12 Years A Slave Screenwriter John Ridley Talks Solomon Northup, Human Faith, and Lost History
Last Wednesday night, the OC Film Society hosted a near-full house audience at the Lido theater in Newport Beach to screen the critically-acclaimed feature film 12 Years A Slave. Gregg Schwenk, of OCFS and the Newport Beach Film Festival, introduced the film and announced to the audience that screenwriter John Ridley would be present after the screening for a q-&-a session. Following that segment, individual audience members crowded up in awe to Ridley, writer and director of film, theater and television, for a closer glimpse and the chance to exchange words. Afterwards, Ridley was gracious enough to speak with me for a lively discussion about the film. 12 Years A Slave is out now in theaters, so don't delay on checking it out!
OC Weekly [OCW]: This is the second time I've seen this film, and it's still so powerful and engaging, I've teared up...
John Ridley [JR]:Leave that to the source material, it really was a powerful story that Solomon told. We're going back to Telluride and the fact that people are still interested in it and want to talk about it and it still affects people, its very gratifying, it really is.
[OCW]: I think it will be in conversations for a long time, not just for the story but the storytelling, the filmmaking, [Director Steve] Mcqueen's approach to it as well. He's a filmmaker who thinks like an artist and takes into account all the visual devices into his method.
[JR]: Absolutely, his approach and the creative team that he works with- you know I can't say enough about [Director of Photography] Sean Bobbitt, and [Editor] Joe Walker, and the moments they were able to find as well, that's what I think was really special about the film, that it was a team effort in the sense that it was very communicative. People really built on ideas and were very honorific to Solomon's memoir in terms of some of the shots where it lingered. And in the memoir, where Solomon is hanging for the day, he talks about what it was like to be there all day long, and to create a moment on film that really replicates that is very powerful. So it was a special process for me, and it was a really special group of people that i had the opportunity to work with.
[OCW]: So when you and McQueen were talking about making the film, what was the one constant about Solomon's story that needed to be represented in film?
[JR]: For me more than anything it was his character, it was an individual who was put in circumstances that are so alien to my own, and certainly alien to what he had experienced at that time, but he never gives up faith in a system that had betrayed him, he never gives up faith that his family will at some point be able to find him and help him, he uses every aspect of himself, his wits, his guiles, his physicality, to survive and to me that aspect of human nature, that aspect to survive and thrive, as he says, "I don't want to just survive, I want to live," that was very compelling to me, and I think its very important for people in 2013 to be reminded that as a nation we've been through difficult circumstances, but we've managed and we can get through anything if we use the best of ourselves.
[OCW]: Seeing this film for the second time, and even the first time, I felt this overwhelming sense of calmness; When you were reading Mr. Northup's book, was there that same sense of calmness that presided over his writing as well?
[JR]: That's a very good question, yes there was, it was very interesting to me how objective in some places he could be about his circumstances and what he went through; I could only to a degree imagine if I went through this, and the very raw emotions I would carry with me, I would have this bitterness and anger and a very tortured sense of what I'd been through. Solomon didn't have that, he wrote with a beauty and a reserve, and a sense of wonder as though that was not the American nature, that was not the nature of people, that that was an aberration, and that he knew that we as a people could get beyond that; I found that to be very, very beautiful. He was a transcended individual and that speaks to his nature and his ability to process that.
[OCW]: One of the heartbreaking things in watching this film in the beginning was Solomon trying to process everything that was happening to him while being in denial, even so far as defending his captors in saying, "No, they're artists! They are probably inquiring and searching for me right now." In the scene where he argues with Eliza [Adepero Oduye] about forgetting her children, he insists that Master Ford [Benedict Cumberbatch] is a decent man, but she gives him this reality check, basically saying, "He's not going to look out for you, you are still his property." It seemed to break his spirit, because he had so much trust in people and they just turned their backs on him.
[JR]: That's the amazing and sad thing about his circumstances, that he had trust, he believed in peoples' better nature and that ultimately is tested, and the evolution of this character in some ways is so subtle. "Can I maintain my trust, when I meet one last person who could potentially be the keys to my freedom, can I give myself over to this individual as much as I've been betrayed, as many horrible things that I've seen, do I still believe in the better nature of people?"
The fact that Solomon does not give up, again, that was a message that I wanted people to see. We know that at that time that system was brutal, many people didn't know how brutal it is, but we also don't think know how much faith individuals have. Can you imagine being someone who is taken from their home, whether it was upstate New York or Africa, being put in a system where there was no grievance, no courts, no system of redressing what had happened to you. But still having faith, still praising God, still singing to God, still believing that one day, if not your children or your children's children then perhaps your great great grandchildren would see some measure of equality, never giving up on any of those ideals.
[OCW]: Speaking again on the sense of calmness, I think something that added to that were just these still shots of the landscape, almost as though the setting itself were a character in the film.
[JR]: And in some ways it was, that geography, again if you can imagine going from upstate New York to a place where there's great expanse, where the climate is different, where the sounds are different, the insects, the air, all of those elements. One of the amazing things about this story is that it is so dehumanizing in some areas and so brutal but it's set against a canvas that is so beautiful and a landscape that in many ways was so untouched. I think it was very important, and such wonderful choices were made in the cinematography, to set much of the story against a landscape that is so beautiful and serene, so counterpoint to the elements that were so difficult.