12 Years A Slave Screenwriter John Ridley Talks Solomon Northup, Human Faith, and Lost History
Last Wednesday night, the OC Film Society hosted a near-full house audience at the Lido theater in Newport Beach to screen the critically-acclaimed feature film 12 Years A Slave. Gregg Schwenk, of OCFS and the Newport Beach Film Festival, introduced the film and announced to the audience that screenwriter John Ridley would be present after the screening for a q-&-a session. Following that segment, individual audience members crowded up in awe to Ridley, writer and director of film, theater and television, for a closer glimpse and the chance to exchange words. Afterwards, Ridley was gracious enough to speak with me for a lively discussion about the film. 12 Years A Slave is out now in theaters, so don't delay on checking it out!
OC Weekly [OCW]: This is the second time I've seen this film, and it's still so powerful and engaging, I've teared up... John Ridley [JR]:Leave that to the source material, it really was a powerful story that Solomon told. We're going back to Telluride and the fact that people are still interested in it and want to talk about it and it still affects people, its very gratifying, it really is.
[OCW]: I think it will be in conversations for a long time, not just for the story but the storytelling, the filmmaking, [Director Steve] Mcqueen's approach to it as well. He's a filmmaker who thinks like an artist and takes into account all the visual devices into his method.
[JR]: Absolutely, his approach and the creative team that he works with- you know I can't say enough about [Director of Photography] Sean Bobbitt, and [Editor] Joe Walker, and the moments they were able to find as well, that's what I think was really special about the film, that it was a team effort in the sense that it was very communicative. People really built on ideas and were very honorific to Solomon's memoir in terms of some of the shots where it lingered. And in the memoir, where Solomon is hanging for the day, he talks about what it was like to be there all day long, and to create a moment on film that really replicates that is very powerful. So it was a special process for me, and it was a really special group of people that i had the opportunity to work with.
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[OCW]: So when you and McQueen were talking about making the film, what was the one constant about Solomon's story that needed to be represented in film?
[JR]: For me more than anything it was his character, it was an individual who was put in circumstances that are so alien to my own, and certainly alien to what he had experienced at that time, but he never gives up faith in a system that had betrayed him, he never gives up faith that his family will at some point be able to find him and help him, he uses every aspect of himself, his wits, his guiles, his physicality, to survive and to me that aspect of human nature, that aspect to survive and thrive, as he says, "I don't want to just survive, I want to live," that was very compelling to me, and I think its very important for people in 2013 to be reminded that as a nation we've been through difficult circumstances, but we've managed and we can get through anything if we use the best of ourselves.
[OCW]: Seeing this film for the second time, and even the first time, I felt this overwhelming sense of calmness; When you were reading Mr. Northup's book, was there that same sense of calmness that presided over his writing as well?
[JR]: That's a very good question, yes there was, it was very interesting to me how objective in some places he could be about his circumstances and what he went through; I could only to a degree imagine if I went through this, and the very raw emotions I would carry with me, I would have this bitterness and anger and a very tortured sense of what I'd been through. Solomon didn't have that, he wrote with a beauty and a reserve, and a sense of wonder as though that was not the American nature, that was not the nature of people, that that was an aberration, and that he knew that we as a people could get beyond that; I found that to be very, very beautiful. He was a transcended individual and that speaks to his nature and his ability to process that.
[OCW]: One of the heartbreaking things in watching this film in the beginning was Solomon trying to process everything that was happening to him while being in denial, even so far as defending his captors in saying, "No, they're artists! They are probably inquiring and searching for me right now." In the scene where he argues with Eliza [Adepero Oduye] about forgetting her children, he insists that Master Ford [Benedict Cumberbatch] is a decent man, but she gives him this reality check, basically saying, "He's not going to look out for you, you are still his property." It seemed to break his spirit, because he had so much trust in people and they just turned their backs on him.
[JR]: That's the amazing and sad thing about his circumstances, that he had trust, he believed in peoples' better nature and that ultimately is tested, and the evolution of this character in some ways is so subtle. "Can I maintain my trust, when I meet one last person who could potentially be the keys to my freedom, can I give myself over to this individual as much as I've been betrayed, as many horrible things that I've seen, do I still believe in the better nature of people?"
