EXCLUSIVE: Writer-director John Ridley has been writing and directing film and TV projects about racial conflict his whole career. And despite winning the Oscar for scripting 12 Years a Slave, he has always found it a tough sell, the idea of forcing people to confront their own feelings about race and prejudice. He is in an unusual place in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder that prompted protests in major cities across the country. Right after writing a brief op-ed in the Los Angeles Times suggesting it wasn’t OK for HBO Max to continue airing the cinematic classic Gone With The Wind without a qualifier that it wrongly celebrates the South and diminishes the horrors of slavery, WarnerMedia announced it would pull the film until it can provide some historical context for viewers. And Warner Bros just scrapped a Grand Rex theater showing in Paris to commemorate the reopening of theaters there on June 22. As ABC prepares to rebroadcast Ridley’s L.A. Riots documentary Let It Fall on Tuesday, Ridley discusses the difference between that 1992 tipping point and now, and the opportunity for permanent changes in Hollywood.
DEADLINE: We last spoke in early March for a piece about you writing the book, and Roots’ member Tarik Trotter the music to Black No More, a stage musical set for an October Broadway premiere. Before I could generate the story, the pandemic shut everything down and I figured we would rekindle things when Broadway re-opened. Had I known that you were a man with such power that you could disappear Gone with the Wind with a few paragraphs, I would’ve called sooner.
JOHN RIDLEY: You know, it’s one of those things. It’s like when you walk past people who give psychic readings, you’re like, man, if you were a real psychic, you wouldn’t be in a storefront shop. You’d be out playing the stock market or in Vegas. I had no idea that short piece would have that impact, but I got to believe that with the speed that it happened, WarnerMedia was making plans. I’m not saying, take it away, but rather, think about it for a minute or put it in context and see it for what it is. Not that everyone agrees, and that’s certainly the point of protest, but people have to react. So, first things first, I appreciate you. You’ve been a supporter forever. But things have changed. You know the play right now is not going forward, but I know it will early next year. So, there’s plenty of time to talk about that. There’s so many other things to talk about, now.
DEADLINE: Oh, yes.
RIDLEY: I’m genuinely proud of 12 Years a Slave, American Crime, Red Tails, Guerrilla, Let It Fall, and I am happy they’re re-airing that next week. But honestly, what has come out of that [op-ed] piece, if I really had anything to do with it, at all, I never would’ve thought that would be the most impactful thing that I’ve ever written to this point in my career.
DEADLINE: It is historic, seeing the reassessment of Gone With The Wind as anything other than a period Hollywood classic film that got 15 Oscar noms and won 10 including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel, the first time a black actor won an Oscar…
RIDLEY: Yeah, it is. I’m so proud of all that other work, but it’s not for everyone. Not everyone watched them. But this has really been part of so many discussions. People like my son have been out there on the front lines, fighting for real change. So, I put what went on here in context, but when people in high positions at corporations are all going through their portfolios and saying, look, are we doing all that we can? Are we at least trying to create proper environments? It’s remarkable how many things are changing and the swiftness, and I don’t think it’s knee-jerk changes. I think people right now are going, business as usual doesn’t cut it.
DEADLINE: When HBO Max shelved Gone With The Wind, I recalled in a college film class watching D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and responding to an appalling celebration of the KKK. Spike Lee used imagery from that film so well in BlacKkKlansman. I remember the Nazi propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl that ruined her post-WWII career. To me, these films need to exist as cautionary tales of what happens when talented artists find themselves on the wrong side of history because they served up propaganda. What do you think the lasting impression will be on the memory of Gone With The Wind after recent events?
RIDLEY: Well, I agree with you. I hope that there will be context around it, now. Some people may just continue to watch the film because as a film, in the various artists and crafts, it is an achievement, and the performances are good. If it wasn’t good in some fashion, if it didn’t distract with shiny objects, it would’ve been pulled long ago. I might not be able to watch it, but some people can. That’s fine, but bigger conversations need to be had around it, about the managed rehabilitation of what the Confederacy was and how that was used in some ways to buttress segregation and Jim Crow. To this day, there are people able to say, “Well, it was heritage, not hate, and, you know people fought with honor, and there were good people on both sides.” These folks were traitorous. It was a traitorous cause. I read in another article, that when you look historically at Hollywood Civil War films, that up until Glory, it’s really hard to find one that really told the story from the Union side.
