Barbershop Guys Dig Into Hollywood Beef

Screenwriter John Ridley won an Oscar for 12 Years A Slave, but he's being criticized for an old essay about black people. The barbershop guys give their own speeches on the topic.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer Jimi Izrael. We caught up with him in Culver City, California this week.

JIMI IZRAEL: Yep.

MARTIN: Also with us - that's right, from NPR West, film writer, actor and producer, Rick Najera. In Pittsburgh, Lenny McAllister's back with us. He's contributor to 4802: Final Friday on WQED. He's also a Republican strategist. And here in Washington D.C., Corey Dade, contributing editor for The Root. Take it away, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. I'm out here, Hollywood swinging, but fellas, the rest of you, what's up? Welcome to the shop. How we doing?

RICK NAJERA: It's great to be here.

COREY DADE: What's going on, Jimi?

LENNY MCALLISTER: What's up, big time?

IZRAEL: Hey, man. You know how I do it, man. But, you know, check this out. You know, some of us actually know John Ridley 'cause - hello, he's been in the shop before. You might want to go onto NPR.org and pick that out. But now he's getting his due for his work in "12 Years a Slave." He's a monster writer. Here he is accepting the Oscar for that adapted screenplay. Kick it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACADEMY AWARDS)

JOHN RIDLEY: All the praise goes to Solomon Northup, those are his words, that is his life. All the thanks goes to the entire crew. The entire cast.

IZRAEL: My man, the Academy likes his work, obviously. But Ridley, you know, not for nothing over the years, but just recently, he's come under the fire again for his personal take on who calls what modern-day N-words. Michel, really?

MARTIN: Well, that was an elegant way around the issue, but here's the issue - that he wrote, in 2006, an Esquire article titled "The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American (exploitive)." And you'll have to fill in the blanks to know which word I'm substituting. We are making the choice not to use that word because that conforms to our standards. I don't feel it - I think everybody knows what we're talking about.

Ridley, himself used the word repeatedly in the essay. And - so just to let people know, that's what we're going to talk about and if they find this uncomfortable, I understand, but you have to know that that's what we're talking about. So here's a little bit of what he wrote. Let me tell you something about N-words, the oppressed minority within our minority - always down, always out, always complaining that they can't catch a break. Notoriously poor about doing for themselves. Constantly in need of a leader, but unable to follow in any direction that's navigated by hard work, self-reliance. And though they spliff and drink and procreate their way onto welfare doles and WIC lines, N-words will tell you their state of being is no fault of their own. He went - he goes on. And then he says...

DADE: And on, and on, and on.

MARTIN: ...It's time for ascended blacks to wish N-words good luck. Just as whites may be concerned with the good of all citizens but don't travel their days worrying specifically about the well-being of hillbillies from Appalachia, we need to send N-words on their way.

IZRAEL: Oy vey. Michel, thank you.

MARTIN: He went on. Yeah

IZRAEL: I wonder where all the critics were seven years ago.

MARTIN: Well, no, they were there. No, they were there. There was a very robust response then. But, you know, there's a difference between a, you know, a long essay in Esquire by a writer who's also an essayist, you know, for NPR and so forth, and somebody who's an Oscar-winner. So yes, this essay has resurfaced.

IZRAEL: Well, first of all, let's go in on Esquire. Shame on Esquire for rarely giving black writers any space but only - but to just talk about their blackness. Shame, shame, shame on you for that. But yo, John Ridley, guess what? He's just a Cosby conservative. He's (inaudible) and I'm OK with that. That's his right. If he believes he's better than other black people, like, he's not alone. I mean, there are a lot of black people that feel like that and he's able to catch a lot of ink, like in magazines, like in Esquire because it's easy for us to get in magazines when we criticize each other, when we bring these interracial community conversations out into the zeitgeist. So, I mean, kudos for catching that ink. And I'm OK with whatever opinion he's got. So, so what? I mean, but - I mean, he's - I mean, he didn't say...

MARTIN: OK.

IZRAEL: ...Anything new and this is always been how he's felt. And this conversation is happening right now, cuts the pearls in barbershops all across America. So, you know, on to the next. Corey Dade, I know you have a lot to say about this, so man, go ahead.

MARTIN: You mean you also have a lot to say about this.

