TORONTO — John Ridley strides into a local Canadian coffee shop with an iPad mini in hand and a face that seems both deeply content and utterly spent. The night before, 12 Years a Slave — which Ridley adapted for director Steve McQueen from the real-life memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841 — had its gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival to a rapturous reception (and breathless reviews). And in a few hours, he was due to walk the red carpet for the gala premiere of All Is By My Side, a biopic about the early years of famed 1960s rock star Jimi Hendrix (played by André Benjamin) that Ridley wrote and directed. As Hollywood fate would have it, not only are both films screening at TIFF, they both shot at the same time, with Ridley directing Benjamin in Dublin, Ireland, during the day, and then sending rewrites on 12 Years a Slave back to McQueen in Louisiana at night. “It really was a time you dream about,” says Ridley with a smile.
The twin debuts are the culmination of a peripatetic showbiz career, spanning sitcoms (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), TV dramas (Third Watch), feature screenplays both dark and moody (U Turn) and light and goofy (Undercover Brother), novels, stage plays, and a gig as the head writer for the short-lived late night Fox talk show The Wanda Sykes Show. Ridley wrote 12 Years a Slave on spec for McQueen after they both agreed it was well past time for a major feature film about the experience of being a slave in the American South. And as I learned over the course of our conversation, the process was as much a watershed experience for Ridley as the film has proven to be for many festivalgoers in Toronto.
How have you been handling the response to the film?
John Ridley: It’s odd, because I think under different circumstances with a different film, there might be a little be more sense of pure enjoyment with it. I think with this, for me personally, from the time I got the memoir and was able to read it, you feel a sense of responsibility. My wife has friends who want to go and say, “I can’t wait to see it, I’m excited to see it.” On the one hand, that’s great. On the other hand, you’ve got to be ready for something that is really powerful, that is going to stay with you, that is going to haunt you. I don’t know that any one piece of material is going to change lives, but at the very least, [this film can] give an individual perspective about for us in America, where we came from, and where we are, and truly how we got there, and how we got there in a few generations — that’s the amazing part.
Do you feel the reactions have been too much, too soon?
JR: On a level of somebody who’s been working on this for four years, no. Finally people get to see it, no matter how they react! There are going to be some really wonderful films coming out the rest of this year. But as you get into this time period and it becomes about a particular kind of film that those of us in film are expecting, just forget about my contribution, on a particular level, can you imagine something more powerful, more beautiful, more important without being self-important, that will come along this year? If that film comes, then God bless it for coming along, because it’s been a really great year of film.
So this movie completely destroyed me, but that was just over the course of its two-hour running time. You spent four years with it. What was it like to be inside this story for that long?
JR: There’s the memoir, but there was a lot of education [for me] around it. For an American who considers himself versed in history, you think you know things about history. The thing I really learned was the evolution of slavery in America, that it wasn’t here fully formed, the way we always believed it to be. It really went from indentured servitude, to slavery, to slavery predicated on the concept of racial inferiority. To me, that’s where it got painful, in the sense that we as a nation allowed ourselves to really get suckered into these calcified ideas about race and about other people. You look at things that happen now in America, and you think, well, gosh, we’re smart people, why do we have such a difficult time getting over race? It’s because it’s been such a part of our culture, perhaps longer than any other country. Up through the 1890s and even through the civil rights era, that was the law of the land. That was painful to me.
You look at this one moment in time — and I do not want to compare any tragedies — but you look at what’s going on in Syria, and we as a world go, “This needs to stop.” We know somebody should be doing something. It’s good that we’re that cognizant. You look at hundreds of years that slavery went on and allowed to go on, that’s really painful. There free black Americans prior to slavery that had freedoms, and they were torn away from them. That was painful.
How did you land on this particular story of Solomon Northup? Were you familiar with it at all?
JR: No. The first time we sat down, Steve said, “I want to do a story like this.” Very much like this, in terms of the kind of character Solomon was — the fact that he had station, the fact that he had artistic ability, the fact that he was respected and lost that respect. We went back and forth on different aspects of history, and real-life stories, or taking several stories and blending them together.
But we didn’t know about this book. It’s perhaps more forgivable for Steve, not being an American, but for me, when his wife gave it to him, and he gave to me, and I read it, it was like, Why don’t I know about this? This wasn’t taught in school. This wasn’t something that was widely talked about. Why not?
Landing on this material was not something we were driven toward — it was happenstance to a degree. Once we landed on it, we both knew that this was the story to be told. Partly because it was so true. There were all these ideas that maybe were of interest to both of us, but this had everything in it. It was honest, and it became an effort to maintain that honesty.
As you were developing this with Steve, knowing that there are almost no major feature films that are about the slave experience, did you ever feel the weight of trying to capture and represent it all?
JR: There was going into it, in all the research, moments where I felt like, God, I wish I could bring this in or I wish I could talk about this. There comes a moment when you’re writing a script just on a fundamental level where you can’t turn in 180 pages, let alone film that. At some point, you’re going to get down to what that story is. I think the thing that worked so well in regards to trying to present a lot of things was just Solomon’s story himself. A lot of people don’t really think of, Oh, there were free blacks. Free blacks, not even freed, individuals who were born free under the law, who were respected in the community, who had opportunities. And then to have that freedom taken away.
