After His Op-Ed Got ‘Gone With The Wind’ Pulled From HBO Max, John Ridley Ponders Permanent Hollywood Change As ABC Re-Airs His L.A. Riots Docu ‘Let It Fall’ – Deadline Q&A
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EXCLUSIVE: Writer and director John Ridley has written and directed film and television projects about racial conflict throughout his career. And even though he won the Oscar for 12-year script writing as a slave, he always found it difficult to force people to face their own feelings about race and prejudice. He is in an unusual location after the murder of George Floyd, which led to protests in major cities across the country. Immediately after writing a brief statement in the Los Angeles Times that it was pointed out that it was not okay for HBO Max to continue broadcasting the classic film Gone With The Wind without the qualifications that he was wrongly celebrating the South and the horrors reduced slavery, WarnerMedia announced it would pull the film until it could offer viewers a historical context. And Warner Bros has just scrapped a Grand Rex theater in Paris to commemorate the reopening of theaters there on June 22nd. As ABC prepares to resubmit Ridley's LA Riots documentary Let It Fall on Tuesday, Ridley discusses the difference between this 1992 and now turning point. and the possibility of permanent change in Hollywood.
DEADLINE: We last talked about a piece in which you wrote the book in early March, and Roots member Tarik Trotter the music for Black No More, a stage musical for a Broadway premiere in October. Before I could generate the story, the pandemic switched everything off and I thought we would bring things back to life when Broadway reopened. Had I known that you were a man with such power that you could go away with a few paragraphs, I would have called earlier.
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JOHN RIDLEY: You know, it's one of those things. It's like walking past people reading psychological readings. If you were a real clairvoyant, you wouldn't be in a shop. You play on the stock exchange or in Vegas. I had no idea that a short play would have this effect, but I had to believe that WarnerMedia was making plans at the speed at which it happened. I'm not saying take it away, but think about it for a minute or put it in context and see it for what it is. Not that everyone agrees, and that's certainly the point of protest, but people have to react. First things first, I appreciate you. You have been a supporter forever. But things have changed. You know the piece is not going forward at the moment, but I know it will be early next year. So there is enough time to talk about it. There are so many other things to discuss now.
Deadline: Oh yes.
RIDLEY: I'm really proud of 12 years of slave, American crime, Red Tails, Guerrilla, Let It Fall and I'm happy that they will air again next week. But honestly, what has become of this [op-ed] piece, if I had anything to do with it, I never would have thought that this is the most effective thing I have ever written about it in my career.
Deadline: It's historic to see the re-evaluation of Gone With The Wind as anything other than a Hollywood classic that received 15 Oscar nominations and won 10, including Best Film and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel, the first time that one black actor won an Oscar…
RIDLEY: Yes, it is. I'm so proud of all this other work, but it's not for everyone. Not everyone has watched them. But that was really part of so much discussion. People like my son were at the forefront and fought for real change. So I put what was going on in context here, but when people in high positions at companies go through all their portfolios and say, look, are we doing everything we can? Are we at least trying to create suitable environments? It's remarkable how many things change and how quickly and I don't think that will change. I think people are going right now, business as usual is not doing well.
Deadline: When HBO put Max Gone With The Wind on hold, I remembered a college film class where I was D.W. Griffiths The Birth of a Nation and the Response to a Terrible KKK Celebration. Spike Lee used pictures from this film so well in BlacKkKlansman. I remember Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda films that ruined her career after World War II. For me, these films must exist as warning stories about what happens when talented artists are on the wrong side of the story because they have been doing propaganda. What do you think will be the lasting impression in the memory of Gone With The Wind after the recent events?
RIDLEY: Well, I agree with you. I hope there is context now. Some people may just continue to watch the film because it is an achievement as a film in various artists and crafts and the performances are good. If it were not good in any way, if it wasn't distracting with shiny objects, it would have been pulled a long time ago. I may not be able to see it, but some people can. That is fine, but there needs to be major talks about how the Confederation can be managed and how it is used in some way to support segregation and Jim Crow. To this day, there are people who can say, "Well, it was inheritance, not hate, and you know that people fought with honor, and there were good people on both sides." These people were treacherous. It was a tell-tale thing. I read in another article that, to fame, it is really difficult to find a film that really tells the story on the part of the Union when you look at historical films from the Hollywood Civil War.
And there are so many films in history, whether it died with its boots, gone with the wind, Song of the South, which is a kind of post-antebellum, but deals with either slavery or with indented bondage. Uncle Remus did ... and made the Confederate side glow hazily. In contrast, addressing it either from an objective point of view or from the Union side, and here is what the Union was fighting for, and here is what it was about, and much of it was because these were rehabilitation efforts in the South. Because the film industry wanted to appease the south, the way many people currently feel that some films need to be adjusted for certain international markets in order not to disturb them and to ensure that there is income.
