Interview: John Ridley talks ‘The Other History of the DC Universe’ and ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’

Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley has had an extremely successful career in several different areas of the entertainment industry. Beginning as a stand-up comedian and appearing on such seminal talk shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman, Ridley eventually went on to write for groundbreaking TV series like Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and American Crime, which he created and directed. He is also a published author, having written the novels ‘Stray Dogs’ and ‘Spoils of War,’ which were eventually adapted into the films U-Turn and The Three Kings, respectively, as well as the graphic novels, ‘The American Way’ and ‘The Authority: Human on the Inside’ for DC Comics’ Wildstorm imprint. But as a screenwriter, he is probably best known for penning such films as Undercover Brother, Red Tails, Ben-Hur, and 12 Years a Slave, for which he was awarded Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. 

Now, Ridley is returning to DC Comics to write a new five-issue bimonthly mini-series entitled, ‘The Other History of the DC Universe,’ which will be released on the comic book company’s new DC Black Label on November 24th and feature artwork by Giuseppe Camuncoli (‘Hellblazer’) and Andrea Cucchi. Each issue will be narrated by a different hero including Black Lightning (Jefferson Pierce), Herald & Bumblebee (Mal Duncan & Karen Beecher), Katana (Tatsu Yamashiro), The Question (Rene Montoya), and Thunder (Anissa Pierce), and will reexamine iconic moments in DC history from the point of view of superheroes representing traditionally disenfranchised groups. 

We Live Entertainment recently had the chance to attend a virtual roundtable and speak with author, screenwriter, director, and producer John Ridley about his new DC series, ‘The Other History of the DC Universe,’ as well as his memories of working on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which just launched a 30th-anniversary reunion special on HBO Max. 

We began the conversation by asking Ridley to talk about the origins of this project and what his experience has been like working with DC Comics on the new mini-series. “I had written a long time ago a series called ‘The American Way.’ About ten years later, I went back to DC and said, I have this series I really love. You probably won’t think much of it, but I would love to go find a place to do it,” he explained. “DC was like, ‘Are you kidding? Not only can you do that, but we’ll give you a blind deal for another series.’ I said, by the way, this is going to be some tough stuff, I’m not going to demonize any of the other characters, but I’m going to treat people like real people. It was a very nerve-racking pitch. But from the beginning they were like, ‘We love it. We want to do it.’ DC as a company, although they are going through some very difficult changes, for me one thing that has never wavered is their support for this series. It never wrapped it up. It was never cut the page count. It was never we’re not that interested. They have been supportive every step of the way. They have delivered on their promise to me, and I hope we deliver for the audience.”

The first issue focuses on Jefferson Pierce, otherwise known as Black Lightning, and we asked Ridley, who is a self-proclaimed lifelong comic book reader, what impact the popular character had on him as a kid. “I remember the first time I saw Black Lightning as a hero,” he said. “When that comic came out, I went to the comic shop. This was the mid-’70s, and I was young, but I had a pull bag and I knew how it worked. I didn’t want to go to the stands, I wanted them to have my bag ready to go. I remember getting that bag like it was yesterday. I remember spilling the bag out and going through them and seeing Black Lightning and seeing a hero that looked like me. He was a teacher like my mother was. That was really impactful for me.”

We followed up by asking the writer what other iconic DC characters fans can expect in the new series and why he chose them for the book. “There were many characters that I wanted to try to include,” Ridley explained. “For example, in the first issue, I wanted to use Mari McCabe, Vixen. I didn’t really see her having her own story, but there was no way that you could not have Vixen in this series. A lot of people have been like, ‘How can you not have John Stewart (Green Lantern)?’ John Stewart was always going to be part of it, but Jefferson’s relation to John and their reconciliation, I wanted it to be a very human event. With Mal and Karen, it was very important to have a young committed couple of color, for me. With Tatsu Yamashiro, I remember in the ‘80s when America was at its height of anti-Japanese xenophobia. So, what is it like for a Japanese national to come to America in the ‘80s? On one hand, there are people that look at her as a hero when she is in costume, and there are other people that look at her as a menace when she is just walking around.”

“Rene Montoya had to be in it,” Ridley continued. “We’re talking about a character that started as a minor character on Batman: The Animated Series and is now one of the most durable characters in the DC Universe. She even played the Question at one point, who is my all-time favorite character. She was going to be in it always, but also, she is Latinx and a police officer. This series started before our current reckoning on race and policing, but to tell a story from a police officer’s view, who is Latinx, who is closeted, who believes in law and order but is also commenting on things like the LA uprising and what that means to her as a police officer. Then Anissa Pierce appears, and I thought it was just really important to bookend the series with father and daughter. So, it was not just picking characters from column A and column B, but characters that I felt a connection to because I felt like I had seen them grow up over a certain space and time. They had been part of my life, and I wanted to be honorific with the work that creators had done in the past to arrive in this space.”

