John Ridley is now a household name, thanks to his Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar win for 12 Years a Slave. But audiences also know the 48-year-old for his other big (Undercover Brother, Three Kings, U Turn) and small (Third Watch, Barbershop, The Wanda Sykes Show) screen work.
The Wisconsin native is the writer, director and executive producer of his latest film, Jimi: All Is by My Side, which chronicles a specific chapter of Jimi Hendrix's life. Here, Ridley talks about the rock icon, explains why André Benjamin was cast in the lead role and describes his career since bringing home Academy gold.
Many biopics like Get on Up (James Brown) and Ray (Ray Charles) contained decades of an artist’s life in one film. In tackling the story of Jimi Hendrix, why didn’t you take that approach?
Well, it's two things. Historically a lot of biopics try to get all of a person’s life in a two-hour running time. Sometimes a greatest hits of a person’s life doesn’t always play as well because an audience’s expectation runs higher and deeper. Look at films like 42 about Jackie Robinson; it was just about his rookie year. Or Lincoln, which focused on the man through the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. I think there is the sense that you can sometimes find out more about an individual if you focus on a finite and seminal moment in their lives as opposed to just superficial moments.
So why did you concentrate specifically on the year that could be described as the eve of Hendrix’s superstardom?
I considered myself to be a Jimi Hendrix fan, but as I learned more about this particular moment in his life — his time in London and these key relationships — there were so many things that I didn’t know. All these parts of his life seemed important to who he was and the artist he became. I felt if I could translate some of these things onto the page and onto the screen, audiences would feel the same way. It’s a story that is relevant because it was informative as opposed to a recycling of things that people were already familiar with.
In movies, biographies and in folklore Jimi Hendrix is usually portrayed as this confident rock god, but your film exposes his vulnerable and violent side. Did you have any qualms about showing those aspects of his personality?
Those stories are out there. They are apart of the lure anybody can look them up and find them. We did a great deal of research in terms of reporting it. But at the same time I had fewer qualms about [exposing that side of Jimi or any other artist] than just recycling ideas that they are gods who somehow float above us. They’ve told the story where it’s the legend version; it’s been done about Jimi and other individuals. Audiences come to those stories and kind of shrug at them because it’s the sanitized version of someone’s life as opposed to something that’s a more rich and complete. A lot of the individuals that we respect, admire and revere are not perfect people. We have to get to the point where we compartmentalize that or deal with it as it lays.
Let’s talk about casting André Benjamin (Andre 3000) in the title role. He obviously looks like Jimi Hendrix, but as someone who researched Hendrix, what else did they share in common?
André is someone who has an amazing physical resemblance to Jimi Hendrix. Initially, I didn’t know him, we had a mutual friend who got us together. But when I sat down with André in a short time this casting became a no-brainer. He is an amazingly talented individual and he’s someone who has an amazing amount of depth to him in terms of his music, artistry and in terms of curiosity about the world. André’s also an amazingly humble individual. He’s quiet, he’s thoughtful, and there are many qualities he has which are very close to Jimi’s qualities.
After writing novels, plays and screenplays for over two decades, how did winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave change your career?
I have been fortunate to build a career over time. So as wonderful as that moment was, it wasn’t a lightening bolt for my career. More than anything else, winning the Oscar made me deeply appreciative of the craft. It made me deeply appreciative of so many people I met during the course of the Oscar season, all different kinds of artists in different areas of film making. It made me appreciate the process of storytelling and what it really means to have the opportunity to service a story that is greater than me. In a few months from now someone else will be getting the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award. But people will still know Solomon Northup, his story, and that’s important. So if there’s one thing that came out of winning the award for me it’s being passionate about a story and knowing you put everything into it. It’s a story hopefully, that will be unforgettable. Solomon deserves that.
Jimi: All Is by My Side arrives in theaters in limited release September 26, 2014.
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