So I agree with you. I think, just like artists, we should look at it and really ask ourselves if it works. I can say that as someone lucky enough to get one, but getting an Oscar doesn't make your job great. What makes your work great is if it can stand comparison, if it can stand the test of time, if it can stand the context. No, I don't think anyone can ever see the wind blowing again. Let it exist, but with even a light front bumper that could make for deeper conversations. Let's study it. Let us understand what was wrong with it, what worked with it. I'd like to know more about Hattie McDaniel. So many people complain [that the controversy is diminishing their performance], but they have no idea about their careers, what they did, what they went through. So don't just hold that up, she was the first colored woman to win a prize. What did that mean for you? What else was going on in her life? How did Hollywood get on afterwards?
Deadline: Was it just an anomaly, as opposed to an important moment for the industry and an important step on the way to becoming a good actress?
RIDLEY: I would agree with that. As my wife just said to me, there are better ways for Hollywood and the world to honor their legacy than just keeping this film going.
DEADLINE: We mentioned that polarizing remains of Antebellum South were discarded and NASCAR's decision to exterminate the Confederate flag. After George Floyd's murder and subsequent protests, important things seem to be happening. But what did you think of President Donald Trump's swift reaction that he would not allow the military bases named after the leaders of the Confederates to change, and how much significant change will result from this moment? You wrote some powerful films that made people examine themselves, but I don't remember much that changed.
RIDLEY: These movements have seizures and starts; They move at different speeds. They are modulated in different ways. Moments that we think are historical, that we look back on, and it wasn't as big a moment as we might have hoped. However, this country builds on progress. We're moving towards a better place, and that's because our fate as Americans is to keep checking ourselves, checking our society, and making progress. What opportunities did I get in Hollywood? Compare that to people who came before me and never really had a chance. That speaks for progress.
So I think there will be changes, but some will be cosmetic. If we only talk about Gone with the Wind, will this bumper they put on the film make a big difference? Maybe not, but if you look at the demographics of the people out there on the street, if you look at the number of people who were at best agnostic about race relations in America a month ago, or surveys that said that white people feel like they are more marginalized than black people ... people recognize things right now. I definitely don't want to compare moments or tragedies. But we saw a different trajectory to Parkland than these other mass shootings that took place regularly. With the #MeToo movement you can clearly see that women, female voices, have been heard differently. You can talk to a lot of women and they will tell you that this is not enough. You can talk to a lot of young people who say that they are still scared in schools. I hate to say there will be other school shootings, but you can see we are moving forward and people are more committed.
NASCAR is taking this flag off, I don't know what's really going to change in all of society, but consider that NASCAR is trying to take this step. When you and I were talking in March, there was no way to think about it. There will be people who are upset, but you see, for the most part, a lot of people are just like that, okay. If people were agnostic and silent, they would rather remain silent about positive changes than ignore the negativity that is ubiquitous in these systemic areas. So I agree. Maybe the changes won't be big. They may not last long, but change is change. Progress is progress.
DEADLINE: Studios, networks and talents expressed their solidarity for Black Lives Matter and anti-racist concerns on Blackout Tuesday. They said they would do more to be more inclusive. Obviously they are listening. You have been navigating the system for a long time to have difficulty creating films and television, and have gone to the core with the WGA. Can you tell me a few things you could do that would be helpful and would make meaningful changes?
RIDLEY: It's easy to wave your finger at the aviation industry and what you might be doing wrong, or the hotel industry or the NFL should have done. The hardest thing is looking at ourselves and saying, what do we do with really positive, active changes in our spaces? It's a bit painful to say, but I see celebrities and power players in Hollywood say I'm going to issue a check to this organization for support. It's great and far too often I'm a check writer myself, where that's all I do. But for things here in Hollywood, I'm tired of people giving lip service to change, and I would appreciate change being introduced, especially by writers. I mean, look, we're currently living in a room where the guild prescribes who writers can do business with, and the guild prescribes that privileged documents between a writer and her lawyer are no longer privileged and should essentially be provided in places that could be public.
So if you want to commission such things, I don't want to hear that you can't determine who should be in an author's room and what kind of makeup it should be. Or mandate, like hiring coaches in the NFL ... there are TV shows run by show runners who are not the person who created the show. You may have a younger, newer lead author who has a great idea. You have never held a show before and give it to a showrunner. Did this showrunner interview a woman? Have you interviewed a colored person for this job? Or have you just reached the next white man? So people will go, well, you can't prescribe something like that. Well, of course, things can be ordered. For me at the moment ... there was this thing in the civil rights movement, a turning point where things become a line.
For example, for integration and public housing, Kennedy only had to sign an executive order that there would be no more discrimination and that the federal authorities might no longer discriminate. That doesn't mean signing with this pen that everything is so easy, but it's someone who steps in and says you can't just actively discriminate anymore, we're writing it on paper, and it's better to show if we come in and see a room full of white men ... what did you really do? What mechanisms ensure that these spaces are reflective? Not diversity; I don't like that word. This is something from the 70s. Hey, we have a Latinx in the room, we are diverse.