And there are so many films through history, whether it was Died with Their Boots On, Gone With the Wind, Song of the South, which is sort of slightly post-antebellum, but which deal with either slavery or indentured servitude of sharecropping, whatever Uncle Remus was doing…and put a hazy, gauzy glow around the Confederate side. As opposed to getting into it either from an objective point of view or from the side of the Union, and here’s what the Union was fighting for, and here’s what it was all about, and a lot of that was because these were efforts to rehabilitate the South. Because the film industry wanted to placate the South, the way that many people right now might feel that some films have to be adjusted for certain international markets to not upset and make sure that there’s revenue.
So, I agree with you. I think just as artists, we should look at it and really ask ourselves, does this work? I can say this as somebody who’s been fortunate enough to get one, but receiving an Oscar doesn’t make your work great. What makes your work great is if it can stand up to comparisons, if it can stand up to the test of time, if it can stand up to context. No, I don’t believe that no one should ever be allowed to see Gone With the Wind again. Let it exist, but with even a slight bumper up front that might make for deeper conversations. Let us study it. Let us understand what was wrong about it, what did work in it. I’d love to know more about Hattie McDaniel. So many people are bemoaning [that the controversy diminishes her achievement], but they have no idea about her career, what she did, what she suffered through. So don’t just hold that up, that she was the first woman of color to win an award. What did that mean for her? What else was going on in her life? How did Hollywood step up after that?
DEADLINE: Was it just viewed as an anomaly as opposed to an important moment for the industry and an important step in the trajectory of a fine actress?
RIDLEY: I would agree with that. It’s like my wife just said to me, there are better ways for Hollywood and the world to honor her legacy than merely keeping this movie up.
DEADLINE: We mentioned discarding polarizing remnants of the Antebellum South, and NASCAR’s decision to eradicate the Confederate flag. It seems like important things are happening, after the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests. But what did you make of President Donald Trump’s quick reaction that he would not allow the change of military bases named after Confederate leaders, and how much meaningful change will come as a result of this moment? You’ve written some powerful movies that have made people self-examine, but I don’t recall much changing as a result of them.
RIDLEY: These movements have fits and starts; they move at different speeds. They’re modulated in different ways. Moments that we think are historic, we look back on, and it wasn’t as big a moment as maybe we had hoped. This country is built on progress, though. We are moving towards a better place, and that is because our lot as Americans is to continually reexamine ourselves, reexamine our society, to move forward. The opportunities I’ve gotten in Hollywood? Compare that to people who came before me, and never really had any kind of a chance. That speaks to progress.
So, I believe there are going to be changes, but some will be cosmetic. Just speaking of Gone With the Wind, will that bumper they put on the film make a big difference down the road? Maybe not, but when you look at the demographics of people who are out there on the streets, when you look at the numbers of individuals who, a month prior, may have been at best agnostic about race relations in America, or polls that said that white people feel like they’re more marginalized than black people…people are recognizing things in this moment., I certainly don’t want to compare moments or compare tragedies. But we saw after Parkland a trajectory that was different than these other mass shootings that were happening on a regular basis. You can clearly see with the #MeToo movement that women, female voices, were heard in a different way. You can talk to a lot of women, and they will tell you it’s not enough. You can talk to a lot of young people who say they’re still scared at schools. I hate to say it, there will be other school shootings, but you can see that we are moving forward, and people are more engaged.
