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The Talented Mr. Ridley

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.

In his spare time, for lack of a better term, he co-produces the NBC series Third Watch. In Ridley's voracious and highly efficient imagination, nothing goes unconsidered; the merest ideas get his full follow-through, and a high percentage of those wind up seeing the klieg lights of Hollywood, if not the interior fluorescence of a Borders. Ridley is financially comfortable enough not to have to write anything else ever again, and yet he talks on about fields left to conquer, muses about the feeling that he's just getting warmed up. At one point I joke that he must write on cocktail napkins; it turns out that he does ("for posterity," he deadpans). He doesn't consciously write in categories -- high art, low art, politics, pulp, crime, black-themed fiction -- he just writes. All the time. "There's nothing beneath me," he said once. "I would do an Etch-a-Sketch if somebody asked."

As of this writing, Ridley had three television pilots under consideration (none were picked up, but he's characteristically biding his time). In frequent commentaries for NPR's Morning Edition, he speaks to everything from 9/11 to presidential politics to small-town beauty pageants. During his ascent in the business -- which doesn't appear to be over -- he got married and had a child and authored five books.

If he had to scale down, Ridley says he'd quit everything except radio and books -- low-paying but most creatively accommodating -- but he hasn't started complaining yet about doing it all. Doing it all is what he does. He has taken two wildly opposed attributes -- a total openness to all ideas and total focus -- fused them neatly together, and turned them into gold. And as we've seen, the stock market can bottom out, ä but gold only goes up in value; where mere mortals may have optimism at best in the worst of times, John Ridley has guarantees. "In the end, nothing he does surprises me," says Ed Bernero, Third Watch's producer. "I'd never be shocked by anything he does. But I'd be impressed."

Ridley doesn't appear to fathom why anybody would be impressed by what he does. He says he churns things out not to satisfy some great, rarefied muse, but simply to better the chances of making a sale. "It's not hard," he says over lunch, shrugging. "Math is hard." Nor does he understand why anyone would lose sleep over suffering by comparison. "It's my own mania," he continues almost apologetically. "Just because I do it doesn't mean anybody else should. You can't judge things that way."

Tall and rangy and eminently approachable, Ridley has understandably acquired a certain mystique in Hollywood, yet he comes off as anything but mysterious. He's an Everyman with a fondness for jeans and baseball caps, and a genial, laid-back air you don't expect from a guy who never stops working -- and who's also reputedly tough as nails in negotiations. "It's funny," he says. "I was once in a parking garage, and there was this little sign that said, 'You can't measure success by the things you've accomplished, you got to measure it by the things you haven't accomplished, despite your ability to do so.' I always look at the things that I really, really want to do that I haven't done yet."

THERE IS, OF COURSE, MUCH MORE to John Ridley than his output, even things bigger than his output. He's a black man comfortably established in Hollywood, an industry with a power structure that's still famously inaccessible to blacks. He's comfortably established in book publishing, an industry that is pathologically fond of marketing black writers to a niche black market, which is impossible with the multivalent Ridley. He hacks his own career path and defines himself at will when most other industry hopefuls, to say nothing of black hopefuls, swim mightily and eternally upstream.


“We in Hollywood have the
opportunity to do really good
stuff, and people do crap.”

(Photos by Ted Soqui)

He is also a family man. "The only spectacular thing I ever did was have a kid," he says. "Kids give you the chance to do all the things you ever wanted to do. Go to Disneyland, open toys. It's great." He's getting distinctly weary of meetings, those high-level film and television development confabs that other screenwriters would kill to have one of. "I have to run around town a lot," he says gloomily. "That's really starting to get on my nerves, because I like to write. Now I have to nail my writing down to between 11 and 4 in the morning." He sighs. "I sleep between about 4 and 10. I try not to schedule anything before 11, because I can't get anything done. I can spend time with my son, with my wife." He runs down a typical day: "This morning I ran, worked out a little bit. Showered, changed, met you. I've got a meeting at 3:30, a meeting at 5 and another at 6. I'll fight traffic and get home about 7:30. I promised my wife I'd let her go and get a massage tonight. Which is good because it'll force me to pay attention to my son while she's gone. I'm glad for that. Then I'll spend time with my wife, watch TV, do something together. She goes to bed about 11. And from 11 to 4, I write."

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 about race, 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 Brother was 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 anything black. If they put Amos 'n' Andy on 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 Fair parties. '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.

Succeeding in Hollywood by its byzantine rules and his own, Ridley has become a quintessential insider in the game while remaining its quintessential critic (a trick that Spike Lee never learned, or decided early in his career was impossible). Ridley loves kitsch -- karate movies, shoot-'em-ups, Las Vegas -- but he hates intellectual laziness. It's another seemingly paradoxical stance that makes perfect sense to him; the lowbrow can, and should, have just as much as integrity as the high. Think Howard Stern on a loftier plane. "We in Hollywood have the opportunity to do really good stuff, and people do crap," he says impatiently. "Not every movie's going to be great or make a hundred million dollars, but you shouldn't have The Wedding Planner. You shouldn't have Driven. It's just lazy. If you want to try really hard and the movie doesn't work, that's okay. Look at Vanilla Sky. I didn't like it. But it was really ambitious, and it was going after something. You don't blame people for trying to be interesting. But you look at something like The Wedding Planner and you say, this is stupid. Even Scary Movie tried hard." He thinks. "But Scary Movie 2 did not try hard."

