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’12 Years a Slave’ Scribe John Ridley Sets Daring Sights on TV With ‘American Crime’

Almost exactly a year ago, John Ridley accepted the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for “12 Years a Slave,” a film that changed the way we think about race in our history. The next morning, he flew to Austin to begin filming ABC’s “American Crime,” a television show he hopes will change the way we think about race today.

“I don’t know that I’ve had an experience quite like this one,” says Ridley, 49, who serves as executive producer. “When I look at it from outside to inside, is there a show like this on network television? Very fundamentally, no.”

An 11-episode anthology series, “American Crime” chronicles a murder in Modesto, Calif., not through the perspective of the cops and the lawyers, but through the victims’ parents, the suspects and the community at large. It tackles hot button issues of faith and religion, ethnicity and class. It is, in a word, provocative.

“I’m thankful I’m working at a time when there is a capacity to tell strong stories … and for audiences to see them and take part in (them),” says Ridley, who wrote five episodes and directed three, including the pilot.

That the show airs on ABC may seem surprising — it’s the kind of prestige, thought-provoking drama that’s come to define cable. But it was the Alphabet that first approached Ridley, then gave him free rein. The network is putting all its might behind the program: a big promotional push during the Oscars, a prime slot behind “Scandal.” Now it’s up to viewers to render their verdict.

Terence Patrick for Variety

ABC Studios head Patrick Moran says the network had been discussing internally the idea of doing a scripted show that chronicled a “trial of the century” (think O.J. Simpson, Trayvon Martin) that captured the public’s imagination. Producer Michael McDonald came up with a list of potential writers: Ridley’s name was at the top — before he’d won the Oscar.

Ridley was intrigued, but didn’t want to get bogged down in a procedural. Instead, he opted to approach the crime as its impact rippled through the community. “That was very exciting to me, to try to do a series that was about faith: faith in systems, faith in religion, faith in each other,” he says.

ABC was only too happy to have him mold their concept. “We handed over the keys, and we let him go,” says ABC president of entertainment Paul Lee. “We couldn’t be more delighted with what he’s turned up. It’s a piece that reflects America in a way that you just don’t see.”

When developing the series, Ridley wanted to tell a narrative, yet also make sure it felt grounded in reality. Having grown up in a small-town outside Milwaukee, then moved to New York in the ’80s, he tapped into his own experiences with racism — but found that headlines caught up with him. “I thought maybe we’re beyond some of these things, and then you realize, very painfully, we’re still dealing with them. But I never wanted to write something that was preachy, that wagged a finger.”

The script got picked up to pilot in January 2014; the series got greenlit in May. And then ABC Studios signed Ridley to an overall deal. “After we had such a good experience, I was not about to let him go,” says Moran. “We want to be involved in whatever he does in TV.”

Ridley has been on a whirlwind ever since: He hasn’t even had a chance to move into his office on the lot in Burbank. “The pictures arrived before me,” he jokes, pointing to the barely decorated walls.

Though he’s worked in TV before — prior to his feature career, he toiled on sitcoms like “Martin” and dramas like “Third Watch” — what lured him back was the promise of creative freedom. ABC encouraged him to direct the pilot for the current show, having seen his pet project, Jimi Hendrix biopic “All Is By My Side.”

“To have ABC say, ‘Don’t worry about toning it down,’ I wasn’t prepared for that,” he says. “I’m very happy that I had partners who believed in what we were trying to do, because we took chances all the way around.”

Those chances infiltrate every aspect of “American Crime,” from story arcs to filmmaking style. Characters are complex and flawed, and not necessarily — to use the classic network note — likable. Ridley wrote without act breaks; scenes run uncomfortably long; sound drops in and out, and doesn’t always follow the speaker.

Series co-star Felicity Huffman, who plays bereaved mother Barb, admits Ridley’s indie directing choices unnerved her at first. There’s a dramatic scene in the pilot where she’s fighting in a car with Timothy Hutton, who plays her estranged ex-husband — and Ridley wanted to film it in one take. “I kept going up to him and saying, ‘You don’t want a shot of the grass or the sky, just in case?” she recalls. “But what I really appreciate is that it always added to the storytelling.”