NASCAR taking down that flag, I don’t know what that’s going to really change in all of society, but think about NASCAR trying to make that move. When you and I were talking previously in March, there’s no way that was contemplated. There are going to be people who are upset, but you see, largely, a lot of people are just like, okay. If people were going to be agnostic and silent, I’d rather them be silent to positive change rather than ignorant of all the negativity that is pervasive in these systemic areas. So, I agree. Maybe the changes won’t be big. Maybe they won’t be long-lasting, but change is change. Progress is progress.
DEADLINE: Studios, networks and talent all made expressions of solidarity for Black Lives Matter and anti-racist causes on Blackout Tuesday. They said they will try harder to be more inclusive. Clearly, they’re listening. You’ve long navigated the system to get hard to make movies and TV done, and you went fi-core with the WGA in the process. Tell me a couple of things they could do that would be helpful and signify meaningful change?
RIDLEY: It’s easy to wag a finger at the airline industry and what maybe they’re doing wrong or the hotel industry or the NFL should’ve done this. The hardest thing is to look at ourselves and say, what are we doing with really positive, active change in our spaces? This is a little painful to say, but I see celebrities and power players in Hollywood are saying, I’m going to write a check to this organization in support. That’s great, and far too often, I’m a check-writer myself, where that’s all I do. But for things here in Hollywood, I’m tired of people giving lip-service to making change, and I would like to see change instituted, particularly from writers. I mean, look, we’re living in a space right now where the guild is mandating who writers can do business with, and the guild is mandating that privileged documents between a writer and their lawyer should no longer remain privileged and should be essentially put into places that could be public.
So, if you’re going to mandate things like that, I don’t want to hear that you can’t mandate who should be in a writers room, and what kind of makeup it should be. Or mandating, like with the [hiring of coaches in the] NFL…there are TV shows out there that are run by showrunners who are not the person who created the show. You may have a younger, newer, first-time writer who comes up with a great idea. They’ve never run a show before, and they turn it over to a showrunner. Did that showrunner interview a woman? Did you interview a person of color for that job? Or did you just reach out to the closest white guy? So, people are going to go, well, you can’t mandate things like that. Well, clearly, things can be mandated. For me, right now is…there was this thing in the civil rights movement, a tipping point where things become a stroke of a pen issue.
With integration and public housing, for example, all Kennedy really had to do was sign an executive order, that there would no longer be discrimination, and federal agencies may no longer discriminate. Now, that doesn’t mean signing with that pen, that it’s all just that easy, but it is somebody stepping in and saying, you can no longer just actively discriminate, we’re putting that down on paper, and you better be able to show if we walk in and see a room full of white men…what did you really do? What are the mechanisms to make sure that these rooms are reflective. Not diversity; I don’t like that word. That’s something from the ’70s; hey, we have one Latinx in the room, we’re diverse.
Well, no, you not. Are you reflective? I know “mandate” sounds scary, but don’t turn around and say, we can’t insist that you go out and make sure you interview [people of color], or insist that half of your episodes have to be directed by people from traditionally marginalized backgrounds. You can do whatever you want. When we did American Crime, we insisted that we were going to lead with directors who were female. Ninety percent of our directors were female, people of color; the majority of people in critical decision-making positions were women, people of color. We made that choice, and the show did not suffer at all. This is not 1970. There’s no excuse. No, “Oh, we’d love to hire more women, we can’t find talented women, we can’t find talented people, we can’t find great people from the LGBTQ community.” They’re there. They’re ready to go.
I just, I don’t want to hear, “Oh, we can’t, we can’t find them, we’re trying, we can’t insist, we can’t mandate, we can’t, we can’t, we can’t.” We, as storytellers, we’re always telling the world, here’s how you should look at yourselves. We are so great at telling the world, here’s how you should think and feel at this moment. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, because that has made my career. But we’re really bad, like everybody, at listening, being patient, looking at ourselves, taking constructive criticism, doing better. I can always do better, too.
DEADLINE: Your LA Riots documentary Let It Fall is re-airing on ABC Tuesday. You probably thought when you researched and shot it, well hopefully this will never happen again. How do you feel, reintroducing it in the backdrop of what’s happened in this country over the past couple of weeks?