(LAUGHTER)

DADE: Man, you know, it amazes me that he's asking the black talented ones of us to turn our backs on those who are less talented or less successful. No one in any other group is being required or asked to do that. Whites aren't told, turn your back on other white people who are less successful than you. And quite frankly, my success or my ascendance, as he calls it, doesn't depend on another black person being descended or not actually achieving.

So bump that, I can do both. I can care and help the people who are less fortunate and still achieve. One doesn't hurt the other. But I think it's interesting that Esquire decided to put this out this week. That's what's so interesting. It's sort of this mercenary sort of effort to build page views on their website 'cause they know, here's an Oscar winner who wrote about black people in a screenplay and everyone loves him. And now we can show his true colors. To me, at the end of the day, what it just shows is a writer can really write beautifully about a topic and park his personal views.

NAJERA: Yeah, I mean, I think he wrote really beautifully.

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Rick.

NAJERA: I was impressed by his writing ability.

DADE: He's still a prick though.

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK.

IZRAEL: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

NAJERA: Wow.

MARTIN: We'll take that off the list of things - OK, go ahead. Rick, go ahead.

NAJERA: I'm an ascended Latino so I can look back...

MARTIN: Ascend, man.

NAJERA: ...I'm an ascended Latino. And the way I look at it is I don't forget the Latinos that are being deported - the 2 million being deported and all the Latinos that are poor and all the Latinos that have less education. Part of leadership is caring about all your people.

DADE: That's right.

NAJERA: You know, and that's what he's not doing. He's not really showing black leadership by not caring about all the black people. And I have to tell you, those so-called N-words - and I'm not comfortable with the word unless I'm hanging out Paula Dean in the Deep South...

(LAUGHTER)

DADE: Wow.

NAJERA: ...But I will tell you one thing, with this guy, I look at that and I go, you have failed bringing up your people because those so-called N-word people also become people that a generation later, are the John Ridley's and everyone else.

IZRAEL: That's right.

NAJERA: That's one way to look at it because I was a kid growing up with five kids in one bedroom at one time and now I'm not. It is called cultural evolution, and that's what he's not putting in as a factor in this.

IZRAEL: Mr. McAllister.

MCALLISTER: It - there are - you know, Rick's on point, and it's ironic that he would win an Oscar for writing a screenplay regarding the ascendancy from slavery, and one guy's injustice in his personal life and how he was able to work through that. That is, in many ways, the epitome of what many people in black America need to do. And to me, I see this as akin to being the guy that holds the neck of a struggling person trying not to drown underneath the water and saying, how come you don't know how to swim? The person continues to kick and flail and is doing the best they can, but they don't have the power to get that off of them.

And then the person that's supposed to be helping them is part of those holding that head underneath the water saying, gasp for air, how come you can't swim? These things anger me. When I see it politically on the Republican side, the conservative side, it angers me. It angers me when I see it within the African-American community. We are not at a place in time to continue to have that type of talk. Elevate people. This was a moment where he should have been able to take a platform and elevate those instead. Because of these past views, nobody's quite being elevated. And even the team that he was on was split in regards to him winning this dag-on Oscar. It's unfortunate.

DADE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Can I ask Rick about that for a minute, though?

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: You've heard now that it has surfaced about this whole question about this feud between him and the producer, director, Steve McQueen and - which they kind of successfully, you know, concealed to this point. And I'm just - apparently this is over writing credit. That Steve McQueen wanted writing credit and John Ridley just felt he shouldn't have it. I mean, I don't know how all that works...

NAJERA: First of all...

MARTIN: ...In Hollywood, but, you know, is that a common thing for there to be this kind of beef? I mean - what people were looking - it was the body language Oscar night, and it just seemed that there was a lot of tension there.

NAJERA: Well, the common beef is that - with the Writers Guild and writers. They look at it - a director may say, a film by the director's name. And that's kind of the problem because a film is by writers and that's where it starts.

IZRAEL: Well?

