12 YEARS A SLAVE Screenwriter John Ridley Talks History, Writing, Comics
12 Years a Slave is one of the most acclaimed films from last year. Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame ) it’s based on the harrowing true story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who was kidnapped away from his family and sold into slavery, where he both witnessed and experienced sickening acts of dehumanization while struggling to survive.
12 Years a Slave has won dozens of critics’ awards as best picture of the year, and recently received the Golden Globe for Best Drama, and is considered a favorite for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, where it received nine nominations.
Oh, and the guy who wrote the movie used to script tales of the Justice League and the Authority.
Even if you don’t know his name, chances are you’ve seen 12 Years’ Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Ridley’s work at some point in your life. He got his start writing for such sitcoms as Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, before moving into thriller novels and a variety of dramatic features. His screenplay “Spoils of War” was the basis for the film Three Kings, and he crafted both the web series and the feature Undercover Brother.
Ridley’s scripts have been filmed by such directors as Oliver Stone (U Turn), Spike Lee (Da Brick) and even George Lucas (Red Tails). Currently, he’s preparing for a wider release of his feature directing debut, the Jimi Hendrix story All Is by My Side with Andre Benjamin, and a new pilot for ABC, American Crime.
But comics fans might also know Ridley’s work in comics and animation – he’s done three acclaimed series and graphic novels for Wildstorm The Authority: Human on the Inside (with artist Ben Oliver), Razor’s Edge: Warblade (with Simon Bisley) and his original creation The American Way with Georges Jeanty. In addition, he’s worked on Static Shock! and was one of the writers on the Justice League animated movie “Starcrossed,” considered by many one of the best Justice League stories in any medium.
Ridley’s a busy man these days, but he’s still passionate about comics, and took time out of his busy schedule to chat with us about 12 Years a Slave, his experiences in the medium of comics, and more. In this first part of our interview, Ridley discusses how 12 Years came about, some of the most powerful moments of the film, and why he feels comics and superheroes are so enduring.
Newsarama: John, first off – congratulations on the reception to the film and the awards recognition. What’s the reaction to the film been like for you?
John Ridley: Thank you. It overwhelms me. It’s been really special, and I’m very gratified, for myself and for all the hard work everyone’s put into this.
Nrama: I was going through your credits as preparation for this, and I think you might have the most eclectic writing resume of anyone I’ve interviewed.
Ridley: (laughs) Seriously, you know – I love to write. I enjoy the process; I enjoy the different processes, because writing for film and television and graphic novels is all very different. So I’ve never had the feeling of, “Oh, you have to do this one thing.”
And now I get to work with some folks who are like-minded, and energetic, and supportive. And that’s how you end up with a resume that seems to be encompassing many different things. The through-line is the same thing – it’s about the love of writing and the craft.
Nrama: How did you first encounter the story of Solomon Northup?
Ridley: This goes back about five years when I attended a screening of the film Hunger. The director (Steve McQueen) and I were at the same agency, and so the next morning, we had breakfast.
I thought Hunger was an amazing film, and he’d read some of my work and had enjoyed it as well, and we went back and forth on a number of subjects. And we both wanted to do something that explored this era of American history, the slave era, but in a unique way, with a character coming into this place in a way that you wouldn’t expect.
And we couldn’t find a story, but as it turned out, Steve’s wife is a historian, and she had read Northup’s book. He read it, loved it, gave it to me, I read it. I had never heard of this before! I was just stunned when I read it.
I could not believe I had grown up in the States and not been aware of this individual, Solomon Northup, and his circumstances and his story. We all felt this was a fantastic starting point for a film.
Solomon’s memoir is just a fantastic story – it has this drive and this character and this narrative that just takes the reader on this fantastic journey. In all regards, it seemed like the perfect source material for what we hoped would be a very, very powerful film.
Nrama: The thesis for the film seems to be what the Bass character (Brad Pitt) says, “Your story is amazing…and in no good way.”
Nrama: It’s like you said, very unusual that it’s not a better-known tale. And in the film, what was most amazing to me was not the horrors Northup experienced, but that he had, all things considered, a happy ending – as opposed to those who died still enslaved.
Ridley: It is amazing – and really, even more so, when you think of the system there, that he got a letter off at all, that it gets to the right people…the geography was not nearly as specific back then. Imagine finding someone on a plantation, and they can’t provide specific details where they were. So it was incredible to me that a person like Solomon could find a way to communicate with his family and be found.
Nrama: And as you show in that opening scene, just having something to write with and write on taken from you, that very basic communication – people in prison have that. That level of dehumanization just…look, sorry to digress so much, but the film provokes a very visceral reaction of horror. Everyone I saw the film with came out of the theater looking gut-punched; I’m sure you’ve had that reaction at many screenings.
Ridley: We have. And honestly, we didn’t make the film to be exhibitionists, but we want people to come out of the film generally moved and touched. And they are.
Nrama: Well, the comparison I’ve been making is to Schindler’s List. It’s depicting the American equivalent of the Holocaust…
Nrama: …and you’re saying, “We’re not going to cut away, we’re going to demonstrate for you this violence, this dehumanization, and we’re not going to sensationalize it, we’re going to show it for what it was.”
Ridley: Right. That was very important for us. You watch the film, and there are three or four moments that for us were just very heavy, physical brutality.
Nrama: Those were the moments when I was covering my eyes, I’m embarrassed to admit.
Ridley: They’re tough moments! And I think part of the reason they’re so tough is that you spend the rest of the film learning to care about these individuals and care about them as people, and humanize them.
Look at the summer we’re coming out of in terms of the language of cinema – you have entire cities that are torn apart and flattened and all of Metropolis wiped out. And I get it, you know, it’s film, a different kind of entertainment, and people will walk out and shrug their shoulders and go “Okay.”