In the new series, Ridley takes specific moments from the almost ninety-year history of DC Comics and gives them a new context, so we asked him how he decided which previous iconic DC stories he wanted to revisit. “So, in going through all the DC history, I didn’t want to do ‘The Made-Up History of the DC Universe,’” he explained. “I didn’t want to go through it and say, I don’t care about what came before, this is John Ridley’s version of it. I wanted to have a reaction where fans would look at moments and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember that.’  But we wanted to give it some different context. It wasn’t about saying, the past doesn’t equal the moment that we live in, it was saying, we’re here for a reason. We’re here because we’re fans. And here is Black Lightning giving a version of that history saying, ‘Yeah, I remember that moment too,’ but it maybe a little different than some individual readers would have contextualized it. What is interesting about the series for me, is that we also revisit moments from other characters who have had a shared moment, and they may remember it completely different than Jefferson Pierce did.  Or feel differently about it or feel different about Jeff Pierce. So, for me more than anything, it was trying to treat these stories as an oral history and get that reaction from the fans.”

Fans of DC Comics will also notice that the timeline of the new mini-series lines up with the timeline of when the characters first appeared in comics. For example, the book depicts Jefferson Pierce first becoming Black Lightning in 1977, which is also the year that issue #1 of ‘Black Lightning’ was published. So, we asked Ridley about that concept and how he came up with the idea. “It was really important to me because I did think it added to the reality to say that Jefferson Pierce is only going to live a certain amount of time,” he said. “When the story ends, where he would be now, he’d be roughly my age. So, the stories are essentially from 1977 to 1990-something. Technically it is a little earlier because he is in the Olympics in 1972, but if he was a decathlete, he would have been in the 72’ games. He would have been around the Munich massacre. What does that mean for him as a person? What does it mean for a guy that wanted to be better because he lost his father? So, I wanted to treat it in true timelines. Again, Tatsu for example, coming around in the ‘80s and what would that mean for a Japanese national? What would it mean for Rene to be a cop in the ‘90s? So yes, it starts in the ‘70s and the last series ends in the early 2000s. But we treat it as a timeline and it was important to me because it helps make these characters and their stories as real as possible.”

Finally, with the recent premiere of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion special on HBO Max, we asked Ridley to talk about his experience writing for that show, and the long-lasting legacy of the series. “That was monumental. I don’t know if you can imagine what it was like being a person of color in that time period but there was never enough representation out there as far as I’m concerned,” he explained. “But it was a big hit show back when there were only four networks. I remember watching it with my family and remember calling my parents and saying, I got a job on the Fresh Prince. It was probably the first time that they thought that I would actually feed myself going forward because it was something that they recognized. It was on NBC. It was real work. You know, I cannot say enough things about how nice that cast was.  Will Smith is that nice. Alfonso (Ribeiro) is that nice. Karen Parsons is that nice. I’ve seen them in the years past and they would always come up and say nice things or compliment me on my work. It’s great that whatever show you like, there is room for these reunion shows. It’s great to see it happen. I have not seen it, but I heard there is some really frank talk on the show, which I think is really cool. But I cannot say enough about what that series meant to me. That was the second show I worked on, I worked on Martin first, but it was NBC. A young black writer collecting a paycheck from NBC in primetime! I cannot say enough about that experience, it was terrific.”

Written by
A graduate of Emerson College, Jami Philbrick has worked in the entertainment industry for over 20 years, and most recently was a Senior Staff Reporter and Video Producer for Mtime, China's largest entertainment website. Before that, Philbrick was the Managing Editor of Relativity Media's iamROGUE.com for 4 years and has written for a variety of magazines and online publications including Wizard Magazine, Nerdist.com, and Collider.com. Philbrick has also been a contributor on Fox News, News 12 Westchester, AMC Movie Talk, and the PBS movie review series, Just Seen It. Philbrick was the 2019 recipient of the International Media Award at the 56th annual ICG Publicists Awards, and has interviewed such impressive talent as Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Bill Murray, Al Pacino, Oprah Winfrey, Bruce Willis, Mark Hamill, Spike Lee, Frances Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Stan Lee, and Kermit the Frog.

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