Ridley says the cast more than delivered — witness Hutton’s breakdown in the pilot — but the actor credits Ridley. “When it’s great writing, it’s very easy to learn,” Hutton explains. “You can read the scene one time, and you know the words. The writing is very real and very thoughtful.”

Despite the challenging themes and potential for red flags, the give-and-take with the network always remained civil.

“We never got the note back, ‘What you’re doing is arty and provocative, but be mindful, it’s network,’ ” says Ridley. “If they could feel the passion, the emotional honesty of what we were doing, we had a dispensation to go ahead and do it.”

Ridley knows numbers matter, and he is hopeful viewers will tune in. “But how audiences are going to receive it in terms of ratings was never the leader for what we were instructed to do,” he explains. “There’s a lot of tough stuff in the show, but there’s a lot of hope, a lot of faith.”

And the series ends, he says, exactly where he always intended. “I’ve got a family, I’ve got young people at home. At some point they’re going to see this. What message do I want to leave them? That’s the one I wanted to end on. It’s sublime. But sometimes it’s the sublime things that are the most powerful.”

***

Ridley arrived in L.A. in 1990 after a stint in New York on the standup circuit. His first writing jobs were on sitcoms, before he turned to novels. His big break came when he sold several screenplays, including “Stray Dogs” and “Spoils of War,” the latter of which became “Three Kings.”

Ridley’s path in Hollywood took a rocky turn, though, during the writers’ strike, when he feuded with the guild, opting to go financial core (meaning he pays the bare minimum in dues and loses the right to vote in elections). In an op-ed in the L.A. Times, he wrote, “Apparently, to speak publicly of such concerns is to be on the same level as the jerk who gives away the ending of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. I lived with the vitriol stirred by my questioning. Never mind that I’ve walked the picket lines. Never mind I’ve donated to the strike fund. The first rule of Strike Club: Never talk about Strike Club!” The move cost him any potential guild awards for “12 Years a Slave” — as it will for “American Crime.”

Looking back, Ridley says he has no regrets. He took a stand for what he believes in, and would do so again. “Being a writer is about self-expression, and if you find yourself in a space where people cannot tolerate self-expression, then there’s something wrong with the environment, not the individual,” he says.

While he became something of a pariah at the time, he says the furor has quieted. “The vast majority of people seriously, sincerely don’t care one way or the other,” he says. “There are people who completely disagreed with what I said, who were at my wedding, who introduced me to my wife, who I’ve sat down with subsequently and still disagree with me.”

Perhaps that’s also why now, talking with Ridley, he’s quick to share credit. TV is a collaborative medium, to be sure, and at every turn, he heaps praise on his team. The sound designer. The editor. The director of photography. “I’ve never had a crew, never had a cast, never had a post-production (team) that’s put that much into it,” he says.

In fact, should the show succeed and get picked up for a second season, his plan is to reunite everyone — cast and crew — in new roles in a new story.

Although Ridley says he loves working on movies, he’s drawn now to the challenges of TV. “I’m not saying I’m not going to do films anymore,” he explains. “But having been away from television for a while, and to come back and see how network television has evolved … it’s definitely a space I would like to stay in.”

What’s clear is that the Oscar win has changed his life and his career — and that he’s barely had time to process it. He can hardly bring himself to say the word. He keeps talking about “what happened.” And he gave the statue to his parents.

“If you grew up admiring cinema … to be in a room with all of these individuals (is) very hard to wrap your head around,” he says, tearing up. “It humbles me in a way I never expected. So who are the two people who can probably appreciate this thing more than me? My parents. To fly it back to small-town Wisconsin and hand it to your parents — that was the most special.”

In fact, he compares winning the Oscar to the scene at the end of “The Candidate,” when longshot Robert Redford wins the election, and says, “What do we do now?”

If “American Crime” works, the answer will be: Anything he wants.

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