’12 Years’ writer on how Hollywood does a ‘poor job’ depicting slavery

BY Victoria Fleischer  January 15, 2014 at 4:31 PM EST


In the fall, chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown spoke to “12 Years a Slave” writer John Ridley about the film that is gathering so much attention.

On Thursday morning, bright and early, the anticipation ends … or begins, depending on your perspective. The nominations for this year’s Academy Awards will be announced, but the buzz about winners and losers has already started.

One film that the cinema world kept an eye on is Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.”

At Sunday’s Golden Globes ceremony, the movie won Best Motion Picture Drama and was nominated for six other awards, including best screen play.

Screenwriter John Ridley spoke to PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown in November about his film, adapted from the 1853 autobiography of the free black Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped into slavery.

“Solomon is a truly remarkable individual and one of the interesting things is after he was freed from slavery for 12 years, his story, his memoir called “12 Years a Slave” was really quite well known here in America,” said Ridley.

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

“It sold nearly 30,000 copies… many abolitionists credit it with helping drive their movement and then it really disappeared from the cultural consciousness.”

Ridley and McQueen were concerned by the misconceptions about slavery and the “poor job” of Hollywood in bringing that part of American history to the big screen. The pair tried to find an “emotional honesty” in their depictions.

“I was shocked at how many people really didn’t understand how brutal the system of slavery was, how pervasive it was in the indoctrination of all individuals … This was a full system of human subjugation and to do that you have to get everyone to be complicit.”

For Ridley, “12 Years a Slave” is a story that not everyone will understand, but it’s one that resonates with present day America on a deep level.

“We’re not prisoners to the past, but when you see where we are in 2013 and why some of our views about race are so calcified, you have to understand that indoctrination of slavery in this country for such a long time. It’s the reason we are unfortunately, still where we are in race relation,” Ridley continued.

“This is our history and to move forward in it, we’ve got to learn, we’ve to grow and I’m very gratified that people are willing to sit and grow.”

Today, ABC announced that John Ridley will be the writer and executive producer of a new pilot called “American Crime,” a show about the law and race relations.