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Alum Spotlight

John Ridley

Photo by Emily Berl

How do you top the year that you won an Oscar for screenwriting? If you’re John Ridley (BA '87), you go on to create a stellar television drama. After scoring the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, Ridley launched American Crime, ABC’s critically acclaimed limited series about a chain of events in Modesto, California. Inspired in part by Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida—then more recently, the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York—the show depicts the collision of race, class, and justice. We caught up with the Wisconsin native and got his thoughts on postgaming, period pieces, and passion projects.

What has the past year been like for you since your Oscar win?
It’s honestly very hard to distill it into what it’s been like. It’s been very, very special. It was special actually going back to the time when I was first able to sit down with Solomon Northup’s memoir [Twelve Years a Slave] and read it and feel the impact of the story.

How did you celebrate?
To be honest with you, I did not fully get to celebrate. My wife and I, we got to go out that night after the awards ceremony, but I had to get up very early the next morning, get on a plane, go to Austin, and start prepping to direct the American Crime pilot. So it was all business. In some ways, I think that’s very good, to get out of town and get back to work and not just sitting around. But we certainly had a moment, and we enjoyed it completely.

Nearly two decades have passed since Cold Around the Heart [Ridley’s feature film directorial debut]. What was it like to sit in the director’s chair on a movie set again on Jimi: All Is by My Side [about Jimi Hendrix]?
It was a lot better in the sense that I think I had gotten to a place where I knew what I was trying to say and how I wanted to say it. I was in a space where it was a story that I was supremely passionate about.

You’ve worked on a number of period movies—including 12 Years and Jimi. What is it about period pieces you like so much?
I’ve always enjoyed history. It’s just impactful, powerful. And there are so many people in history that we think about—either as individuals or as a group—because they’ve accomplished something. And to be able to visit black American history and present it as American history, or history relevant to the entire world, that’s an opportunity. I do have an appreciation for doing a bit of legwork and having to make some phone calls or dig more deeply or sit with people, putting yourself in a space where you’re learning things you didn’t necessarily know. Even if 12 Years a Slave or All Is by My Side had not been made into films, I sincerely believe I would’ve been and am a richer person for having been around those aspects of history.

What drew you to American Crime? Why did you want to tell this story?
I loved the chance to revisit a story and characters on a weekly basis—to talk about one instance, but from multiple perspectives. Unfortunately, many of the conversations that we have about race or class or gender politics tend to be nexused around outsize events that we come to with our own particular perspectives. Sometimes we lose the fact that there are people at the heart of it.

Interview originally published in NYU’s Alumni Magazine Spring 2015 Issue. Text by Craigh Barboza (TSOA ’96).