John Ridley on 'Guerrilla,' Black Activism, Resisting Trump

'12 Years a Slave' screenwriter talks new season of 'American Crime' and his black-power period piece starring Idris Elba and Freida Pinto

Idris Elba (left) as Kent and director John Ridley behind the scenes of 'Guerrilla,' which premieres on Showtime. Credit: Sky UK Limited/Showtime

Through a combination of crazy prolificacy and an accident of timing, John Ridley's name is behind so many hours of television this month that he could program an entire network for the better part of a day. As it stands, three different Ridley projects will overlap by the end of April, each a testament to his interest in social justice and upheaval, from contemporary labor and immigration problems in North Carolina to racial upheaval and violence in the early 1970s England and early 1990s Los Angeles. Though Ridley has been working steadily on TV and film for two decades, winning an Oscar for his screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, the uptick in output makes a strong case for him as a conscious-raising artist of startling range and passion.

Currently approaching the end of its third season, Ridley's American Crime anthology series has hit the anti-immigrant fervor of the Trump administration in stride, dealing with the exploitation of migrant workers entering the United States without legal protections. At the end of the month – and in limited theaters the week before – ABC is set to unspool a rare network documentary in Let It Fall: L.A. 1982-1992, a look back at the Rodney King riots 25 years later. Much like the multi-part O.J.: Made In America, Ridley reflects on the racial tensions that made the event possible, focusing on the LAPD under Daryl Gates and the tactical brutality of chokeholds and metal batons.

On Sunday night, Ridley lights a powder keg of another kind with Guerrilla, a six-part miniseries premiering on Showtime. Set in London in the early Seventies, the show follows the radicalization of two black activists (Frieda Pinto and Babou Ceesay) whose frustration with institutional racism and hostile policing leads them to put down their protest signs and pick up weapons. After joining a militant underground cell, they find themselves both empowered and compromised by their actions, and under relentless pursuit by Scotland Yard's vigorously racist Black Power Desk. Speaking from a press tour in London, Ridley discussed the controversy surrounding Guerrilla and the connection between stories of resistance past and present, here and abroad.

What interested you in this particular story of black resistance in Guerrilla? How do its lessons translate for American audiences, and in what way are they specifically British?
Honestly, part of my interest was just as a child of the 1970s, and the iconography of blackness in that time period, the Angela Davises and George Jacksons. For lack of a better term, those individuals were just badasses and very cool. But as one gets older, one starts to understand not just the passion of these individuals but also the consequences of their actions, when you find out about things like the Marin County courthouse massacre. Or the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army), obviously being involved with Patty Hearst and the assassination of the school superintendent in Oakland, who was a person of color himself. You find out these individuals are human and complicated and imperfect, and, for me, those complexities were just very interesting. 

Common questions about the ends justifying the means, things like that. It was perhaps much more of an American tale, but maybe four, five years ago I had a chance to sit down with a producer over here [in London] – this was long before the very nice things that have happened to me professionally – and he asked me about the stories that I wanted to talk about. I talked to him about Guerrilla, and he thought it was very interesting, and he asked if I thought it would work in the UK. I didn't think it would; I thought it was a very American story. But he encouraged me to go on a listening tour and talk to people who were activists in London right now, in the U.K., and their experiences. I had the opportunity to talk to people who were very close to the struggle. 

The reality is, although there are certain elements that are very specific either to America or the U.K., ultimately the struggles are the same, and people who are fighting for recognition or fighting for franchisement or fighting for equal representation – those fights, passions, human imperfections do translate. So I think there are some elements that are very specific that will be of interest to an audience whether they're in America or the U.K. about the struggle, but I do think there are things that are very global or international, and are things that cannot be taught enough for any audience, anywhere, at any time. Unfortunately, we, in our show, talk about the the Immigration Act of 1971. We talk about people being divided into patrials and non-patrials; we talk about people being disenfranchised. Unfortunately, other than bits of the language, those headlines are as timely as they are timeless.

Every episode opens with a quote from a different revolutionary, from Sojourner Truth to the Weather Underground. What unites these disparate voices in your mind?
To me, they are individuals who fought for freedom – but, at the same time, by different people under different circumstances, are equally labeled as terrorists. There's a close divide between a radical and a revolutionary, a freedom-fighter and a terrorist. Generally, it's the prevailing culture that gets to decide or make those labels. So what we wanted to do was lay out these quotes and have the audience read them, and feel whatever way they feel about the words themselves, and reveal who said it. People may feel very differently. It's one thing to see those words and say, "Oh, this was said by this person, and this was said by this individual." But it really was to try to say that it was a fine line, and what people are fighting for may be very admirable. How they fight may be very repugnant, but that line and thought and feeling are sometimes much closer than we think.

