John Ridley is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, director, novelist, playwright, and showrunner whose credits include 12 Years A Slave, Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, American Crime, and Jimi: All is By My Side. His recent projects include Five Days at Memorial, a limited series for Apple TV+ chronicling the first five days in a New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina; the New Group’s Off-Broadway stage musical Black No More, which opened in February 2022; and DC Power: A Celebration, which aims to amplify Black voices across the DC Universe. In September, Ridley released DC’s GCPD: The Blue Wall – The Collected Edition, and his new comic through IDW Publishing, The Ministry of Compliance, will be published on November 15. Ridley has wrapped his latest film, Netflix’s Shirley, which he wrote and directed and features Regina King as America’s first Black Congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm. In the fall of 2018, Ridley opened NO Studios, a space for the arts and community, in his hometown of Milwaukee.
Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the forthcoming publication of the first volume of John Ridley’s new comic book series, The Ministry of Compliance, the Oscar-winning filmmaker and writer shared some of the things that he loves most in life. — N.D.
I’m from the Midwest and, to me, fall has always been a really special time of year. A lot of people I really care about have birthdays in the fall. I love the change of seasons; people are still able to get outdoors, but also starting to enjoy being cozy indoors. In the fall, there’s a sober-mindedness as people get back to work and to school, as young people go off to college for the first time. It’s the beginning of football season, and my wife and I usually take a pilgrimage out to New York during the fall to see a game. There’s always really good specialty drinks, like hot cider or something with caramel in it.
One of the things I really love about fall is I get to go to New York Comic-Con, which I’ve been doing for a while. Obviously, people couldn’t go during the pandemic, but I’ve really appreciated the things that have been coming back over these past few years as we’ve returned to a state of normalcy. I really like going to New York Comic-Con and connecting with people who enjoy creativity; the fan base there is the best, and they’re passionate and they love what they love. When you’re around like-minded people, you feed off their energy and you meet them where they live. This year, I got to meet the artist Stefano Raffaele, who I’m working with on my new comic, The Ministry of Compliance, and who I worked with on GCPD: The Blue Wall for DC. He lives in Italy and I don’t know I would have had the opportunity to meet him if he weren’t coming out to do interviews with me at the Con. It was really nice.
Fall is such an enjoyable time, and I really look forward to it every year. I’ve been very lucky that a lot of projects I’ve been involved with have come out in the fall, both books and films, so I feel very connected to this season, creatively, emotionally, spiritually. It’s just my favorite time of year.
I’ve recently had a couple of trips to Vietnam, and it’s such a fascinating place to be. I’ve been very fortunate to travel the world both for work and for leisure, and Vietnam is one of the places I keep wanting to go back to. When you get out into the country and away from the cities, it’s just pristine land, with mountains and lush, beautiful jungles. The people I met were wonderful, and because it is a very temperate climate, people are outdoors almost every night, enjoying each other’s company and eating food that is fresh and delicious. I love food with a little spice and a texture that bites back a little bit, and you get a lot of that in Vietnam. I’ve not got the most adventurous palate in the world, but I had frog legs and shrimp paste for the first time there. I don’t know if I’m quite a foodie, but I like street food and having gentle interactions with people over food and conversation. I like to get their perspectives and see how they view us – the good and the bad of what America is all about, and where we align, where we differ. I’m particularly interested in where we differ. It’s really interesting to be in a place where you can see life and society in different ways. When I was growing up, I only ever heard about Vietnam in terms of the war. Now, fortunately, the U.S. has decent relations with Vietnam and although our politics are still different, as people, we have amazing similarities.
My recent trip to Vietnam reminded me how important it is to explore, whether it’s going halfway across the world or just going across town. I love to see things for myself, to see the good, to see the not so good, to really get out there and get off the beaten path. When I was in Hanoi and Mai Châu, a village in the middle of nowhere, I had that feeling, “Wow, this is a really interesting place. I need to discover more.”
I’m doing a lot of photography right now. Although technically I work in a job where I’m taking 24 pictures a second and I’ve been doing it for decades, I’ve never actually been a photographer.
My dad was a very gifted amateur photographer. He took some really amazing pictures, including a grayscale picture of my sister that placed third for a Kodak award, so I’ve always appreciated photography. However, I never had the technical skills, either in taking the picture or, back in the day, developing pictures and working with the chemicals. But now with Photoshop, we’ve crossed a certain meridian because I can take pictures – it’s something anybody can do. So now I can do this and I love taking pictures, I love pushing myself to get shots and creating images that have meaning to me.
I don’t share my photography with anybody, though. Not even my family. Photography has become a thing which is for me and about me, but that would end if I showed my photos to anybody. So my thing now is to go out, push myself to get pictures, find photographers I admire, learn more about photography, and obsess over it. I put as much work into these pictures no one is ever going to see as almost any photographer who really cares about their work. And it’s so enjoyable. I mean, it’s a selfish pleasure, but art always has to be the most self-indulgent thing you do.
I love photographers like Gordon Parks, Fan Ho and Saul Leiter, and when I look at their pictures, it humbles me. It reminds me why I wanted to do this and what really good work looks like. I remember taking a photography class in high school, and even then thinking, “Oh, this is interesting.” One thing I really regret is not taking pictures of New York when I was there as a college student. They would be so valuable in an emotional sense, in capturing my version of New York. I would have shared those pictures with my kids, because they’re curious about what New York was like back then. It’s a very different place now.
If I won the Powerball, all I would do is just travel and shoot pictures. I’d still not show my pictures to anyone, but being out shooting is just the purest pleasure for me. I have a bunch of different cameras now, and I have a camera with me wherever I go. That’s just my thing right now.