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John Ridley: 'Showrunners have to do better' at improving diversity

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The Oscar-winning screenwriter talks about moving from film to television, the surprising origins of his new series, "American Crime," and making sure his crew is diverse.

John Ridley became a household name last year when he snagged the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for "12 Years a Slave," which also won Best Picture. But he also has extensive credits in television as well, having written for "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Justice League."

Though Ridley's been out of television for a decade, he's brought some of his film experience to his new show, "American Crime."

Despite the assumptions that may be drawn due to its title, the show is a far cry from most TV procedurals. Rather than focus on detectives and attorneys investigating a murder, “American Crime” tells the story from the point of view of those suspected of a killing, and the families of the victims.

The series is also deeply interested in current issues surrounding race in America, particularly the social constructs and assumptions that dictate the ways in which various people think about race. 

When Ridley stopped by The Frame, he spoke with host John Horn about the surprising origins of "American Crime," responding to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in real-time, and the efforts he's taking to improve diversity in television.

Interview Highlights:

On ABC approaching him about the "American Crime" concept:

It was very surprising for a broadcast network to come to me prior to the very wonderful things that happened with "12 Years A Slave." And for them to want to even play in the sandbox of potent material in any regard...

As the development process went along they never backed off or said, Could you make it a little more sensational? Or, That's nice, but could we focus on the police? [They accepted] the concept of really trying to look at people, and look at how we avoid race and class...

The thing about the legal system is that, unfortunately, one of the few times that you get a blend of race, class, gender and sexual orientation is when a crime occurs. We're all thrown in this system where it's one against another as opposed to us dealing with each other.

On responding to news events within the show and not directly referencing them:

That was very tough. We chose not to do a show that was ripped from the headlines, not something that was going to be so directly exploitative of circumstances that people could draw direct comparisons to. But in the middle of that, Ferguson happened, and it really forced all of us to go back and make sure that there was an emotional honesty and an effort to be honorific to what was going on, even though this is a fictionalized story.

I'm from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and this past weekend a young, unarmed, black male was shot by a police officer. I don't know all the circumstances yet, it'll probably take a while, and, by the way, when we go through all of this we're never going to know exactly what happened.

But the fact that these things are now happening on a cycle, and seemingly at an accelerated pace, is very disconcerting. And as someone who is just a writer — while I don't think this show will answer these questions — I think this show needs to ask questions. I think that's part of what we do in art: we ask questions.

On what TV can do right now that film can't do:

There's a lot that TV can do now that films can't. The budgets are very substantial. The talent that is interested in doing television is the same talent that wants to do movies. You literally have Oscar winners — some of the creme de la creme who are doing television. Beyond even that, the opportunity to do eleven one-hour parts to the story with a great budget and a phenomenal cast, great writers, great artisans...Movies, ya know, I love them, but ... TV is a wonderful space right now. 

Even in the sitcom space, to see "Black-ish," to see "Fresh Off The Boat," to see "Cristela," to see shows where they're actually making an effort to be reflective, you just don't see that much variety of things. Let me just say this: TV is so good right now, they're calling it television. That's how good it is, they're using the longform name. It's like when they stopped calling comic books comic books and said, you know what? They're graphic novels now. That's how you know when something is good. 

On his efforts to improve diversity in front of and behind the camera:

We're honestly doing everything that we can. In our writers' room we go across the board: older, younger, writers who'd never written before, black, Hispanic, female. In our directors' space we have more female directors than male directors. We knew that we were going to be better than average. It was not our desire to go to the far end of the spectrum, but the fact is that when you open the door to opportunity, it's not that difficult to find qualified individuals.

This is not tokenism. I don't want that, and I know that people like Shonda [Rhimes] and Kenya [Barris], who runs "Blackish," don't want that. But it's not hard to find qualified people. I don't expect every show to have exactly 12.6 percent African-American and six percent Asian, or whatever, but at the same time when you look at shows and they have no writers over the age of 50 or no female directors, that's insane, that's nuts — and it's unconscionable.

At the end of the year people look to the Oscars or the Emmys, but that's the end of the process. When you look at the Writers' Guild numbers, us showrunners have to do better. Particularly in television, we hire the writers, the directors and people in post-production, so we can make a difference literally overnight. It's up to us to make that decision.

This is just a partial transcript of the interview. Listen to the audio for more.

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