John Ridley Talks About Tackling Race With 'American Crime' Anthology

John Ridley - ABC 2016 Winter TCA Tour - Getty -H 2016
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"It really does become about bringing individuals in who can represent communities in ways that people haven't seen before," Ridley told the Banff World Media Festival.

Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley on Wednesday recalled how Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager whose killing sparked a national firestorm about white violence against African-Americans, inspired his racially charged ABC anthology series American Crime.

"One of the most painful conversations that I've had in recent years was with my son, who at time was 14 and said, 'Dad, can you explain Trayvon Martin to me?' You can't really do it. And there's a lot of people who want that explanation that can't be done," Ridley told the Banff World Media Festival during a keynote panel.

Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012. The incident made national headlines when Zimmerman claimed he shot the unarmed teenager in self-defense and was acquitted on murder charges, sparking protests around the nation.

So when Ridley shortly afterwards was discussing with ABC Studios head Patrick Moran the idea of producing a trial-of-the-century drama, the 12 Years a Slave Oscar winner suggested the way in was not through legalese, but by focusing on the personal lives of players in a trial as events turn their worlds upside down.

"We as people end up rooting sometimes not for justice, but for an outcome that reflects the things that we want from the community, not that this person is indicted or exonerated, but I want my justice. And if it comes through the courtroom, so be it," Ridley said of American Crime having characters from rival tribes.

"It really does become about bringing individuals in who can represent communities in ways that people haven't seen before," he added. Ridley praised Regina King for playing a "devout, passionate, unabashedly strong Muslim-American woman" on American Crime, a role which earned her two Emmys in subsequent years for her separate roles as Aliyah Shaded and Terri Lacroix.

For her part, King said her initial conversation with Ridley about the role of Shaded revealed a woman she knew, but hadn't seen on TV. "I felt like a gift had landed in my lap. I had the actual opportunity to wear a hijab, and learn how to tie it, and all those beautiful rituals that come along with the Islamic religion," she recalled in Banff.

King said she liked that some American Crime viewers saw her Muslim-American character as a radical and others as just devout. "That's the most interesting thing about playing characters, about being an actor, is the layering, the dimensions," she said.

A TV drama with racially charged subject matter, with unconventional casting and a limited series format, was not a predictable sell to the ABC network, ABC Studios' Moran told the Banff audience. He recalled a creative fog hanging over the pilot development process that only cleared away with the first script reading involving the actors.

"As soon as we saw actors read the script and connect with the material, I think that was a moment for us where we realized there was something really special going on, that there was an intensity to the characters and a rawness to those scenes," Moran said.

Production on American Crime also threw up its own questions marks. "When we saw the cut, I wasn't sure how the network would respond to the pilot," Moran said.

That had ABC Studios execs talking about ABC possibly passing and the anthology series being sold to Hulu or Netflix for a better creative fit. But a chance hallway conversation between Moran and Paul Lee, who then ran ABC, had the ABC Studios boss convinced the network would support American Crime, and not schedule it in a random time period.

"It did feel like a giant departure from what ABC was doing at the time. But we felt it could be a real game-changer," Moran said.