So, on one level we are used to seeing that, but it doesn’t mean as much because we don’t care. We can separate ourselves from what we’re seeing because it’s meant to be big and spectacular entertainment.
If you look at 12 Years a Slave, we don’t approach anything like that but in the small moment, whether it’s something that’s physically happening to an individual, to a character like Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who has her children physically ripped away right in front of her and knows she’ll never see them again.
Every time I’ve seen that film in a public scene, that’s the most painful scene. People come in expecting whippings or something like that, but I think very few people are prepared to experience what it would be like to be separated from their family.
Those scenes can only work if the filmmakers are all involved to create a set of circumstances where you intimately care about these individuals. And I think with this film, we’ve done that.
Nrama: And it’s unique in how this violence, and how it’s being committed against these people we care about, is depicted in a way that makes it seem normalized in this environment. There are those repeated scenes of whippings taking place in the background, or that long shot of Solomon’s near-hanging. It’s like saying, “this is part of everyday life in this period,” and that makes it all the more unsettling.
Ridley: Right, that was certainly what was being expressed, “these are things that are part of everyday life, unfortunately, on a daily basis.”
The people who are left around Solomon in that moment when he’s hanging cannot help him, they do not have the capacity to help him, and they know that in their world, they are not necessarily supposed to help him. But life just continues, and it continues to go on.
So it’s choices like that, and the design of it – I have to get credit to Sean Bobbitt, the director of photography, and Joe Walker, the editor, and what they brought to the design as well, in creating this sense of, “It’s okay to linger in these moments.”
Audience are savvy, they’re smart. You don’t have to cut away for them; you can immerse them in it. It’s very powerful filmmaking that way.
Nrama: Reading your screenplay (available online on this “For Your Consideration” site), what struck me was how in many of the scenes, you have to describe the emotional subtext – what the characters are thinking that they can’t express out loud in their circumstances. What do you feel the actors brought to that with their performances, and what Steve McQueen brought to those situations visually?
Ridley: Well, writing a screenplay needs to be more than words on a page – and by the way, I think the words on the page are something you have to try to execute on the highest level you can, I’m not dismissing that by any regard.
But when you’re writing a script based on history, and you’re going to have to hand it off to a hundred other people or so, you never know what their perspective is going to be coming in, you never know how much time they’re going to have to study it.
I wanted to deliver a script that works in total, and in some ways is like a bible, and if it’s a place where people can learn and get and understand in one stop, that’s fantastic. If it’s a place where people are able to grow from what’s in the script and add into it, that’s fantastic as well.
There might be information in there were people go, “I don’t want to do this, this isn’t working, let’s do it another way,” and that’s okay. You never know how far that script is going to go.
I don’t think it’s appropriate – again, when we’re talking about deep American history, something that happened 160 years ago – to just hand off a script and expect every one in every department – whether it’s the actors, production design, wardrobe – to go off on their own and not give them the benefit of the doubt in terms of directives.
I don’t mean “direction,” I want to be very clear – it’s not okay for me to go, “You need to do this and this and this, and you’d better do it.”
I had four years to work on this, and if they can be additive, if they can be helpful, great. And if people can bring more and better to that, that’s great as well. But if you look at the film and see the depth of the film, you know that people were going above and beyond in every single department.
And that’s gratifying – to have been at the starting point, and to have dug deeply, and know that everyone who’s come along has had an equal desire to add and add and add and then make such a rich piece of cinema.
Nrama: Now, this being a comic site, we of course want to talk about your works in comics and animation, mainly with superhero stories. What, to you, is the fundamental appeal of comics, and superhero stories in particular?
Ridley: As far as superhero stories, what’s appealing is of course that aspect of wish fulfillment. I mean, you start out reading them as a kid, and a couple things jump out at you – there are heroes out there, and you wish you could run into a phone booth and change your life, or be like Peter Parker and put on a mask and become a hero.
But there are other things – that promise of a better world, that concept that there are individuals out there who are shining light. With Superman, the phraseology is always one of his fathers, Jor-El or Pa Kent, saying, “You can show the way. You can lead the way.”
And who doesn’t want to either feel that way sometimes – that they can lead the way to a better place, or who is not inspired by those who want to do better?
I think all of those are part of the reason that sequential art is genuinely appealing – and of course, there’s the fancifulness of it. In movies, you have budget and time limitations. And with graphic novels, it’s this meld between storytelling and theater of the mind, where the reader can take complete those spaces between the frames, and in those spaces the reader adds things, they add the motion, they add the energy.
In film and television sometimes, those things are all created for the audience, and which obviously has its benefits, but with graphic novels, you can put a little more in there for the reader as well.
With comics, you don’t have to worry so much about budgetary constraints. In film and television, however fanciful you want to be, someone can come up to you and go, “Okay, this is going to cost X amount of dollars and we only have so many days to film this.”
With graphic novels, you can have that alien invasion you’ve always wanted to see. You can have characters flying over cities or armies of hundreds or thousands that are invading different spaces, whether on Earth or outer space. You can have all those things, limited only by your imagination.
At the same time, you have this responsibility, because you only have so many pages, or you don’t want to have too many frames that are clogging up one page. So you have to bring your visual imagination to it, but you also to bring some maturity to it.
Graphic novels are not just for kids anymore; they’re about visual storytelling, but also the economy of storytelling, portals to these other worlds. And both of those aspects are things I enjoy about working in the graphic novel space.
12 Years a Slave is available now on Digital Download/On Demand.
Next: In the conclusion of our talk, Ridley discusses his experiences working in comics, the controversies about minority actors as traditionally white superheroes, the late Dwayne McDuffie and more.