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RACE: 25 years, still the same

Ridley, stories of race, yesterday and today

Oscar winning filmmaker John Ridley (12 Years a Slave, Three

Oscar and Emmy winning filmmaker, John Ridley

Kings, ABC-TV’s American Crime, NBC-TV’s Third Watch) is a virtual towering inferno in Hollywood though his presence is calm and serene. He describes himself as “focused not fiery.”

The Los Angeles-based, Milwaukee native visited the Bay Area to discuss his recent project, “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992.”

Some 25 years have passed since the fiery days of the L.A. Riots, the emotionally charged aftermath of the unforgettable Rodney King brutal and excessive beating (by law enforcement officers) and the subsequent “not guilty” verdict that turned Los Angeles into an incensed pit of community frustration and citizen retaliation.


Ridley’s 145-minute filmed account takes an in-depth look at the culture of Los Angeles in the ten years leading up to the 1992 uprising.

LET IT FALL is unflinching in its reflection of the climate of 1992 Los Angeles, tracing its roots back a decade (to 1982), unfolding its history as a series of very personal decisions and very public failures. The film weaves heartbreaking first-hand accounts from black, white, Asian, and Hispanic Angelinos of all classes, caught up in a cascade of rising tension culminating in an explosion of anger and fear.

The Emmy Award winning Ridley is the creator, director, and executive producer of ABC’s acclaimed dramatic series “American Crime.” His limited series “Guerilla,” with Idris Elba, Freida Pinto, and Babou Ceesay aired to critical praise on cable TV’s Showtime platform earlier this year.

LET IT FALL (written and directed by Ridley), is produced by Jeanmarie Condon (ABC News Nightline) and Ridley, along with co-producer Melia Patria (Cosby: The Women Speak) and producer Fatima Curry. Edited by Colin Rich (ABC’s American Crime), cinematography by Sam Painter (Sons of Anarchy) and Ben McCoy (Frontline) with the original music score by Mark Isham (42, Argo, Dolphin Tale, Bobby, Crash) round out the creative team.

I sat with Ridley, in San Francisco, to talk about the distinguished impact he has made in Hollywood and continues to make—

Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: You are amassing quite a diversified work history in the film community from drama to comedy (including 2002’s hilarious Undercover Brother from Universal Pictures, directed by Malcolm Lee). Moreover, you were part of the initial cast of MSNBC’s Morning Joe political talker, a decade ago.

What were your intentions when you set out to be in this business–have your intentions evolved–did you chart a different course or did another course discover you?

Ridley and wife

John Ridley: That’s a really good question; it’s a very good question. My intentions were to share stories, to take my perspective and insert them into the culture. I do think that has changed over time in the sense that during the last handful of years it’s been less about inserting my views into the culture. Rather building spaces where voices that are not typically heard or individuals who are not typically given opportunities to share their stories or participate in the sharing of stories are given that space. When I look at projects like Red Tails (epic war story starring Oscar winner Cuba Gooding JR, directed by Anthony Hemingway), it was an amazing opportunity to sit and hear the stories of the Tuskegee Airmen and share those stories.

In the Jimi Hendrix film (“All Is By My Side” starring Andre Benjamin and Oscar nominee Ruth Negga), we really excavated his life, a year in his life, and shared that story. Obviously, with 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup’s story and the American Crime TV series, these are stories about people who represent so much of what is going on in society and individuals who don’t normally have recourse.

Ridley with Oscar winner Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)

With “Let It Fall,” which is probably the best, most clear example of something that is less about me and more about creating a space where people–who lived through events and have survived events–were visited with tragedies. This project literally allows people to speak in their own voices and share their stories in the hope that other people are made aware of their stories and find value in them.

So to your question about my intent, that is what I would say, my intent has changed in the sense that when you’re a younger person it is about inserting your opinion or having a voice or finding out what your voice is and trying to get folks to pay attention to it.

Today, for me, the time has come where it’s less about me or feeling the need to make it about me and more about trying to make sure that other people, other voices, other perspectives, are heard, are seen, are witnessed, and have the opportunity to do the things that I have had the opportunity to do for more than 20 years now.

Talk2SV: I will try to be succinct with this professional assessment and observation of you—there just seems to be something special about people from the Midwest. You seem to be more selfless than some of the rest of us. Hearing you explain the beginning of your career journey to your current evolution—of giving over to the voices of the unheard—is an anomaly in Hollywood.

Ridley: First of all, thank you. I take that as a compliment that’s probably more to do with the Midwest, a lot to do with my parents and how they hopefully raised myself and my sisters: they were selfless people.

I’ve had the opportunity to live in big cities including New York and Los Angeles, met nothing but wonderful people. My hope is, as persons, we grow older and mature. I think it’s natural when you’re young; you’re trying to find your way. You’re trying to do things to gain a foothold in life. I’ve been so blessed, I really have. There’s little for me to gain anymore–there’s so much more to be had by sharing stories like “Let It Fall.”

These are stories that are 25 years old, but they’ve never been told. They’ve never been examined and they’ve certainly never been told in the way that we brought them together in this film. At this point in my career, I take a greater satisfaction in creating a space where people can interact; where they can have a communal experience and experience stories from individuals that frankly, they can’t experience elsewhere.

On the other hand, while these stories date back to 1992 and before that, they are timely and they are timeless. The focus of the film happened 25 years ago and I think it’s very specific to a moment 25 years ago, but, there are elements of it such as: systemic issues, how we view other individuals, the way we interact with other people, elements of race and class that we are witnessing again in present day.

Whether it was Detroit or elsewhere in the late 60’s, you can look at moments in time that unfortunately repeat themselves. I’m very fortunate to have the kind of support where people say, ‘look at this film,’ whether it’s the anniversary of the 1992 uprising or apart from it. This story is worth putting in front of people but it is unfortunate that when you put it in front of people, they say, ‘wow you guys are talking about what’s going in Charlottesville. You’re talking about what’s going on in the Bay Area.’ Yes, we are but no, we’re not.

And that is unfortunate when you find these issues we’re seeing over and again are issues that still affect people, not just on a yearly basis, almost on a daily basis.

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