The USC Scripter Awards are one of my favorite events of the film awards season. Yes, they are unique in that they recognize the authors of both screenplays and source material, and can often present a unique slate of honorees, but it’s also a lovely personal excursion when I can make it, as the echoes of my days toiling away on various papers and thesis efforts in the halls of the Doheny Library make it an annual homecoming for me.
This year’s 26th annual ceremony made for a wonderful evening as not only was the master himself, “Chinatown” screenwriter Robert Towne, in the house to receive the Literary Achievement Award, but Solomon Northup himself was able to land his own prize this season due to the unique nature of the proceedings. John Ridley shared the award with the late Northup as “12 Years a Slave” beat out fellow adaptations “Captain Phillips,” “Philomena,” “The Spectacular Now” and “What Maisie Knew.”
What follows is Ridley’s touching acceptance speech, on his behalf and on Northup’s, for the first award of the year that has been reserved for the author of this 161-year-old memoir. He came near tears frequently throughout and it may well be a preview of the Best Adapted Screenplay result on Oscar night.
“First and foremost let me just add my praise to Mr. Towne. I don’t know in your career how many writers have come to you and said, ‘I’m here because of you,’ but if I can’t do anything else tonight, let me say I’m here because of you and because of writers like you. Thank you.
“I’ve been very fortunate to work on a lot of projects and this process has been very new and different for me, adapting in this way, and I’ve in my curiosity had an opportunity to talk to many of the other writers who are nominated tonight and read interviews by them and see them in Q&As. In certain circumstances a very special relationship forms between the writer and the originator and I think it is amazingly special, what you all have been doing for more than two decades, in recognizing the work of the writer and the originator. Thank you very much, and I just want to give my praise to the other writers. Thank you for this process, for your advice and for adding so much to what a lot of people has said is one of the most special years in cinema.
“There was a question asked earlier whether we need books in libraries, and I can say I certainly did. Before this I didn’t know who Solomon Northup was, and I didn’t know his story and I’ve done what I think is some good work in the past, but the difference between then and now is Solomon and his words and his work and his life. I’ve been very honored to be joined tonight by some of some of Solomon’s descendants and I’d like to just introduce them very quickly, and if they would stand up, please: Melissa Howell and Rebecca Bicksler, Michelle Linzy and Milan Linzy.
“The way Solomon wrote, the clarity that he wrote [with], the evocative language that he used and more importantly the strength of his character, to go through what he went through without bitterness and without hate, that really taught me something. I’ve had a very nice career and I’ve written a lot but until I read Solomon’s memoir, I didn’t know what being a writer was all about. And I’m very thankful to an absolutely amazing team of people who helped put this together, starting with a phenomenal director in Steve McQueen and the crew that he put together and an absolutely amazing cast, led in particular by Mr. Chiwetel Ejiofor, the brilliant and amazing Lupita Nyong’o and one individual who just gave me so much spirit throughout this process of making the film, Alfre Woodard who’s actually here this evening.
“For those who have seen the film, people ask me what was the most difficult scene or what was the scene I enjoyed the most, and it was the Mr. Shaw scene. For me to write that kind of language and to create that kind of scene was one thing but to watch the actors dance with the language, it was absolutely amazing, and thank you – thank you all for those performances. I want to thank, too – you know, a film like this on paper, as powerful as the memoir was, going from the script to the screen, it doesn’t happen by accident and it happened through the support of some really phenomenal individuals, everyone at Fox Searchlight, at New Regency, at River Road, at Film Four and especially Mr. Pitt and his company Plan B, and in particular Dede Gardner and a very phenomenal producer and someone who I truly would not be standing here if it weren’t for him, Jeremy Kleiner, to all of them and to all you, thank you so very much.
“And one more: Gayle, thank you for those two boys, those two phenomenal young men you brought into our house who inspire me every day, thank you so much.”