John Ridley is a novelist and screenwriter whose various works include noir thrillers, action-adventure films, and comedy. A prolific writer, Ridley worked his way from stand-up comedian to successful screenwriter, collaborating with some of the most influential directors in the U.S. film industry, including Oliver Stone and Michael Bay. Ridley's odd humor and explorations of human nature in dark circumstances have made him a leading novelist in the neonoir genre. In addition to his work on television and film projects, Ridley has also written social criticism and political journalism and has appeared as a commentator on radio and television.
Born in October of 1965, John Ridley grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of John, a physician, and Terri Ridley, a schoolteacher. Ridley displayed an early aptitude for writing and comedy and, after finishing high school, moved to New York City to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian. While touring the comedy circuit, Ridley attended New York University but had little idea what degree to pursue. He ended up settling on East Asian languages, a subject that, while not immediately applicable to his career, sparked his intellectual interest.
After completing a bachelor's degree, Ridley spent a year living and traveling in Japan. He returned to New York and began performing in comedy clubs and was considered a promising comedic talent. At the height of his comedy career, Ridley appeared on the Tonight Show with host Johnny Carson, where he performed before the largest audience of his career. When he was not performing, Ridley turned his attention to writing and completed his first novel-length manuscript, Straight Odds.
Though he was enjoying modest success, the hectic pace of stand-up comedy did not entirely appeal to him, and he wanted to make something more of his career. In 1990 Ridley moved to Los Angeles, where he began looking for work as a writer.
Wrote Comedy for Television
When he arrived in Los Angeles, Ridley used the draft of his first novel to secure a literary agent. Though that novel was never published, Ridley's publishing representatives convinced him to continue writing and helped him to find positions writing for television comedy series. Ridley's first job in the television industry was writing for the hit sitcom Martin, which starred Martin Lawrence. It was while working on Martin that Ridley met Gayle Yoshida, a script coordinator for the show and a professional gambler whom he married in 1998. Ridley went on to write for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the John Larroquette Show.
While he was working in the television industry, Ridley also continued writing fiction, and his novel Stray Dogs was published in 1997. The story is set in a rural part of Arizona, where a young man experiencing car trouble finds himself caught between a ruthless husband and his sultry wife, each wanting the stranger's help in killing the other. Ridley's bleak tale of betrayal and desperation won comparisons to such master crime and suspense writers as Dashiell Hammett, Elmore Leonard, and Raymond Chandler.
Ridley released a second novel in the noir genre the following year, Love Is a Racket, which again gained critical praise. Mark Lindquist, reviewing the novel in the New York Times, called the writing "smart and edgy and even moving." The plot follows Jeffty Kittridge, an African-American scriptwriter who partners with Mona, a homeless woman bearing a resemblance to a famous actress, to extort money from a film producer in order to pay off his debts. The novel was criticized for having a plot that defied suspension of disbelief. Lindquist cited the book's shortcomings but added, "Once Mona appears, however, Ridley has us hooked on his game."
Achieved Success as Film Writer, Director
Stray Dogs was optioned for a feature film and directed by Oscar Award-winning director Oliver Stone. The film version, U-Turn, featured an all-star cast including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Jennifer Lopez, but did poorly in theatrical release. The film was so poorly received that Oliver Stone was nominated for a Razzie Award as "worst director of the year." Despite its feeble showing, some believed the film represented the evolution of the noir genre, in which had Ridley had become one of the most promising young talents.
The following year Ridley produced and directed his first original film, Cold Around the Heart, another noir thriller starring David Caruso and Kelly Lynch. The film was shown on the festival circuit and eventually attracted enough attention to warrant a short theatrical release. Ridley won the Jury Prize at the Urbanworld Film Festival as best director for his work on the film.
In 1999 another of Ridley's stories was adapted as a feature film. This time the subject was a drama about three soldiers fighting in the Persian Gulf War, which Ridley titled "Spoils of War." The story served as the basis for the film Three Kings, a moderate box office success that starred George Clooney, Ice Cube, and Mark Wahlberg. During preparations for the film, director David O. Russell altered so much of the story, including changing the lead character, originally an African American, to a white man played by Clooney, that Ridley was only credited with the original story.
That same year Ridley was offered a position as supervising producer on the television series Third Watch, which followed the lives of workers involved in emergency medicine, rescue, and law enforcement. The series was a major success and heightened Ridley's reputation in the industry. He wrote an animated Internet series, Undercover Brother, a comedy spoof of blaxploitation films of the 1970s that appeared on the Web site Urban Entertainment. The series spawned a film of the same name in 2002, which starred comedian Eddie Griffin in the leading role as a black superhero who emerges from a time warp to redeem the image of African-American men in contemporary pop culture. Ridley served as executive producer of the film, which garnered some box office success, largely due to Griffin's rising popularity.
At a Glance …
Born in October of 1965, in Milwaukee, WI; married Gayle Yoshida (a script coordinator), February 14, 1998. Education: New York University, BA, Asian languages.
Career: Novelist and screenwriter, 1990—.
Awards: Jury Prize, Best Director, Urbanworld Film Festival, 1997; Best Original Screenplay, Writers Guild of America, 1999; Excellence Award, National Association of Black Journalists, 2004; Emmy Award, Outstanding Non-news Writer, Los Angeles Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, 2007.
Addresses: Agent—Sylvia Desrochers, The Busby Group, 10437 Ashton Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90024.