NAJERA: And there's two different ways to look at it. A writer creates the base of the soup base - and someone comes in - a producer says add carrots and another producer comes in and says this. So people are constantly adding into this soup, but the original idea or the adaptation comes from the writer. And that has to be protected because a lot of times, writers are pushed off the screenplay whenever they can be. It's happened - I've had it happen to me. I've had people push me off or had to fight for my credit and things like - that's why the Writers Guild has an arbitration committee that they arbitrate. But I'll tell you one thing - is that was the writer is the first one who starts this whole process, and it's a lonely process. In his case, I think it would start off on a spec.

MARTIN: It did.

IZRAEL: Right, right, I mean, there was - so there was not even any money guaranteed.

MARTIN: We'll just say if it wasn't money guaranteed, that he had to deliver the product before he would be paid for it.

IZRAEL: And not for nothing, Rick. Remind people that it's not just the name on a piece of paper that says, you know - I mean that - if you share credit with somebody, that equates to a check.

NAJERA: That's right. Oh yeah, a check's a check.

MARTIN: But let me just ask though - totally understand that point - but does this change any way our thinking about this film, or do you - I mean, I know this wasn't your pick for best Oscar - we don't need to re-plow that ground...

NAJERA: Yeah, I was destroyed.

MARTIN: ...But, Rick, does it change how we feel about all this and do we care? Do we care?

NAJERA: I think what it is it's typical Hollywood. Let's find the rumor, the scandal, let's bring this up. And they were right to try to keep this beef under wraps 'cause to tell you the truth, it takes away from the fact that the man wrote and adapted a great screenplay and a director wrote - directed a great film. That's what happens and that's why these things are secondary. And, you know, it's kind of like the invidia culture within the Latino world.

Sometimes we get very envious of each other because we think there's only one pie. And I always say make more pies. And same thing happens in the black culture as well. You've got two guys that should be so much celebrating their success, and now they're fighting over crumbs. And it makes their whole film look in a bad light, and that's what's ridiculous about it.

MARTIN: Can I ask - just very briefly before we're going to move on though - does this - revisiting this essay change your feelings about the accomplishment of the film or about how you feel about the film? Corey?

NAJERA: No, not at all.

DADE: Not at all.

MARTIN: Rick, no?

NAJERA: Not at all. Yeah, not at all. I mean, I'm judging him as a man that is more of a classist. I mean, I look at it as more of a class issue. It's like me looking and saying I don't like cholos. Oh these darn cholos. And I think the best one who said it was Chris Rock when he did in his comedy special - talked about it. And I think people like that, that's the way you do it in the comedy. For the Esquire, a very white magazine to bring this up, it just gives fuel to the other side who actually agrees with him for all the wrong reasons.

IZRAEL: That's right.

MARTIN: OK. You're listening - we're having our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, journalist Corey Dade, Republican strategist and talk show host Lenny McAllister and film and television writer and producer Rick Najera. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: So moving on from Hollywood to the courtroom. New Jersey teen, Rachel Canning, for some reason is suing her parents for child support. She's 18, but get this, she wants financial support to cover her living costs, private high school tuition and access to her college fund. Oy, Michel, really?

MARTIN: Well, you know, I just - honestly, we talked about this with a group of women commentators the other day and I just was curious to see if you all had a different take on it. A judge ruled Tuesday that her parents do not have to cover current expenses, but they scheduled another hearing in April. And as, you know, with most family feuds, this is complicated. Let's stipulate, we probably don't know the whole story. But Rachel says her parents abandoned her when they threw her out of the house after she experienced years of verbal abuse. Her parents say she left because she didn't like their rules, including a curfew and so forth. And I'm just interested in your perspective on this, so...

DADE: Well, you know, part of this is the parents asked her to stop dating a bad boy. And, you know, anytime you ask your daughter or demand that your daughter stop dating a boy, you know, that never ends well - but it has sort of all the markings of a big TV drama. But what I think is interesting here is that, you know, the - her legal costs are being paid for by her best friend's father. Now, that's who she's staying with right now.

And usually adults do not want to inject themselves into other people's family business. So I wonder if there's stuff that he knows that makes him willing to support her effort. But to me it sounds like, you know, she wants it both ways - she wants to be an adult, but she wants that support. She may not be ready for adulthood if that's the way she feels.

