Writer and Director John Ridley

The writer and director discusses his latest project Let It Fall: L.A. 1982-1992.

Ridley won an Oscar® for writing 12 Years a Slave and is the creator, director, and executive producer of ABC’s Emmy-winning series American Crime, which is currently airing Season Three. His limited series Guerilla, with Idris Elba, Freida Pinto, and Babou Ceesay co-produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature for Showtime and Sky Atlantic will premiere April 16 on Showtime.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Academy Award winner, John Ridley. The writer-producer-director joins us to discuss his feature documentary, “Let it Fall”, which explores the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. He’ll also discuss how he manages to juggle multiple headline-grabbing projects, including ABC’s critically acclaimed anthology series, “American Crime”, to Showtime’s six-part series, “Guerilla”.

Then an encore performance from singer, Sampha, from his debut album, “Process”.

We are glad you’ve joined us. John Ridley and Sampha coming up in just a moment.

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Tavis: I am pleased and honored to welcome Academy Award winner, John Ridley, to this program. He is the executive producer of not one, not two, but three projects on television this month. Last Sunday, his Showtime mini-series, “Guerilla”, debuted. Then there’s his critically acclaimed anthology series, “American Crime” on ABC, of course.

This Friday [laugh], his feature documentary, “Let it Fall”, which explores the 1992 Los Angeles uprising opens theatrically in L.A. and New York. And then you can  catch it next Friday, April 28, on ABC when it makes its television premier, and I am out of breath. Before our conversation, here now a clip from “Let it Fall: L.A. 1982-1992”.


Tavis: I was in the boxing gym this morning telling my guys that you were coming on the program tonight. You could almost feel, sense the shock, from the guys in the gym when I reminded them that this is the 25th anniversary. It was just hard for people to process that that was 25 years ago. How did you feel, digging into this 25 years later?

John Ridley: It was odd. I’d just moved out to Los Angeles. You know, 25 years when you think about a quarter of a century, that this is not just history anymore. It’s moving toward ancient history. You know, this is past my kids’ time. There are people you meet, they barely remember the uprising, let alone the events around it. To a lot of people, it’s just become, you know, Rodney King, Reginald Denny, and that’s it.

And what we wanted to do, what we hoped to do, was not just put that night or that year into some kind of context, but to say there was a wider context. You know, we could have gone back 15 years, 25 years, but with at least 10 years and say these events and these circumstances wasn’t just one thing.

It didn’t just happen to one community. People didn’t just react one way. Made a very interesting comment about that. But that’s what we want to approach in the documentary is to say there were a lot of things going on and there were a lot of reasons why they were going on.

Tavis: How does that context, that broader context, John, inform the story that you do tell?

Ridley: For me, you know, look, having just moved out here, not being an Angelino originally, coming from New York which was, when I left, it was Bernie Goetz and Howard Beach and Crown Heights and a lot of things that really informed my perspective, 25 years later to say, well, it’s a lot less about me or what I think or what I remember and a lot more about trying to provide a space for people to have their own recollections and talk about what happened.

Because 25 years later, I get to move on or have different opinions or different perspectives. For the people that we talked to 25 years ago was five minutes ago. It was five hours ago.

And to sit this far away from individuals from all different backgrounds and have them tell their stories and share it with emotion that was so immediate, I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to express bits of history, whether it’s “Red Tails” or “12 Years a Slave”.

But a lot of that, you know, it’s still my expression of someone else’s history. A documentary is very different. It’s creating a space where individuals get to express their recollections for themselves.

Tavis: I was struck by the former LAPD officer, the white woman, we saw in the clip a moment ago who said that — I’m cleaning this up — “If you weren’t Black, you were getting your behind kicked.” It’s a bit of an exaggeration. Not everybody who wasn’t Black got their behind kicked, but I take her point.

But it leads me to ask whether or not when one sees this documentary, whether or not, not to put you in the seat of judging how white people will view this, but generally speaking, broadly speaking, when they see this, are they going to leave celebrating and reveling in the humanity of Black people or further demonizing Black people?

Ridley: I hope that they look at the humanity of all people, but certainly people of color. Because there are going — look, there are people who arrive to this or, quite frankly, anything I do, I’ve learned, with their agendas already in place.

