Our writing wisdom this week comes from John Ridley, whose incredible work on projects like 12 Years a Slave, Three Kings and American Crime has inspired many. Read his thoughts on the writer’s responsibility to use the past to make sense of the present.
The past – whether it’s 5 years, 10 years, 30 years, 40 years – it is vibrant, it is alive. Obviously, there are the old saws about: ‘if you don’t learn from the past, you’re going to repeat it,’ but I think more than just learning from the past, it’s really understanding how we arrived as people.
As difficult as circumstances may seem, whether it’s in this country or whether it’s around the world, you look at the arc of us and it’s been phenomenal. You look around this room and you see so many different kinds of people. Not a moment ago, we couldn’t come together and talk like this, share like this. That, in and of itself, is phenomenal.
So I think it’s one thing to say that history, much like Baskervilles, and obviously, that was fiction, but it’s about making things relevant, so it’s not just Old England and it’s not just talking about swamps and bogs and things like that, but it’s about feeling something in the moment. It’s about fear, being thrilled, and those are the things that are in history that excite us. It’s those moments, and entertainment; it’s an empathy machine.
We’re not here to just make pronouncements on things or to dictate… It’s not about trying to dictate to the individual, “Here’s how you should feel and here’s how you should think, and here’s my big idea about the past.” It’s about, “Can you feel something? Can you put yourself in a place?” And these films that you see about so many different subject matters – whether they’re of great importance or whether they’re small delicate pieces that they just move you so that you forget you’re in a room watching TV, you forget you’re in a theater, you forget the people around you, and you just… whatever, your gut clenches, your heart opens, or the tears flow – that’s what we’re here to do. So we can take the past and make it present… If we can take emotion that seems like it’s coming from another country or another side of the world and make people, in their space, feel that same thing, that’s what I think we’re here to do.