With a Spike Lee gig in his back pocket (an untitled film about the L.A. riots) and his controversial Esquire essay (”The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger”) still screwing with liberal minds, Hollywood screenwriter/unrepentant rabble-rouser John Ridley (Three Kings, Undercover Brother) has turned his attention to…comic-book nerds? To mark the occasion of the recent release of his comics collection The American Way — about a government-engineered black superhero, set in the Kennedy era — this indefatigable multitasker chatted with EW.com about his first encounter with spandexed heroes, working as producer on the Oscar-snubbed Bobby, and agreeing to disagree with Spike.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re working on a Spike Lee movie about the L.A. riots. Where are you with that?
JOHN RIDLEY: I am deep into the script. Well into the material.
You and Spike have very different takes on what it is to be black in America. How did you reach a middle ground for this project?
[Laughs] The interesting thing is that I grew up with Spike’s wife, so we had this sort of filter to begin with. Spike Lee respects people who stand by their convictions. And he respects that I say what I think. We’ve never had a serious disagreement. He won’t let a comment that he doesn’t agree with pass by, but at the same time he really respects people who have an opinion. We’ve actually worked together [on The Night Watchman, set to be directed by Lee and star Keanu Reeves]. But it didn’t come to fruition.
What’s interesting to me is the people who are very outspoken, guys [with whom I’ve worked] like Oliver Stone and Spike Lee — and I’ve worked with Francis Ford Coppola — they’re actually the most giving in terms of how much territory they will let other creative people have in the process. It’s more individuals who tend to be wishy-washy — I’m not going to name names on that side of the fence — who are more problematic. They don’t respect opinion.
You’re quite infamous now for that Esquire piece you wrote. It’s interesting how thoughts in that run throughout The American Way, which predated the essay. Did the comic book inspire you to write the ”Manifesto”?
Writing both pieces kind of overlapped. And there’s so many people who got very angry about some of the ideas in Esquire, while other people really praise The American Way, not seeing that the ideals are absolutely the same in both. A lot of what was in both was the way I view Black America, where it is and where it should be. The American Way deals with the civil rights era, 46 years ago. In my opinion, black people were at one of our strongest points then — we fought, and we stood up. Now we have a lot of advantages, and the question is: Are we going to take advantage of the advantages that our parents or forbearers gave us? The reaction to the ”Manifesto” in Esquire was strong because it was presented in a journalistic and intellectual fashion. People can take exception to that. The thing about [American Way] dealing with science fiction and fantasy…this is something Rod Serling did when he was writing in the early days of television and got frustrated that it was hard to get networks to do television that took political stances. [So he created] The Twilight Zone, which took stances about race and politics but buried them in the subtext of science fiction.
The one epithet I hear launched at you is ”black yuppie.” How do you feel about that type of knee-jerk reaction?
[Some] people who really hated the essay never got past the word nigger and didn’t read it. The whole thing with the civil rights movement was to get ahead — to get integrated, to get education, to not be kept out of things.
Well, you’re also defending, like, Condoleeza Rice.
I’m absolutely defending Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas — to an extent. You don’t have to agree with their politics, but you gotta respect that these three [African-Americans] in particular have succeeded to a point where their opinions push the agenda. There’s a class of black people who just refuse to accept black people moving ahead in society. When I see Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton holding back their endorsement of Barack Obama…if it was any other black person or black quote-unquote civil-rights activist who’s running, I don’t think they’d be holding back their endorsements.
Isn’t this crossroads somewhat represented in the black superhero in your book, who’s enlisted by the government — to the dismay of his brother, who’s an extreme civil-rights activist?