But within this space, I think we have enough voices and enough perspectives and see enough people that reacted in their own ways that they will not walk away saying, “Well, those people only did that or they did that.”

There’s a reason why for me now, at least in this space, why we’re not using the word “riot” here. And I don’t ever want to get into a war of semantics. People can’t use this word or can’t use that word.

But this was not something that happened spontaneously overnight because of one thing. Over this period 10 years, we can see individuals who tried to engage in the system, who tried to get recourse, who tried to call attention to issues, who put up with a lot of things up until a moment where individuals felt there was no other way to express themselves.

And even that didn’t begin spontaneously just because of the verdict. There were other incidences. So I think and believe without explaining exactly what happens at the end, but there are going to be moments where people will see their humanity.

But, ultimately, all we can do is build an apparatus for delivering empathy. How people walk away, you know, whether it’s one community, whether it’s people in uniform or out of uniform or other communities, all we can do is say, look, these are the bodies of stories.

And by the way, this is just the beginning. I mean, there are going to be on this anniversary maybe seven different projects and people go, “Oh, they’re all coming out now.” ell, at least, they’re coming out. Probably a lot of them should have come out, wished they had come out years ago. But seven? Even at that, I don’t know is enough to encompass all of the perspectives.

Tavis: As you know, I worked for Tom Bradley when he was mayor of this city and I was there when that ugly tension existed between the mayor and Daryl Gates borne, from my perspective at least, largely of the disrespect that Chief Gates had for the mayor of this city, Tom Bradley.

That’s my own personal assessment. What then of the other actors in this drama over that 10-year period beyond the folks who we saw in the streets?

Ridley: We see police officers. We see people from the Black community, not just from South Central. I mean, one of the things, I think a lot of people who’ve never been to Los Angeles couldn’t tell you where Foothill was, couldn’t tell you where South Central, Westwood, Koreatown — you want to get all of those various communities and over time. But also look at moments in L.A.

You know, going from ’82 to ’92, to be able to look at, at least in the documentary version, in the full-length version, you know, 1984, and look at Tom Bradley and look at what he meant to the city, look at what his vision was, how it actually helped change the city in moments where there was a better L.A. completely in evidence.

But under the surface, whether it’s Los Angeles or other cities — and we don’t necessarily want to draw a direct comparison. But if we’re not looking at every aspect of it, if we’re just looking at the façade, then we’re missing these other things that are happening.

Tavis: I don’t mean to cut you off. The reference to ’84, the Olympics are in L.A. in ’84, yeah, yeah.

Ridley: The Olympics, ’84, Tom Bradley, how he changed the city, how he inspired people, you know, not just as a man of color, but as a man of vision. I mean, as you know.

Tavis: Is there an abiding lesson? Are there takeaways 25 years later?

Ridley: I hope the takeaway — almost like you said. More than anything is the humanity of individuals and not the broad painting. I mean, there were things that I saw on television 25 years ago that I had a very immediate, very visceral response to, without a sense of context.

Now even with context, I or anybody may walk away and go, “Well, you know what? I still feel the same way, but can I at least see the complicated nature of how those things were arrived to?”

So what we don’t want to do, what I’m trying to do, is say, “Well, you know, L.A. It’s Ferguson, it was Cincinnati, it was Baltimore or say that this individual, that’s all they are. What you saw then is all they are now.”

But, hopefully, for people to walk away and go, “Oh, you know what? I can see the complicated nature. I can see that this person arrived to a circumstance or, quite frankly, is removed from a circumstance because they are human beings.” I think we’re going to break hearts, but I really hope at the same time we do lift spirits.

Tavis: Yeah, and the benefit of breaking hearts is what?

Ridley: The benefit of breaking hearts is I think if you don’t see yourself in other people, you know, if you can look at something that happens and turn the page or be emotionalist about it, I think the problem — and I don’t want to get too wonky or sound like an old man — is the loss of the empathetic response.

I think there’s so many things that happen right now because of — and I don’t want to indict social media or anything like that…

Tavis: Sure, sure, sure.

Ridley: But because, you know, look, you and I could talk about a million things and disagree. But if I have to sit with you, there is going to be a level of empathetic response where it’s just you’re reading me or I’m reading you.

