'12 Years a Slave' screenwriter John Ridley talks supposed beef with Steve McQueen
Since his Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, John Ridley has been busy enough to tune out superfluous drama. He’s been in Austin since shooting the pilot American Crime for ABC, and promoting the U.S. premiere of the Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is By My Side at SXSW. But he knows that failing to thank 12 Years director Steve McQueen in his acceptance speech, and the seemingly chilly body language between the two of them on the big night, sparked countless stories of behind-the-scenes beef.
“I do regret it,” says Ridley of his omission. “But just 24 hours earlier at the Spirit Awards I sincerely went on and on about Steve and my work with him. You know, the guy changed my life. At the Oscars you have 30 seconds to talk and it’s like the oxygen drops out of the room. I know [when I heard my name called] I hugged my wife twice, I know David O. Russell, again this person people think I have beef with, was the first guy to hug me, I know Meryl Streep reached out and touched my arm.”
Ridley’s real regret of the night is a more personal one. He took great pains in his brief and eloquent minute on stage to thank a script coordinator named Gayle for her early support of his work (“she was gracious enough to read everything I wrote and when she thought it was ready she’d put smiley faces at the end and I knew that it was job done,” he said). “That was my wife you know,” he says today. (Ridley and his wife Gayle met over 20 years ago working on the set of Martin Lawrence’s sitcom Martin.) “I don’t think most people got that. Wow, I screwed up. Well, I know she got it. I didn’t want to be the guy when you’re getting played off by the music ‘Oh and my wife and I love her.’ I wanted to start there and thank someone who believed in me from the beginning. I wanted the bulk of that 30 seconds to go to my wife and whatever I had remaining was going to Solomon Northup who deserves it.”
Explaining the impulse to trump up tension between himself and McQueen, Ridley blames media’s dependence on easy narratives. “I will say about 12 Years , from the jump, man, from the moment somebody said ‘Stop the year, this is the Best Picture’ the story became ‘It’s torture porn. Why are Brits doing this? This movie is only geared at liberal whites.’ In the end, I said to somebody else ‘At the very least we weren’t Zero Dark Thirty. Nobody set up a congressional investigation. This year it’s who hugged and kissed who and who didn’t.”