Well, no, you don't. Do you reflect I know that "mandate" sounds scary, but don't turn around and say we can't insist that you go out and make sure you interview [colored] people, or insist that half of your episodes has to be shot by people from traditionally marginalized circumstances. You can do whatever you want. When we did American Crime, we insisted that we do it with female directors. Ninety percent of our directors were female, colored people; The majority of people in critical decision-making positions were women, colored people. We made this choice and the show didn't suffer at all. This is not 1970. There is no excuse. No, "Oh, we would like to hire more women, we cannot find talented women, we cannot find talented people, we cannot find great people from the LGBTQ community." They are there. You are ready to go.
I just don't want to hear, "Oh, we can't, we can't find them, we try, we can't insist, we can't mandate, we can't, we can't, we can't. "We, as storytellers, always tell the world how you should see yourself. We can tell the world as well as you should think and feel at that moment. And I'm not saying it's a bad thing because it has mine Career made, but we're really bad like everyone else when it comes to listening, being patient, looking at ourselves, making constructive criticism and doing better, and I can always do better.
DEADLINE: Your LA Riots documentary Let It Fall will be aired again on ABC Tuesday. You probably thought when you researched and shot, hopefully this will never happen again. How do you feel when you reintroduce it against the backdrop of events in this country in the past few weeks?
RIDLEY: It's not a good feeling. I am not surprised that we are in this place again. Especially as a storyteller, it has been a long 10-year effort to make this piece and bring all these people together and tell this story, these communities that have been cultivated to distrust one another, and the people who put that aside and say it You, hey, we went through it and it was not pleasant and it was not beautiful and we are still dealing with it, but we are trying to share these stories so people can listen. It happened in the past, but it was like a call from the future saying that you are going the wrong way, turning around, going back.
I wasn't naive and I thought the world would change, but it was a sense of accomplishment. We did it, we did it. We made people raise their voices. People listened and I thought maybe there would never be a next time at the top, or at the bottom that the next time would not be such a pressure point. No pun intended for what happened to Mr. Floyd, but the idea is that we could navigate it differently. I think we navigated it very differently when 92 started with a spasm of violence. Yes, there was some reconciliation afterwards, but it was an afterthought. Now the violent spouts are still negative, but they were the exception and not the rule, except for you-know-who had to go for a walk on a particular day.
Deadline: Write a Bible.
RIDLEY: I have hope. When people say John, we have to broadcast that again and hopefully it will add to the discourse and hopefully people will be patient ... I'm proud of the work. But I cannot say that I feel euphoric about this.
Deadline: Edward James Olmos, a visible figure in the Los Angeles purge after the uprising, told Deadline that this time it started with peaceful protests that got lost in looting, but there was no protest then, just an unbridled expression of Indignation and anger. What was the difference between then and now for you?
RIDLEY: I mean that very sincerely. The difference is white people. Check out the demographics. Look at the people out there. There are so many whites who, at best, can no longer ignore what's going on, and, at worst, support what went wrong. I'm not going to pretend to be a scholar, but I think with the #MeToo movement there were more men who had to acknowledge, okay, this environment is really, really bad and we can't turn a blind eye. They came down in the 1960s, when protests in the civil rights movement during the freedom summer joined many white children from the north ... unfortunately, when Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were killed in Mississippi. A young black man and two white children from the north, and that really got the civil rights movement going. Again, I'm not trying to compare tragedy, but with Parkland, when so many children led the charge and shamed adults and adults said that you don't do anything, sometimes a slightly different population group is needed. The children bore the burden of these high school shootings, but they lent their votes.
Women came forward. Black people insisted that white people listen. Women insisted that men listen. Children insisted that adults listen. And getting that other population makes a difference. Sometimes it is painful to say, is that the difference? But that's the reality and it makes a difference. It is surely led by so many colored people who can stand this, and I really hope that when you write this article you emphasize that I am not saying that colored people are not out there to wage this fight.
But if you ask, hey, what's the difference? Look at the makeup of these movements. Take a look at what happens when people see poor 75-year-old white man knocked down and realize that police violence may disproportionately affect many colored people, but if you don't do anything about it, it can affect everyone .
DEADLINE: Artists are moved by events such as the murder of George Floyd and react and interpret. Have recent events changed your course, what to do next, what to think about, or how to take up what we've all been through and do something creative with it?
RIDLEY: My circumstance is a little different from many others. So much of what I've written, from Red Tails to 12 Years, American Crime, Guerilla, Let It Fall, has really dealt with issues of race as important elements of history in the context of romantic comedies or action films. I'm working on a Showtime project that deals a lot with races in two different time periods.
I thought I had to take a break from these stories, but I don't think I can ever be far from telling such stories. What is going on has confirmed again that this small room in which I work is an important room. I never took it for granted, but the stories I can tell make a difference. If the fire at all subsides in me to pursue these things, as difficult as they are to say, as difficult as they are to build up, I must continue the fight as best I can.
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