The interesting thing to me — and you hit it right on the head — is that his brother is a real activist out there doing it. Jason is this loudmouth. You know, he talks a good game but he doesn’t really do anything. Then Jason says, ”Enough playing around, enough being the puppet of the government, I gotta be proactive.” In this comic book, the consternation that black people face from the radical right is obvious — it’s the racism in characters like Southern Cross and just society in general. The other thing I want to get across is that black people also face issues with extreme liberalism and a certain paternalism that we have to fight as well. There was a case for liberals and Democrats, for instance, taking the black vote for granted. You know, when Jason says ”I’m tired of being the cooperative black man on the liberal plantation.” Part of it is a slam to liberals as much as the book is a slam to the far right. Because I wanted it to be balanced. And unfortunately when people like Bill Cosby or whomever start to question what we do in our culture, we get hit as a sellout.
Your writing — be it in the Huffington Post, Esquire, your books — is very much associated with race issues. Why do a superhero book, set in a fantastical environment when you could easily do a more reality-based comic?
I have other avenues — I have novels, I have Huffington, I could do an NPR piece — and I’ve done those things. And they have a particular audience for it. But there’s a whole different audience I would like to reach on many levels. And I love superheroes. I grew up reading comic books. I think my parents made a great mistake in giving me a comic book very early on. It’s like accidentally giving your kid a rock ‘n’ roll record.
What was your first comic book?
The earliest comic I remember reading was a teaming of Batman and Superman. This was, like, some Cold War era [story], they’re in Eastern European…like Slovakevenia. You know, a made-up kind of name. And they had their powers taken away and are in a concentration camp. Or a gulag. At the time, I didn’t understand communism, I didn’t understand what a gulag was, I didn’t even read the words on the page. It was just fantastic to me. And it remains fantastic to me. Then at some point I grew up and realized there weren’t a lot of black characters.
On a superficial level, American Way is a critique of propaganda and government. But it really isn’t as harsh on the government as you’d like to think….
Part of what inspired this was the Jessica Lynch story. You know, at the beginning of the [Iraq] war, people were very nervous about it. And so this story came back: this lone girl — her comrades killed or captured fighting — firing to the last bullet, wounded, being taken to a secret location, and then a commando raid by Navy SEALS or Green Berets or whomever. Then it turned out that story wasn’t true. She wasn’t fighting to the last bullet; she wasn’t taken to a secret location. The Iraqis at the hospital told the commandos where to go…[and] apparently the Commandos did not actually have bullets in their guns. We all wanted to believe that. And it wasn’t the evil government perpetrating a façade. It was a government and the press and everyone working together because we wanted to believe in heroes.
Then why set your book in the Kennedy era? Why not the present?
I think that racism meant more than it does now. The role of what black Americans were up against was more clear-cut. I wanted to talk about history. You know, post-Watergate, we believe our government to be truly, wholly evil. That’s when this whole conspiracy thing began. I don’t think the government is cunning enough — these are a bunch of people who can’t get the Social Security checks out on time. In many cases it’s about not hoodwinking the public because there’s this big evil deception going on. We want people to believe that things are going to be okay. And I believe in the Cold War era there was a real need for that, to believe that things were not going to end tomorrow in atomic ash. I [also] believe the Kennedys were inept with civil rights, but they were trying to do the right thing. I mean Bobby Kennedy signed the wiretap authorizations against Dr. King. People hold him up as this great civil rights activist.
Didn’t Lyndon B. Johnson end up doing more for civil rights?
Lyndon Johnson did everything.
How did your work as a producer on the movie Bobby inform this work?
The weird thing is this serendipity or synchronicity in life sometimes. But I’d been working on [American Way] when I came into Bobby to help guide the production along. And certainly in some ways it was good and in some ways it was difficult. Certainly a lot of people on the show were pro-Bobby. But I think that may have helped the movie in some ways as well.
A lot of people had Oscar hopes for this movie. Do you think it got snubbed?
This is not something I was there for from the inception; this is not my baby. Honestly I’m not surprised…. I think the people involved worked very hard to put together a very good movie, but I think a lot of the criticism of the film was correct: I don’t think it was a good, fair, accurate representation of the 1960s. I think it was just a very much a love letter to the ideal of Bobby Kennedy rather than an examination of America in 1968.