John Ridley Explains Why Network TV Needs 'American Crime'

The '12 Years a Slave' Oscar winner talks with THR about why his anthology drama examining race relations could have "worked five years ago, 15 years ago, [and] it may work eight years from now."
Courtesy of ABC; AP Images/Invision
"American Crime" and Ridley (inset)

There was a moment during production of ABC's anthology drama American Crime that John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) wondered if his new series about race relations was "passe." Then Ferguson happened in the middle of production and any doubts the Academy Award winner had about the series starring Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman were erased in an instant.

American Crime, which takes over How to Get Away With Murder's slot in the TGIT lineup at 10 p.m. starting on March 5, centers on a divorced couple (Hutton and Huffman) whose worlds are ripped apart following the slaying of their son and daughter-in-law and the subsequent investigation (and trial) that rips a community apart.

Here, Ridley talks with The Hollywood Reporter about why the time is right for American Crime, TV's big diversity push as well as how ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee encouraged him to "be bold" with the cable-like drama.

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Given the current landscape that we're in, what do you think about where we are as a society?

I was talking to somebody on the show and they said sometimes it feels like we're moving backward, but at the same time, having dealt with historical pieces, recently Red Tails and 12 Years a Slave, clearly we're moving forward. Sometimes the reason maybe it feels like we're static is because there are so many other voices who have an opportunity to speak out and say, "Hey, we're not satisfied with where we are or how we're being treated or our expectations." And that, in and of itself, is a good thing. There are moments, and obviously recently over many things, that these elements where it feels like, "Really? We're not past that yet?"

Chris Rock wrote this brilliant essay about race and Hollywood. Do you agree?

I started when there were TV shows like Martin and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and you looked around at the landscape and really thought, "Things are changing and there's a lot of opportunity out there — and in 15 years or 20 years a lot of us who are starting out as staff writers we're going to be producers and directors and we're going to have opportunities." And you look around and you don't see all those folks. I'm not special. I'm not better than those folks. I'm not here because I had some other capacity. I'm here and I'm thankful I'm here, but why is it still taking so long for so many other voices to reach some kind of cultural density? The thing that's really odd for me is that we're getting to a point where when people talk about people of color or others of diversity they still think "black." The reality is that black people are not the majority minority anymore. We're not the only voices out there. I'm happy I have the opportunity to say things from my perspective but even my perspective as a black guy is not the end-all be-all. You start to wonder when we are going to get to that point where it's — I don't think it's ever going to be a 1-for-1 ratio in terms of entertainment — but certainly something that feels a little bit more representative of what's going on out there.

Why do you think broadcast networks are just now embracing diversity onscreen?

People talk about the bias in Hollywood, and I believe any industry that I would have picked, you are going to face some kind of biases. I don't think Hollywood is any better or any worse. This is the business that I live in and sometimes it's both strange and gratifying to hear someone like Paul Lee saying this is something that we need to do. When we were putting this show together Michael McDonald and I really made an effort to say, "Are we looking for everybody in that early process?" And when you look, you find. It's not that hard. I appreciate what Paul is doing, and I don't mean this about him specifically or ABC or any other outlet but it's not that hard.

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What was the genesis behind doing a show that's so inclusive in its exploration of race, income class, etc.?

I don't want to aggrandize but that was really my desire. If I had one shot at doing a show, I did not want to pretend that my perspective or my point of view was the end-all be-all or that I had all the answers for a group that people may assume I represent, or that I was going to put up individuals and make them straw people — and this person is here just so I can knock them down. It was very challenging because if I was going to examine other individuals or other faiths or other perspectives, I had to go in and try to talk to people and meet people and put those ideas ahead of myself. I'm never going to separate me from me, so I can't pretend that there aren't elements in this story that are elements of me, but in doing things that are outside of my immediate culture or immediate sensibility I did hope that there was an aspect where we would have to be honorific to those individuals or those beliefs or those perspectives and dig a little bit more deeply.

What kind of a message do you hope that this show sends?