The fact that Solomon does not give up, again, that was a message that I wanted people to see. We know that at that time that system was brutal, many people didn't know how brutal it is, but we also don't think know how much faith individuals have. Can you imagine being someone who is taken from their home, whether it was upstate New York or Africa, being put in a system where there was no grievance, no courts, no system of redressing what had happened to you. But still having faith, still praising God, still singing to God, still believing that one day, if not your children or your children's children then perhaps your great great grandchildren would see some measure of equality, never giving up on any of those ideals.
[OCW]: Speaking again on the sense of calmness, I think something that added to that were just these still shots of the landscape, almost as though the setting itself were a character in the film.
[JR]: And in some ways it was, that geography, again if you can imagine going from upstate New York to a place where there's great expanse, where the climate is different, where the sounds are different, the insects, the air, all of those elements. One of the amazing things about this story is that it is so dehumanizing in some areas and so brutal but it's set against a canvas that is so beautiful and a landscape that in many ways was so untouched. I think it was very important, and such wonderful choices were made in the cinematography, to set much of the story against a landscape that is so beautiful and serene, so counterpoint to the elements that were so difficult. [OCW]: Is your background mostly in creative writing and theater?
[JR]: Yes, well actually I graduated from NYU and my major was East Asian Languages and Cultures so getting here is something I've always had a desire to do. For me one of the things that I took away from my experience in university was more about having an intellectual curiosity and wanting to find more and do more and explore more and where it takes me, sometimes people can see and relate to it and other times for me its more about the process, even the end result.
[OCW]: I've read McQueen and yourself in other interviews say "Why haven't I heard of this story before?" at the discovery of Solomon Northup's book, which was a bestseller for its time. Its so interesting, in even negative ways, that through the larger narrative of history stories and voices like these could buried under the rug.
[JR]: I've gone from this point from saying 'Why haven't I heard this story before' to 'what other stories have I not heard?' There are so many stories, and it is really important that we start thinking about these stories not just as Black American history or Hispanic history or Asian history, Asian American history, but as OUR history. As we start to realize that and as we start to tell these stories because they're shared experiences, I think they're going to take on a cultural density.
So I'm excited for the things I'm going to learn next, I feel like in many ways we've done this, we've told this, I'm so thankful that people responded to it, but I'm so curious to see what other people have to say and how they're going to present it. I'm so hopeful for movies in the future because they're going to be different things that are going to be told and all different kinds of individuals that are going to be telling those stories.
[OCW]: With this subject matter, did you feel a sense of responsibility in bringing about Mr. Northup's story, as well as the larger narrative of slavery in America? [JR]: In sitting down and the first time that I read it, it was exceptionally powerful. And in the first few passes of thinking about how to approach this story, naturally you think about how monumental it is in regards to what slavery is about and someone else's narrative. But ultimately for me I set that aside, because I could not presuppose that I as an individual had something monumental to say, I mean that's a lie. Ultimately what I wanted to say was, what would i say to my boys about character? About responsibility? And about faith in a system and about where they came from not just as black Americans but as Americans. And for me when you get reductive its not about trying to speak to 6 billion people, but just to talk to two people. Then i could see the path that i wanted to take just more clearly.
[OCW]: This has been a seminal year for filmmaking for people of color. Do you think audiences are more receptive now to these perspectives and these voices than ever before?
[JR]: I would say audiences have always shown a capacity be receptive to these stories, going back to The Color Purple or Glory, there's always been an audience, it's been up to Hollywood to catch up with the fact that America is a big country filled with lots of different people. There's not one group that's gonna respond to this film or that film when films become truly hit films when they go from making 30 million dollars or so to making 60, 70, 100 million dollars, its because all kinds of people respond to it.
So I'm not surprised that in this year you have films as diverse as Fruitvale Station or 12 Years, or Instructions Not Included that did very, very well. I'm surprised that its taken this long to get there, and I certainly don't believe in a quota system, but when you look at the Hispanic population versus the number of films that come out that either speak directly to that experience or just feature actors of that dissent.
The moment that people of color, black people are having right now, technically we should have had this in the nineties. We need to move that storytelling forward a little bit. I think that it will accelerate but I also think it needs to accelerate and I have no doubt that audiences will respond equally to films by Asian Americans, Hispanics, just as they've responded to films by black people.
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