I offer that sequels are lousy almost by definition, and he agrees. I go on to say, as gently as possible, that three years ago Ridley himself scripted not only a sequel, but a sequel three times removed -- Beverly Hills Cop IV. Was that, uh, art? "That was the worst thing I ever wrote in my entire life," he says immediately. "I did it because I wrote a number on a piece of paper, a figure, and I said to the filmmakers, 'You're going to pay me this amount of money.' And they agreed and I said okay." It was a typically brazen test of Hollywood conventions, in this case of its legendary bad taste, and Ridley prevailed. Or he didn't. The screenplay languished, and though he initially reasoned that he could pocket the money to invest in more quality projects in the future -- a time-honored tradeoff in the business -- he wound up not being as capable as he thought he was of being, well, lazy. Ridley is almost proud of using elitist Hollywood for his plebeian purpose of buying the American Dream by degrees: a nice home in the Valley, nice things for his wife and family. But in the end, he can't quite stomach selling out. "I actually gave up a lot of the money due me on Beverly Hills Cop IV because I said, 'I can't do this,'" he says, a little sheepishly. "I'm still working on it."

IF HE HAD TO CASH OUT OF THE business tomorrow, Ridley says, "I would take all my money and go to Vegas and drink and gamble." He and his wife spend a lot of time in that capital city of contradictions -- large money and no money, high suites and one-story motels, crown princes and trailer trash, a bulging horn of plenty packed into a relatively few square miles of wasteland desert. Vegas' downscale downtown is actually his neighborhood of choice. "When I get to Vegas, I look around, and as far as I'm concerned, everybody's ridiculous. And anybody who's not you is ridiculous."

What if he lost it all in Vegas? "Everybody loses. If I retired, I'd say, 'I've had a great run, I'm dying anyway. Fuck it, I'm in Vegas.' I'd be like Dean Martin, living in Hamburger Hamlet and falling apart. All these guys like Hemingway and Hunter Thompson, that's what they did -- drink, gamble, go to bullfights," he says half seriously, half wistfully. "When you do that, you know you're a good writer."

Las Vegas is central to his last book, A Conversation With the Mann, a grand fable set in the late '50s and early '60s about an ambitious black comic who dreams of scoring The Ed Sullivan Show, but who must navigate the treacherous waters of racism and contend with numerous personal demons along the way. The book swings like Sinatra and is over-the-top in its way, but it's by far the most earthbound Ridley novel -- the plot hangs around many real incidents and real people, like Emmett Till's murder and Sammy Davis' challenge of the color barrier in Vegas clubs. When Ridley talks about Mann, he comes closest to saying that his work might matter beyond its entertainment value. "I feel really good about getting that book out," he says. "I did a lot of research. I think the subject matter, not the book itself, is really important -- it's a black guy, it's the 1950s, and it's about struggle, it's about characters, it's about so many things. It was a weird time in America. There was all this great stuff around that I couldn't have enjoyed, like Jackie Mann, because I'm black. This was when America changed."

Jackie is not him, by the way ("no more so than any other character in any other book"), but he admits that the novel was inspired by trials of his own. He has likened his early time in Hollywood to taking a Freedom Ride. He once showed up for a big meeting at Brillstein-Grey and was mistaken for a courier; he sat in a story meeting with a white staffer who was genuinely surprised to learn that black people celebrated Thanksgiving just like the rest of the country. These aren't exactly the indignities suffered by Jackie Mann, but they're analogous. "The book is about 10 years of being in Hollywood. It's about 10 years of being a black guy in Hollywood, or hearing great Hollywood stories, 10 years of going to Vegas and also 10 years of good stuff of the entertainment business: 10 years of living." Many have wondered if A Conversation With the Mann signals a new aesthetic maturity for Ridley, an ideological settling down. He adamantly says no; The Drift returns to his signature noir luridness, set aboard the rail cars inhabited by hoboes, and his novel due out next year is science fiction.

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. Cooper and 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 not progress."

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 ER and 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 not street. 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."

All right, then: Such collapse, brought on by a toxic mix of race and other corrosive social elements, might qualify as the running theme of Ridley's fiction. Ridley asserts that each book is its own creature, spun from a voluminous but singular set of thoughts, but each also follows a certain philosophical thread; he comfortably has it both ways, again. "Obsession and alienation," he says firmly. "I write that story over and over. Those are the driving motivations in human behavior. First, the whole thing in life is finding people like you. Then it's like, 'I want kids, I want to be rich and famous, I want, I want, and I'm not going to stop until I find it.'" Is obsession, then, fundamentally evil? "Well, you can say, 'I'm obsessed with finding a cure for cancer,' or you can say, 'I'm obsessed with shooting that girl,'" he replies. "It's not good or bad. It's just what life is about." The equipoise is admirable, but usually not the moral of his stories; very often Ridley the Midwesterner, or the historical Negro, or the improbable romantic, bleeds through Ridley the disaffected modernist. "In the end," he says with some contentment, "the people in my books get exactly what they deserve."

Has John Ridley gotten what he deserves? "There's a line from A Conversation With the Mann that I love," he says. "It goes, 'Cards don't care what happened before, and dice don't forget.' The odds are that you aren't going to hit 13 back to back to back. But you can do it, and it happens. So the odds are that a black guy from Wisconsin is not going to make it in Hollywood. But he did."


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