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John Ridley Finds Inspiration From Young Protesters Demanding To Be Heard


Screenwriter John Ridley has spent much of his career exploring race in America. The one-time Morning Edition commentator received an Academy Award for the film "12 Years A Slave." He did a documentary on the years leading up to the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Now that Americans are protesting the death of George Floyd in police custody, what does such a meaningful American screenwriter have to say? Initially, what Ridley had to say was nothing.

Did you have a moment, as this news unfolded, of just thinking, like, what could I possibly say about this? What more can I possibly analyze? - because it just has seemed like the same story over and over again. And everything has been set.

JOHN RIDLEY: I truly - that's what I thought. I thought, you know, there's nothing more for me to say. I felt no - you know, as much as I felt particularly - a need to speak to our kids and to talk to them, to commiserate with my family, I really felt like there was nothing to say, you know? Having spent years trying to put works into the public space that addressed racism, that addressed bigotry, that addressed intolerance, that addressed the violence that inevitably follows these kinds of events, what more, you know, is there to say or to do?

And I just felt like, well, there's nothing to say because people clearly don't listen. People clearly don't care. There is a type of individual who is just - there is something about them where people truly do not see us as people. So what is there to say? And that is a really depressing feeling.

INSKEEP: Did that feeling change at all as it became clear the extent of the protests, the demonstration against this across the whole country?

RIDLEY: What gave us, I think, a sense of hope is - really was the reaction of our kids, and so many young people across the country, going out on the streets after weeks and months of respecting isolation, of doing everything they can to social distance - that for the first time in months, people are moved to be in a crowd again, to speak with their voices again, to be present again.

But what - to your question, Steve - took me out of this funk and sadness and this belief that nothing's going to change is our kids and so many kids and so many people out on the streets going, no. You know what? It doesn't matter what other people have said or done. This is the now. We need to be heard right now.

INSKEEP: Am I hearing you saying that your kids went out and protested in Los Angeles?

RIDLEY: Yeah, our kids did. As parents, it was scary because it didn't matter what was in their hearts, we saw how law enforcement in some areas were directed to act or react. And then, very unfortunately, obviously, as well, you saw opportunists, people who are not aligned with any cause in particular, who are out on the streets causing mayhem. But, you know, also that it's necessary at this point. I got to tell - Steve, it's so sad to remember the stories that my father would tell me about indignities that were visited upon his father, upon him when he was growing up, things that I witnessed when I was growing up.

I'm certainly nowhere close to being a kid now. But you feel like, OK, well, people have gone out and learned lessons of the flesh so that hopefully, you know, the next generation won't. But the fact that not only do young people want to go out, they need to go out, you know, there's competing emotions in a moment like that.

INSKEEP: What was the look on their faces? And what did they have to tell you when they came back from protesting?

RIDLEY: It was a real sense of pride for them that they had done something, that their friends - friends of color, friends who were not of color - who wanted to go. I think that was a big deal for them. It's not just that their friends of color were raring to go, but that their friends who were not of color really empathized. And when my son came back with the videos - and Steve, you've got to give me a second.

INSKEEP: Take your time.

RIDLEY: You know, so proud of the fact that he was literally right in front of some police officers - and not to just be angry, not to throw water bottles, but to not be afraid, to be as close as possible. And my hope and desire is that all people, then, go out and really continue to make their voices heard in November, in the coming months and in the coming years.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about the time period of "12 Years A Slave," the time of American slavery, when there were white Americans who understood that slavery was very wrong. But there were also white Americans who understood it was wrong and just didn't think very hard about it or didn't quite grasp that it was wrong or actively believed it was right and might be surprised if they came back to life today and realized how history has judged them, which it's easy to judge them.

But maybe it's also a cautionary tale. Do you think there's something going on today that some Americans don't quite have their brains around, don't quite realize what they're doing that maybe history is going to look upon very differently?

RIDLEY: Someone - I was having a conversation. We were talking about D.W. Griffith, who did "Birth Of A Nation." And I was talking about that film and the impact and, you know, the blatant racism in it. And the other individual said about D.W. Griffith was, well, was he a racist? Or was he a man of his times? And I said, well, look; there were people in his times who were not racist. So being a person of your times is not an excuse to be racist or homophobic or misogynistic.

So there are people now who, yeah, maybe 20 years from now, will look back and go, well, I didn't understand why the Confederate flag remained, you know, a painful symbol. I didn't understand why people might want to take down monuments to the Confederacy. I didn't understand why it was a big deal to call 911 when you suspected someone of a crime in your opinion.

I absolutely believe, right now, there are people who believe they are of good hearts and open minds, but don't understand what this whole business is about. You know, the Founding Fathers used imperfect English, you know, in order to form a more perfect union, perfect as in absolute, you know? You can never have a more perfect union. But ironically, you know, they gave us a task to try to achieve - to be our best selves. And it is a never-ending quest.

INSKEEP: John Ridley, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

RIDLEY: Thank you, sir. Keep fighting the fight. You're going to have an exciting November. I envy you that.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA REDMAN QUARTET'S "VAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.