In Guerrilla, there's a Black Power Desk at Scotland Yard and you can see how such a hostile posture from law enforcement stokes tension and affects activism. If you have a policy with regard to institutional racism in a department, what are the forces that might cause a movement to take that kind of change and splinter off into violence?
Historically, certainly if you look at the Civil Rights movement in America, it went through these phases of passive resistance to non-violent resistance to individuals saying, "Enough of turning the other cheek," and wanting to take up arms. In America, our nature and our culture, historically, has been more violent than perhaps other cultures. You can see in almost any society when people's abilities to express themselves or engage in a non-violent means is taken away or ignored when it is in place, people do turn to violence. As a person, as a human, I do not – and I have no problem saying – believe that a violent reaction in and of itself is the answer, but I do believe that if there are not true, long-term positive solutions put into place for individuals, people will eventually turn into violence out of a sense of not having a choice, or there is no other way to get grievance for their causes. Look, there are going to be people who turn to violence first and foremost without even looking at another path. But unfortunately, historically, when groups of people are not given a way to express themselves in any other means, they will turn to means that are inappropriate.

Does a lot have to do with this external force and posture by the government and authority figures?
I think every case is different, and I don't want to paint with a broad brush. As I said, some people are predisposed to violence, and, at the end, when lives are lost and violence is rendered, sometimes the ideology doesn't matter at all because that's just what people do. But you see as well in places where people have tried to express themselves in non-violent means, where they have tried to engage and use other means of recourse and been rebuffed. If they turn to violence, the prevailing culture is shocked by these individuals, what they do, but you can look at a history where people have tried to engage in every other means… so, again, I really don't want to say one situation is equivalent to all situations, but when you see movements where people have tried to engage in every other way and turned to violence, I think, in those circumstances, it's clear that they felt there is no other way.

Are there other influences to serve as guideposts for how a leftist movement might think and operate? Your commitment to showing how both sides fight reminded me a lot of The Battle of Algiers, but I'm sure there are others you might have in mind as well.
For anybody whose a storyteller in cinema, that film is a touchstone. I don't mean this as a dodge, but I tried to read. In addition to talking to people who were there and other individuals, I tried to read as many books as possible, as many manifestos as possible, as much thought as possible – and from as many different sides as possible. I don't have my reading list in front of me, so when I say I don't want to dodge, I mean I don't want to start down a list where I can't even be specific about titles or authors.

The minute you pick a topic, you're coming with an opinion, but I did not want to try to make it just my opinion. I try to create a space where there were perspectives and as many as possible. Including in the storytelling. Including in people of color. We're not monolithic; we don't all think alike. And it was very important for me to show a range of a people of color, a range of reactions, and not make the police officers straw people. I really think for systems of oppression to work, there has to be a mass psychosis, and there are people who are indoctrinated to force the views of the prevailing culture. I don't forgive that they do. I don't feel as though what they do or what they had done deserves a pass. But I think it's too easy to just say, "Well, they're evil and that's all there is to it." I mean, there are people in history that pretty much were pure evil – I think that goes without saying – but for a lot of individuals who were tasked with maintaining the worldview of the prevailing culture, they were a little more complicated than that. And I think an audience, a modern audience, deserves complicated storytelling.

I'm curious about how you write for different audiences. You can talk about Guerrilla as being for a niche audience because it's a cable subscription network, but something like American Crime is on a major network and speaks to a broader swath of the American public, including people whose opinions might not align with the show's. Does that affect the way you approach your work? Is there an opportunity in talking to an audience whose view of the world don't necessarily align with your own?
I've found, over the years, that no matter what you do and what your intent is, when you put something out in the public space, you're going to alienate and offend somebody. And it's generally the thing that you thought would be the least-alienating or offensive. [Laughs.] I try not to proselytize and preach on American Crime; we try to present perspectives and present different individuals. I don't necessarily try to do things to upset people for the sake of upsetting people. I really don't think that's very good storytelling. I won't be provocative for the sake of being provocative, but the minute you do deal with race or class or gender orientation – politics and society in any way, shape or form – you're obviously going to put something out that somebody is not going to agree with you about. I don't worry about that particularly, but it is surprising how many times you put something out and you think you are putting out something to champion certain causes or certain issues and people are still upset about something. Oftentimes, they often just arrive with their agendas already in place; there's nothing you can do about it. It's not my intention, but it's also not my sorrow.

Guerrilla got a bit of push-back with regard to black women not being front-and-center on the show. Were you blindsided by that? What is your response?
I don't want to get into an argument with the press or anybody, and certainly other people who don't have the opportunity – whether I agree or disagree with them – to put their point forward. But it is sort of odd, being in a space where I've had the opportunity to write for and work with actresses like Regina King, like Lupita Nyong'o, like Freida Pinto, and have people say, "Well, you're not doing enough for women of color." I try as hard as I can, try to put good things in the space, but I will say to anybody that for me, personally, I've never waited for anyone else to try to tell the stories that I wanted to tell. So if anybody feels that I'm not doing enough, they can rail against me, or they can actually go out and do something. I very sincerely encourage them to do that, to go out and tell their stories the way they want to. You don't need anybody else's permission to go out and tell the stories you want to tell.