And I think in the modern era there is a lack of empathetic response. So in two hours, if there are people that you never thought you would feel something for, but you feel something, then that should be the takeaway.

There is a moment without giving too much away, but probably the most unexpected individual out of this narrative says those who walk in uniform — talking about police officers — are human beings and those who walk the streets of South Central are human beings.

And nobody is more or less in the eyes of the most high. Out of all the individuals I thought that we could interview, that would have not been the person that I thought would sum up the totality of the circumstances in such a complete way.

Tavis: See, I don’t think you sound like an old man at all. I’ve said many times that I think that is the central challenge that faces our democracy and our world, which is this loss of empathy. And, moreover, the fact that too many people confuse empathy with sympathy.

So we can get to charity, but we can never get to justice because people can’t empathize with other people. So I think that is the central challenge that faces our country right now.

Ridley: I feel that way oftentimes. You know, there is — in the old days, rightly or wrongly, you know, someone would write a letter to the L.A. Times. They get the editor and they pick one that’s pro and one that’s con and that’s in between that was kind of funny.

And now there is such a rush to opine even where there’s no need. You know, we may have opinions. Everybody deserves an opinion, but there’s a rush to opine, there’s a rush to indict, there’s a rush to contextualize where we don’t understand.

I think that gets to be the problem because then we start to root for, again, not to indict all of social media, but it is about likes or thumbs up or thumbs down or whatever, as opposed to is there any thoughtfulness in there? Is there any bit of objective remove in a little bit of that?

You know, certainly back in the day, there were gatekeepers of opinion or thought. I can’t say that was the perfect way to go because those gatekeepers were probably not like you or I, not even probably.

Tavis: They had their own filters, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Ridley: Right. But now, you know, when you swing the gates open, somebody else said — it certainly was not me — but the problem with inviting everybody to the party is everybody shows up [laugh].

Tavis: Point well taken [laugh]. You used the word funny a moment ago. What is funny for me, knowing your back story because I’ve known you for a while, is that you came to this town to be funny.

Ridley: I did.

Tavis: You came here as a funny man. You came here for comedy. And every time I see the brilliant work that you are doing, the thoughtful work, the prestigious work that you are doing, I’m always tickled by this juxtaposition of your coming here to tell jokes and you’re being the guy that tells these dramatic stories that we need to wrestle with. How did that happen?

Ridley: There’s a comedian — you know Lance [inaudible]?

Tavis: I do, sure.

Ridley: Lance said to me once that comedy is pain, misery, personal setback and failure. That’s essentially what it is. And I think, as a comedian, people always talk about comedians have this ability to see the humor in pathos or difficult circumstances.

And I think, for me, part of it also because when I was doing standup, it was Chris Rock, it was Dave Chappell, it was Adam Sandler, it was Jerry Seinfeld. It was the best of the best, Ray Romano, people like that. So if you weren’t operating at that level, you needed to find some other way to sustain yourself [laugh]. Because, clearly, that wasn’t going to happen.

But I do think there was a transition from doing standup to working on shows like “The Martin Show”, “Fresh Prince of Bel-air”, “John Larroquette Show” which was a comedy, but started to deal with alcohol and recovery and then transitioning into drama where people actually admired the fact that you could put — you know, comedy, the old school way was three jokes a page for half an hour. In drama, if you had four jokes in an hour, people thought you were a genius.

So when I started to transition and I had four jokes in an episode, people just were, oh, my gosh, you were bringing some whole new thing [laugh]. They didn’t realize I was getting away from that thing that I could only do so well and get in another space that I think I learned to do a little bit better, hopefully.

Tavis: “American Crime” is doing remarkably well. I think Felicity Huffman’s on this program next week, I think.

Ridley: I hope so. Felicity’s been an amazing partner. We cannot say enough about the individuals who’ve been on that show and helped sustain us in the kinds of conversations we’ve been able to have about, you know, frankly, very painful, difficult social, political issues.

Tavis: The thing I love about you — and I say this to you to your face. I’ve said it about you 1,000 times, absent your presence — but I so regard and so respect the fact that somebody told me years ago, it’s not about the work you do. It’s about the work you get done. All of us are doing work, but it’s the work you get done.

And you’re getting it done and you’re being able to tell these stories, these human dramas again that we all need to wrestle with. And because I know you are so serious about representing, as we say, in the hood, you always believe in representing.