Pursued Success in Additional Genres
While his career in Hollywood continued to grow, Ridley wrote two more noir thrillers, Everybody Smokes in Hell in 1999 and A Conversation with the Mann in 2002. The following year Ridley published a science fiction novel, Those Who Walk in Darkness, which was adapted as an animated film featuring the voice of rapper Lil' Kim as the main character. Ridley also continued working in the television industry, including serving as the host of Movie Club, a talk show on the American Movie Classics network, in which Ridley and an alternating group of industry members discussed the week's film releases.
Ridley revisited his interest in fantasy writing with several graphic novels for the Wildstorm division of DC Comics. He wrote a story arc for the comic series The Authority in 2004 and followed with The American Way, a comic series dealing with superheroes set against the cold war politics of the 1960s. In an interview with the Internet magazine UnderGroundOnline, Ridley described one of the characters in the story, a black man who struggles to balance his superhero identity with his place in a world of rapidly changing racial politics. "For black people, for me, it's totally beyond the super powers and all of these science fiction and comic book aspects of it," Ridley said. "What's really required to be heroic? People have all of these expectations in the positive and negative about you. There's so much more to a good comic book than guys in capes lifting cars over their heads."
Always searching for ways to challenge himself as a writer, in 2005 Ridley wrote and produced his own stage play, Ten Thousand Years, which dealt with kamikaze pilots struggling with nationalism and identity in the final days of World War II. The play premiered at El Portal Forum Theatre in North Hollywood and was named a "Critic's Pick" in the Los Angeles Times.
Established Reputation as Political Commentator
Ridley occasionally contributed to local newspapers in Los Angeles and in 2004 assumed a more formal role in journalism when he reported on the presidential election as a commentator for National Public Radio (NPR). He also began writing a blog column, Visible Man, on the NPR Web site. Ridley soon became known for his honest political discussions and was asked to appear on MSNBC and to contribute essays on politics to the Huffington Post. Though generally considered a political liberal, Ridley won the respect of some conservative media commentators for his willingness to stand behind his opinions regardless of where they placed him on the political spectrum.
Ridley's articles on politics, race issues, and the media industry appeared in a number of publications including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe. In 2004 he won the "Excellence Award" from the National Association of Black Journalists. In a 2006 issue of Esquire, Ridley published "The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger," an essay in which he discussed race relations and equal opportunity in American society. "If we as a race could win the centuries-long war against institutionalized racism," Ridley asked, "why is it that so many of us cannot secure the advantage after decades of freedom?" According to Ridley, the answer is that the predominant African-American culture in the United States rejects "actual ascendancy gained by way of intellectual expansion and physical toil" and instead values "the posture of an ‘urban,’ a ‘street,’ a ‘real’ existence, no matter that such a culture threatens to render them extinct." The controversial article sparked a number of responses in other magazines and newspapers, testifying to Ridley's success in transitioning from Hollywood writer to respected political commentator. Ridley won two Los Angeles Emmy Awards for his work as a commentator, including one for his role as a reporter in the public television series California Connected.
Ridley is unique among Hollywood insiders for the sheer breadth of his accomplishments. Unsatisfied with a single role within the industry, he has not only explored, but excelled in each endeavor he has undertaken. The wit that made him a successful comic allowed him to explore the dark humor of noir, and those explorations of the underworld mentality colored his investigations of American politics. In his expanding role in politics and media, he has taken the opportunity to elucidate a unique view of race relations and the state of African-American culture. While he criticizes those who glamorize street life, he also gives a message of hope for the future. In the close of his "Manifesto" he wrote; "This, then, is my directive: Let us achieve with equal disregard for the limitations of racism and the weight of those of us who threaten to drag all of us down with the clinging nature of their eternal victimization. Our preservation is too essential to be stunted by those unwilling to advance. And in my heart I don't believe all blacks cannot achieve in the absence of aid any more than I believe the best way to teach a child to run is by forcing him to spend a lifetime on his knees."
Martin, NBC, 1993-94.
Third Watch, NBC, 1999.
(Creator and story) Platinum, UPN, 2003.
Barbershop, Showtime, 2005.
Contributor to series including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, 1990, The John Larroquette Show, 1993, and Trinity, 1998.
Stray Dogs, Ballantine, 1997.
Love Is a Racket, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Everybody Smokes in Hell, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
A Conversation with the Mann, Warner Books, 2002.
The Drift, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Those Who Walk in Darkness, Delacorte Press, 2003.
What Fire Cannot Burn, Delacorte Press, 2003.
(With Georges Jeanty) The Authority (graphic novel), Wildstorm, 2007.
(With Ben Oliver, et al.) The American Way (graphic novel), DC/Wildstorm, 2007.
(Screenplay; and executive producer) U-Turn, 1997.
(Screenplay; and director) Cold Around the Heart, 1997.
(Original story; and coproducer) Three Kings, 1999.
(Screenplay, with Michael McCullers; and executive producer) Undercover Brother, 2002.
(Coproducer) Bobby, 2006.
(Original story) Street Kings, 2008.
Undercover Brother, Urban Entertainment, 2000.
Ten Thousand Years, 2005.
Esquire, November 30, 2006.
New York Times, October 11, 1998; October 12, 1999.
"John Ridley: NPR Biography," National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10643901 (accessed May 31, 2008).
Rogers, Troy, "John Ridley, The American Way Interview," UnderGroundOnline,http://www.ugo.com/ugo/html/article/?id=16848 (accessed May 31, 2008).
Additional information for this interview was obtained in an updated biography supplement provided by Sylvia Desrochers on May 31, 2008.
—Micah L. Issitt
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