided he didn't want to write for money anymore. He became a commentator on race, politics, technology and other issues for MSNBC and NPR. And he met with director Steve McQueen, who hooked him up with Solomon Northup's memoir, 12 Years a Slave.
Photo by Ryan Orange
Ridley, who lives in Sherman Oaks with his wife and two sons, 10 and 13, wrote much of the film adaptation while sitting in the car waiting for his kids at basketball practice. "It forces you to focus," he says. "?'The kids are going to be in the car in 20 minutes, I gotta get this done.'?"
When he won the Oscar, he didn't thank McQueen. Although he had done so the day before, at the Independent Spirit Awards, the apparent snub led to news stories that the two were feuding.
"That was painful for me," he says. "They tell you, 'You got 30 seconds.' ... In that moment it was about telling a little story about my wife and how she used to write smiley faces on the script."
Ridley acknowledges that 12 Years involved "tough, creative decisions," but McQueen called him about a week before the Oscars, and they were on good terms. "I don't feel like you have to send out a press release that we spoke on such and such a date."
This summer, he plans to visit Wisconsin and deliver the Oscar to his parents. "You can put 'em all on the shelf and celebrate yourself every time you walk into your office," he says, "or you can ... put 'em away for a moment and say, 'Now what?'?" One of the fascinating Angelenos featured in L.A. Weekly's People 2014 issue. Check out our entire People 2014 issue.
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