I want to shift to Let It Fall. It opens in 1982 with the chokehold death of James Mincey Jr. Why did you feel that was the right place to start setting context for this story?
With a story like Let It Fall, you could've rolled that back not just 10 years, but decades – back to '65 and far before that. I do think, within our capacities to tell a story, it was important to put some kind of a context, to say, "Here's a narrative space from which we are are going to begin working." And I do think that the end of, if we're going to call it the "chokehold," and the introduction of the PR24, the metal baton, and where that led, it was a place where, as narrative, the end of one phase of how the LAPD conducted itself was the beginning of another phase that would lead to what people refereed to as the Rodney King riots. So, again, you could roll it back decades and decades and decades, but in context of what we were talking about – in being able to draw a narrative line; in being able to introduce this instrument that would be so central, obviously, to the Rodney King assault and the aftermath – it seemed as though that ten-year timespan was appropriate for us to tell our story in.

We're talking about different coasts here, but did Eric Garner's death play a role in your thinking? When you talk about chokehold deaths now, that's certainly the name that pops into your head.
One of the reasons at the end of the film we did not make any allusions or draw comparisons to other events is that I do think it's very important to suggest that while there are similarities in these arrests and the aftermaths, these events are singular and do deserve to be looked at individually. L.A. is not Ferguson is not Baltimore. So I'm aware of these different events that happened in these different places, but I didn't want to conflate Los Angeles or these particular stories and set of circumstances with another set of circumstances or different places.

What surprised you most in making this documentary? How did the process affect your thinking?
I would say what moved me the most was just, honestly, that many individuals were willing to share their stories. There were so many people who, for no good reason, didn't have to share their stories; they're obviously very personal. They're about loss, humanity, the best of us, the worst of us, and to sit through these interviews was often very touching and moving. There's so many of those incidents I was aware of, but to hear the people involved in their own voices, to hear these narratives recollected with the emotion that was woven into them, was very, very powerful. It was exceptionally powerful.

You're able to get some interview subjects on the wrong side of history, like an officer present for Mincey's death and one of the jurors who acquitted the four cops in the Rodney King trial. What was involved in getting some people like that to come forward? Do you think about what their motives might have been? It was kind of remarkable.
It was remarkable, and I have to give a lot of credit to our producers. They were the ones that went out and did the groundwork and got them involved. We approached the whole story not looking to indict anyone and not looking to exonerate anyone. There were people all-around who represented the best of humanity and some who represented the worst of humanity, and they chose to sit and share their stories. But that was sort of the ground rule: We were not there to make people look better than they were; we were also not there to make them look worse than they were. It was an opportunity for them to tell their stories in their own voices. 

I've had opportunities in my career to opine, to do opinion pieces and insert my own view into things. In the last several years, I've tried to remove myself from the equation. As I said, any time you pick a topic and decide how you're getting into it, there's an opinion involved. But, more than anything, I tried to create a space where it's more about building an apparatus for allowing other people to share their stories, their narratives, their perspectives, their point of view, than my own personal beliefs. When you ask, "How were we able to get them to do it," it's by being able to show to them, through previous work, that largely what we want to do is have a space for them to speak and say what they want to say and how they want to say it.

It's early into the Trump administration, but what has grabbed your attention thus far? Surely the immigration story on this season of American Crime has particularly relevant, but what are your thoughts on how things are going and how you might respond to it as an artist?
Again, I try to be less opinionated than I was as a young person. I think the thing that's distressing to me – and I think distressing to a lot of people – is that we’re living in an age where there is so much information that's out there now, and there's so many opportunities for people to really verify and vet things on their own. It used to be, back in the day, the New York Times dropped on your doorstep, and that was it, that was the news. Despite the fact that there is so much information at everyone's fingertips, it seems to be more and more difficult for all of us to even find out and learn things, and fight ignorance and being uninformed.

As an artist, it's less about the politics of the day. Because American Crime, as it was conceived, that was going to be out in the public space irrespective of who was going to be in the White House. Those issues that we were dealing with were going to be issues irrespective of the White House. Guerrilla, as a show, is set more than 40 years ago, but many of the things that they’re dealing with – the Immigration Act, the separation of people as patrials and non-patrials, the disenfranchisement – are still issues. But as we roll these things out, the fact that so many people –and, frighteningly, so many young people – remain uninformed and ill-informed and don't know history… 

One of the reasons I do this show is because I have the opportunity to learn, to put things in the public space, but when you go out in front of these things –in all of these shows, whether it's the documentary, Guerrilla or American Crime – you realize that people have the opportunity to truly learn more, educate more. You don’t have to agree with everything that’s out there, but even to just see how things play in other spaces, to see how these stories lay—and they choose not to. They choose merely to be angry. That, as a person, is sort of painful. That’s what I find distressing. Not the politics of the moment, because that changes. But when these issues remain the same year after year, decade after decade, that’s when it becomes problematic.