I honestly hope that it doesn't deliver a verbal message. It was not my desire to try to get into people's living rooms or on their iPads and proselytize to them on a weekly basis. I believe that at its best, entertainment is an apparatus for delivering feelings. I don't know that I personally can reach people on an intellectual level. I believe and hope the writing is good, but it's not about preaching to people; it's about having an emotion and people getting pulled along and not even knowing how they arrived there. It's not a procedural; it's not about the next piece of DNA evidence — it's about people dealing with a situation they never asked for, they don't want to be a part of and will not resolve itself in a week, in a month and sometimes even a year.

What kind of notes did you get from ABC?

The notes process was very interesting to me because initially Paul Lee and everyone would say, "be bold," and that was my mandate. You hear that often and think, "OK, that's what you're saying but then we're going to do that and that's going to go away." But when the show came in and we had things that were challenging, it was never a dictate of, "Don't do that; we're just not going to allow you to do that." It really was a conversation about, "Why did you want to do that, what were you trying to achieve and if you were going to do that, is it really additive to the process?" There were things that worked and others that they would question. We had one scene that was about four or five seconds long and it was two characters speaking in Spanish with no subtitles. I was very adamant that, for this character in this moment where she's trying to connect with another aspect of her family and they're having a conversation in Spanish, that to put those subtitles in felt like we were disrespectful and they understood that. … Our scripts were in on time; we were massively under budget. We were responsible.

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American Crime feels very much like a cable show on ABC. Hot off your Oscar, why ABC?

I want to say something, and I hope you'll write this and express this: ABC came to me in September 2013. 12 Years a Slave was not in theaters. All Is by My Side, the movie I directed, nobody had seen. They came to me with this umbrella of a concept of an idea. They asked me where I would go with it. They asked me if I had a passion for it, where I would take it. Michael McDonald asked me, even before seeing All Is by My Side, if I'd be interested in directing this. We showed that film to Paul Lee, Channing Dungey, Patrick Moran, all these individuals very high up at ABC. They looked at this film, which is a challenging film, and they said, "We would love for you to bring a lot of that to ABC." ABC picked me; I didn't pick them. The night of the Oscars, I saw Paul Lee and he told me one more time, "John, just go be bold." That next morning, at about 10 o'clock I was on a plane to Austin to shoot the pilot.

How did events like Ferguson — which happened in the middle of production on the show — impact the end result?

When we started this process, we — as a people, as a society — were coming off of Trayvon Martin. In the writing process of the pilot I got to a point where I thought, "Is this passe? Am I talking about something we've moved past? Am I trying to talk about something that we've dealt with and moved on from?" In the process of working on the show, Ferguson happened and I painfully realized that we weren't dealing with the past; we're dealing with something that's happening in the now. Then you have other events in New York that are happening and you realize how cyclical this is and that American Crime —fortunately, unfortunately, however one wants to look at it — is a show that could have worked five years ago, 15 years ago, [and] it may work eight years from now. The people and circumstances may be different, but there are things we haven't moved beyond. There was a moment for one potent episode where our DP — who worked on Fruitvale — said to me, "I feel like we're not moving forward." I remember saying to her, "Yeah, it feels that way but you've got to believe that we are." I don't believe this show is going to change the world in any circumstance, but to have the opportunity to talk about these things in a public forum, in a broadcast forum, I do believe that is indicative of change that we are part of in and of this moment. If it lasts, I don't know, but we're here now and we've got to make the most of this opportunity.

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Structurally, American Crime is an anthology. What kind of resolution will there be this season?

Whether it was a murder mystery, whether it was the end of a five-year run on a sitcom, you want that end-beat to be impactful for the audience. You want to reward those people who had faith in you and stuck with it. The resolution is going to be powerful, impactful and emotional. I can't speak too specifically about elements, but for those who want to go along with the ride their faith in the show will absolutely be rewarded.

Will season two be a total reboot in terms of location, premise and cast like True Detective or is it more like American Horror Story, where you're using the same pool of actors as different characters?

I would like a fresh slate; most definitely a new city, new circumstances, dealing with another subject matter. I want to try new things and a new approach with the show — not just the case, the politics, but the language of cinema and how we shoot it. I hope we can sit down with the cast say to a lot of these folks, "We did this. What else would you want to do? What parts have you not played? Where can all these folks fit in?"

American Crime debuts on Thursday, March 5 at 10 p.m. on ABC, replacing How to Get Away With Murder, which has ended its freshman run.

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