How does it feel when you get pushback for representing? The “Guerilla” project is a wonderful project, but I’ve been reading, of course, some pushback. How does that feel? How do you process getting pushback when your whole modus operandi is to represent?

Ridley: You know, I would never say that negativity is ever easy to deal with or that as much as you want to remove yourself from things, that things don’t come to you. But I think negativity has got to be the first thing that you learn to deal with.

Because, otherwise, you’re never going to get anywhere. But I wouldn’t be sitting here if other people hadn’t given me the opportunity, quite frankly, many opportunities, to try to tell any story in particular.

And over those years, to be able to tell stories like “Red Tails”, to be able to tell stories like “12 Years”, to be able to work with people like [inaudible] or Regina or whatever. For me personally, I would feel somewhat irresponsible if at some point I didn’t open that up.

And not just with people like Freda, but people like Richard Caral or Benito Martinez or anyone that has an experience that’s somewhat different than mine. That’s difficult when you’re looking at individuals and they cannot see their experience in other peoples’ experiences. It’s difficult for anyone.

It’s also difficult, you know, honestly, when it was coming from very young people because, you know, I got kids. I want them to understand their experience. I want them to understand, I believe, W.E.B. Du Bois called it, you know, our particular troubles.

Our troubles aren’t very particular, but at that same time, if I’m not creating some kind of space where they’re going to hopefully 5, 6, 10 years from now the other individuals who feel comfortable and feel appropriate telling their story, then I think I’ve done something wrong.

Because I got to tell you, with three shows with “American Crime”, “Guerilla”, “Let it Fall”, for me, I think there’s a lot of space in there for a lot of representation.

Tavis: Speaking of comedians, there are comedians who’ve told jokes about this, that the Academy Award is almost a curse for negroes. I could run the list. I won’t, because they know who they are [laugh]. But Black folk who’ve won the Academy Award, we ain’t seen them in a while or they won the Academy Award and there was no good work that came anywhere near behind that.

Morgan Freeman is an exception, Denzel Washington clearly an exception. But for a whole lot of us, you win an Academy Award and you get lost, so the good work doesn’t come. But it seems that either the award has worked for you, or put another way, you have made the award work for you.

Ridley: You know, I understand exactly what you’re saying. And I would say almost for anybody, I mean, look. It’s the pinnacle of peer review, so what do you do next?

I was very fortunate because the day after the Academy Awards that morning, I had to get up, get on an airplane — and this is not hyperbole — the day after, get up that morning, get on an airplane, fly to Texas and start our last week of prep for the first season of “American Crime”.

So there was not time to even compartmentalize to the positive, to the negative, what that meant. It was showing up in Texas with a lot of amazing actors, Felicity, Tim Hutton, Regina.

You know, Tim had an Oscar. Felicity had been nominated for an Academy Award, Regina is one of the best. They didn’t really care, quite frankly [laugh], what I had. They wanted to know what are we doing on Monday and how we get it done.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So in a minute, what is your best advice to young people? Because I know there are so many young people watching who will see this on social media, to your point, who want to be like you, which is to say they want to write, they want to tell stories, they want to have their work respected and regarded. What’s your best advice to people who want to be where John Ridley is?

Ridley: If I were going to say that to a young person, I would say be prepared to be an old person in the business too. You know, be mindful of people you interact with, things that you want to express as a young person. They exist and think about how it may land years from now.

I hope the work that I’ve done has been good. I hope the opinions that I’ve put forward ultimately had some positive result. But more than anything, I hope that I’ve prepared myself for my next 20 years of being able to offer opportunities, stories and perspectives.

Tavis: It’s a beautiful thing. I’ve said all the time on this show that it’s a beautiful thing to have known somebody as long as I’ve known John Ridley and been around him and see all this goodness come for him because of the richness of the stories that he tells. So I am so proud to know you and honored by your work, and thank you for coming to see us, my friend.

Ridley: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. Thank you.

Tavis: I appreciate you. Up next, a special encore performance from singer, Sampha. Stay with us.

Closing out tonight’s program is singer, Sampha, performing “Plastic 100˚” from his debut album, “Process”. Enjoy, goodnight from Los Angeles and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 21, 2017 at 2:13 pm