MCALLISTER: Yeah, and as a dad, I'm just going to sit there and say there are also adults that will get involved in a situation and say, this is almost like a foster child. And if they can get $650 a week in child support - I think that's the number that she was asking for - I get a slice of that, I can put this away, I can pay for our home bills, everything else. I don't want to assume that this family friend is being altruistic. I'm looking at is as this young lady, from what I've read, was on the honor roll, in a good school, was about to go to college. She's now throwing a hissy fit and she apparently left the house two weeks or so before she turned 18 years old...

NAJERA: That's right.

MCALLISTER: ...In large part because of a curfew, and they didn't want her to continue dating a guy that was a bad influence on her. That's reasonable with parents. Those are the type of parents in 20 years, you hug and say thank you for not allowing me to blow up my life. And now she wants to have a hissy fit and run to the courts. You can only do this in 2014 because 20 years ago, she'd have just been grounded for twice as long as the period of time that she initially was.

And every other parent around her would have been like, listen to your mom and dad, they love you, rather than this being played out in the newspapers and in social media. It's ridiculous. And, you know, as a parent, you want to make sure that the courts support your right as a parent to bring up your child as long as you're not breaking criminal laws. And I don't see or hear anybody saying that these two parents broke any criminal laws.

NAJERA: I'm worried about my kids suing me for not taking my son to the "Transformer" movie.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: I know, it's just a matter of time before my 15-year-old starts suing me for not buying her another pair of jeggings or some Hello Kitty mess. You know what I mean? It's just a matter of time. This just opens up a door I'm not comfortable with.

DADE: Hope my daughter's not listening. That's all I can say.

MARTIN: Well, can I throw out another idea though. Can I just throw out another idea?

IZRAEL: Sure.

MARTIN: You know, the fact is that we have been at a time when a lot of people didn't have standing to make their case publicly, OK. I mean, first it was that black people didn't have access to the courts or they did under very limited circumstances. Then women didn't have access to the courts unless they were validated by a man. And as, you know, upsetting as the idea may sound is that - sort of an evolution of the idea that maybe children have fundamental human rights, that they have a right to air.

DADE: They are not adults.

NAJERA: She's 18. She's not a child.

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Rick. Tell them what you meant.

MARTIN: How many people do we prosecute as adults who are children?

MCALLISTER: That's correct.

NAJERA: But that doesn't make that right.

MARTIN: But let me finish - but let me finish my point. But no matter how brilliant a minor is, we don't let a minor sit on a jury, right? But yet we prosecute minors as adults when we've decided that their behavior is heinous. And so I'm just wondering whether - whether you like the facts of this or not - whether this is an - whether it's worth considering her point of view?

DADE: I think I am considering her point of view...

MARTIN: Yeah.

DADE: ...But if you look at what's been filed in court, I'm not seeing abuse. I'm not seeing sort of the factors that would suggest that she has grounds to get support based on abuse. Now, I think she has grounds to get support - financial support simply because she is their daughter and they want her to go to school. They want her to go to college. So, yes, they should be actually supporting that effort financially. I believe that in general. Now should it be litigated in a courtroom? To me, there has to be some kind of abuse or neglect that justifies that. And I don't see it.

MARTIN: Well, all right.

NAJERA: She's 18. My dad would have said join the Army.

IZRAEL: Nice. Your dad's a peach.

MCALLISTER: That's the thing, if you're...

NAJERA: Or work for the post office.

MCALLISTER: ...You know, if you're going to be adult enough to leave the house, then you have to be adult enough to take on the other responsibilities. You know, and what you brought up, Michel, I think in many regards, the courts are wrong. You have a 15-year-old that commits a heinous act, they're still 15 years old and incapable of making true adult decisions and being rational like a true, full-fledged adult. So I think actually, the court's going in the wrong direction and we do not want to continue to repeat that mistake.

MARTIN: OK, we'll leave it there for now 'cause we are adults and we always make good decisions, right?

MCALLISTER: Yes.

MARTIN: Jimi Izrael's a writer. You can find his blog at JimiIzrael.com. Corey Dade is a contributing editor for The Root. Lenny McAllister is a Republican strategist and contributor to 4802: Final Friday on WQED in Pittsburgh. Rick Najera is a film and television writer, a producer and the author of "Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood." Thank you all so much.

DADE: Yes sir.

MCALLISTER: God bless.

NAJERA: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yep, yep.

MARTIN: Remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop Buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes Store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on Monday.

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