RIDLEY: It’s not a good feeling. I’m not surprised that we’re back in this place. Just as a storyteller, it was a long 10-year effort to get that piece made and to have all these people come together and tell this story, to have these communities that have been cultivated to distrust each other, and have folks set that aside and say, hey, we lived through this, and it wasn’t pleasant, and it wasn’t pretty, and we’re still dealing with it, but let’s try to share these stories so that people might listen. It happened in the past, but it was like a call from the future, saying, you’re going the wrong way, turn around, go back.
I was not naïve, thinking, the world’s going to change, but it was a sense of accomplishment all the way around. We did it, we made it. We got people to elevate their voices. People listened, and I thought maybe, at the high end, there would never be a next time, or at the low end, that the next time would be not such a pressure point. No pun intended, for what happened to Mr. Floyd, but the idea is we could navigate it differently. I do think we’ve navigated it largely differently where ’92 began with a spasm of violence. Yes, there was some reconciliation after, but it was an afterthought. Now, the violent outpourings are still a negative, but they were the exception and not the rule, except for you-know-who, who had to take a stroll on a particular day.
DEADLINE: Toting a Bible.
RIDLEY: I have hope. Having people say, John, we got to re-air this and hopefully it adds to the discourse and hopefully people will be patient…I’m proud of the work. But I can’t say I feel euphoria about this.
DEADLINE: Edward James Olmos, a visible figure in the cleanup of Los Angeles after the riot, told Deadline that this time it started with peaceful protests that strayed into looting, but back then, there was no protest as much as an unbridled expression of outrage and anger. What in your mind was the difference between then and now?
RIDLEY: I mean this very sincerely. The difference is white people. Look at the demographics. Look at the folks that are out there. There are so many white folks who can no longer at best ignore what’s going on and at worst support what was going wrong. I won’t pretend to be a scholar, but I think with the #MeToo movement, there were more men who had to acknowledge, okay, this environment is really, really bad, and we can’t turn a blind eye. Back in the ’60s, when the protests in the civil rights movement were joined during the Freedom Summer by a lot of white kids from up North came down…sadly, when Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were killed in Mississippi. One young black man and two white kids from up North, and that really galvanized the civil rights movement. And again, I’m not trying to compare tragedies, but with Parkland, when there were so many kids out leading the charge and shaming adults and saying to adults you’re not doing anything, sometimes it takes a slightly different demographic. Kids were bearing the burden of those high school shootings, but they were lending their voices.
Women were stepping out in front. Black people were insisting that white people listen. Women were insisting that men listen. Kids were insisting that adults listen. And getting that other demographic makes a difference. So, it’s kind of painful sometimes to say, well, that’s the difference? But that’s the reality, and it is making a difference. It’s certainly led by so many people of color who are enduring this, and I really hope that, when you write this, you’ll stress I’m not saying that people of color are not out there fighting that fight.
But if you’re asking, hey, what’s the difference? Look at the makeup of these movements. Look at what happens when people see that poor 75-year-old white man shoved to the ground and realize with police violence, it maybe disproportionately affect people of color, but if you don’t do something about it, it can affect anyone.
DEADLINE: Artists are moved by events like the George Floyd murder, and they react and interpret. Have recent events changed your course, in terms of what you might do next or what you’re thinking about or how you might take what we’ve all been suffering through and do something creative with it?
RIDLEY: My circumstance is a little different than a lot of folks. So much of the writing I’ve done, from Red Tails to 12 Years, American Crime, Guerrilla, Let It Fall, has really leaned into issues of race as important elements of history in the context of romantic comedies or action movies. I’m working on a project on Showtime that deals a lot with race in two different time periods.
I was thinking, I need to take a break from these stories, but don’t think I can ever get very far away from telling these kinds of stories. What’s going on has reaffirmed that this little space I work in is an important space. I never took it for granted, but the stories I have the opportunity to tell do make a difference. If the fire was diminishing at all in me to go after these things, as difficult as they are to tell, as difficult as they are to set up, I see I got to continue to fight the fight as best I can.