For me, you look at the title 12 Years a Slave, and there are really two ways of looking at it. You look at it as truly a slave narrative, or, semantically, it’s also about a free man who lost those freedoms for 12 years out of an otherwise — at least in that time frame — full life. So at some point I looked at it really as not just a slave narrative. It’s a narrative of a free individual, anybody, who then has these freedoms taken away.
People very casually in 2013, just throw around, “Oh, my freedoms are being taken away” — it doesn’t matter, left or right side of the [political] spectrum. You hear it all the time. I truly wanted people to understand, if you’re going to say that, this is what it is like to have your freedom taken away. When you walk out of this story, if you [complain] about getting health care or metadata being intruded upon, however you feel about them is how you feel about them. But what Solomon went through, what tens of millions of Americans went through, that is having your freedom taken away.
So maybe we couldn’t get to everything, but that’s the core of what we wanted to express.
Your director and the bulk of your cast are not American, especially the main storytellers. How did that affect your experience?
JR: It certainly didn’t affect my writing. People have asked that question, and it is a curiosity. On one level, as Steve has said, it’s fantastic that anyone, anywhere would want to examine our culture and speak to it. For me, Solomon Northup was an American. And this whole thing starts and ends with his experience and what he wrote. The things he was talking about — his faith in family, his faith in something larger than himself, his faith in the system and his desire for the right of self-determination — is not limited by the nation of origin of your passport. If it takes other people to go through the dustbin of American history and find this document, hold it up and say, “Hey, why are you all not paying attention to this?” — I’m happy to have been part of that examination.
Concurrently, do you think the fact that you and Steve McQueen are black is important?
JR: I will defer to the fact that this is so powerful that anyone with any bit of ability could have come in. To me, it’s not so much about a white person could never understand this. You look at the history of Norman Jewison and In the Heat of the Night, or movies like Glory, or even up to 42, clearly white people can talk and tell our stories and do things that are powerful and impactful.
To me, the problem becomes, historically in Hollywood, people of color have been limited to our own stories. I don’t say this to pick on any one film, but when you have in later years a film like The Help, there are amazing parts [for black people] in front of the camera, but those parts behind the camera start to be eroded. We’re not going to get offered, say, Star Trek or Iron Man. So then, what do we have left? That’s my problem.
You look at Ang Lee who tells a great narrative about a near Eastern individual [in Life of Pi], written by a white writer [David Magee], it all worked beautifully. Anybody has the capacity to tell a great story. Just as a bit of commerce, I think it becomes difficult, because for us, for people of color, there aren’t always those other opportunities to balance out for those moments that may be lost because other individuals do come in and tell these phenomenal stories that revolve around our history.
Any time pretty much anything addresses race directly, some real ugliness almost rises up to it. Are you prepared for that?
JR: As an individual, and I have to say as a person of color, the thing about being an “other” in America is I really feel like you’re bilingual. I’m from a small town in Wisconsin, but even when I’m in New York and I’m working for MSNBC or CNN, you’re used to being the only black person in the room. You spend your life in this space where you’re constantly seeing people who don’t even know perhaps they’re being a little dismissive of people of color, let alone the ugliness that you hear on a daily basis. So at times when people say that [racism] is bubbling up, it’s just bubbling up to a level where they’re aware of it.
For me, when you look at where we are and what it takes now in 2013 to get those things to bubble up — if the worst that will most likely happen is that some individual who refuses to put their name on [an internet] thread is going to say something nasty? I say, fine, if that is your true color. I will use the word: People freak out about the word “nigger.” I hear so many more horrible things said about people on a daily basis than that word, and if we’ve gotten to a point in America where we’re so sensitive about that word, then we’re nearing the end of our worries about that, you know what I’m saying?
It sounds like at least in part from your research on this film and the institution of slavery in general, you have developed a certain perspective on how we in 2013 relate to each other about race that is not perhaps as alarmist as so much of the culture seems to be.
JR: I don’t think I’m alarmist. I’m more disappointed by the euphemisms in some instances than outright bigotry. Now, to me, you walk around with a Klan hat on or you’ve got a swastika on you arm, you just look like a dope, you know what I mean? It’s not that these people aren’t capable of bad things. They are. It’s not that we should not be aware of the bad things that still happen. There are dangerous people who want to do bad things. We can’t get to the point where we treat it as being frivolous. But, like, the Paula Deen thing. I’m like, really? Forget about her being an old Southern white woman. Somebody said something dopey about somebody else? I do think I do have a bit more perspective because I have read these things [about slavery]. I don’t get joy when I hear people saying horrible things in any regard, but I do look at efforts in the last election to race bait, and they failed so miserably, and alienated so many people, and opened the door in an election that could have easily gone another way had it just really been about ideas and policy.
So there’s a level to me where the consternation about the dopes — I mean, that’s all that’s left now, are just dopes. People will sit in a dark room and say it. That’s very different than the people who take to the streets. I think about what my father had to go through. I’m John the Fourth, so I think there’s a lot of things in life that have been truly handed to me by the hard work and the pain of others. I think about what they went through when somebody’s going to blog about they don’t like what I did? That’s the least of it. If people gotta take time out of their day [to write], “I hated 12 Years a Slave! Why are they doing another slave movie?!” — you took time out of your day to pay attention to what I did. Thank you! Thank you very much!
This interview has been edited and condensed.