News Column

With '12 Years a Slave,' Ridley brings the heat to fall film season

September 5, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 05--It was pushing 100 degrees in Los Angeles last week.

"It's global-warming nasty out there," said John Ridley Jr.

The filmmaker and Mequon native will bring some of that heat with him into the fall movie season.

Ridley has two films at the Toronto International Film Festival this week: "12 Years a Slave," for which he wrote the screenplay and was executive producer; and "All Is by My Side," about one year in the life of Jimi Hendrix, which he wrote and directed. Hendrix is played by Andre Benjamin, and Ridley is taking the film to Toronto in search of distribution.

"12 Years a Slave" is being released in larger markets Oct. 18 and wider after that, with an eye toward the end-of-year Oscars race. "12 Years" is directed by Steve McQueen, the British artist and filmmaker who directed the IRA prison drama "Hunger" and the sexual-addiction tale "Shame."

It is based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and spent 12 years in slavery. The film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role, Michael Fassbender as a slaveholder and Brad Pitt, whose company helped produce the film.

The film reportedly stunned the audience last week at the Telluride Film Festival, where the movie was described as an Oscar front-runner -- while also saying the film's violence may disturb Oscar voters.

But what struck Ridley about Northup's story is that "there is so much humanity there. You have a character who never gives up faith, never gives over to anger and brutality. You are talking about a system where humans were subjugated and indoctrinated into conducting that subjugation.

"If you go in expecting (the film) to be horrific and painful, you'll miss the point of Solomon's memoir -- that in the most horrible of circumstances we're still human beings."

McQueen is the conceptual and Turner Prize-winning film artist who has turned to film of late. The ethnically Caribbean British native "wanted to do a film very specifically about that time in American history that dealt with race freedom and equality, but had large emotional vistas," said Ridley, who attended Homestead High School and studied film at New York University.

Ridley's Hendrix film, meanwhile, is smaller in scale.

It is about "a particular year that Jimi spent in London from 1966 to 1967," Ridley said.

The compressed time period, Ridley said, lets him tell "a finite story" and presented an "opportunity to excavate a single year. To me, it makes more storytelling sense to mine those moments" rather than do a "cradle-to-grave" retrospective.

It is the first film Ridley has directed since his 1997 debut "Cold Around the Heart." It took him 16 years to direct another film because doing so "is not an easy chore."

To do it again, he had to find "a story every aspect of which I was passionate about," since you are "basically taking two years out of your life" to make it.

"Ironically," he said, the Hendrix film came together "at the same time as '12 Years a Slave.'"

Ridley started out performing comedy; his novel "A Conversation With the Mann," about a stand-up comic during the civil rights era, was inspired by those experiences. But he switched to writing for TV shows such as "Martin," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "The John Larroquette Show," produced TV's "Third Watch," and created "Barbershop."

He has written seven novels, one of which, "Stray Dogs," was made into a film titled "U-Turn" by Oliver Stone, and also wrote the films "Undercover Brother," "Red Tails" and "Three Kings."

Television remains "a love of mine," Ridley said, and he has produced a pilot for CBS and is writing a series for HBO.

"But as much as I love Hollywood," writing novels "remains a passion. Being in production for three years straight has been a blessing. But to be at home with the family and just write and not be limited by time and space and finances..."

He trailed off. Maybe thinking about the Oscars.

Email: ddudek@journalsentinel.com

Keep up with the fall movies -- and Oscars season -- on Dudek's blog, The Dudek Abides: www.jsonline.com/dudek.

Twitter: @TheDudekAbides

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