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'Five Days at Memorial' showcases John Ridley's skill at tough stories

Vera Farmiga plays Dr. Anna Pou in Five Days at Memorial.
Apple TV+
Vera Farmiga plays Dr. Anna Pou in Five Days at Memorial.

When John Ridley was first asked to help turn the harrowing story of Five Days at Memorial into a scripted drama series, he sent a New York Times Magazinestory about the tragedy to his father, a retired doctor.

The tale was chilling.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning piece (created as a collaboration with the investigative news site Pro Publica) described how Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans sheltered thousands of staff, patients and area residents when Hurricane Katrina roared through the city in 2005.

But immediate damage from the storm wasn't their biggest problem: as floodwaters deluged the city, the medical center lost power and had to be evacuated. When the bodies of 45 people were later discovered, allegations surfaced that some health professionals euthanized patients rather than abandon those who couldn't be moved.

Ridley, who once served as a commentator for NPR, is no stranger to tough stories; he won an Oscar for writing the screenplay to the bruising film 12 Years a Slave. But he had an important question for his dad: What did he think about what might have happened during those five days?

John Ridley attends the Oscars Governors Ball in 2014.
Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images
Getty Images
John Ridley attends the Oscars Governors Ball in 2014.

"I expected fully that he would say 'I would never do that...these doctors are the most unethical people,'" Ridley says. "[But] his response was: 'I'm glad I wasn't there and I'm glad I didn't have to make those decisions.' So my father, who is the most ethical person I've ever known, if he wasn't willing to indict or exonerate, I wasn't going to go into this story way or another."

Telling a tough story without taking sides

That's a bold position for this series, which takes a close look at a contentious tragedy nearly 20 years after it happened. Still, the limited series Ridley helped create for Apple TV+ – he served as an executive producer and wrote and directed several episodes – works, mostly by leveraging an ace cast and detailed special effects to tell a brutal story.

Vera Farmiga is earnest and focused as Dr. Anna Pou, a devoutly religious surgeon who passes up an opportunity to skip working at the hospital during the storm, hoping to help out. Cherry Jones plays Susan Mulderick, the hospital official in charge during the emergency, who suddenly realizes that the one scenario which wasn't included in their disaster management plans was how to evacuate the facility if it is flooded.

Cherry Jones and Cornelius Smith Jr. star in "Five Days at Memorial."
/ Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Cherry Jones and Cornelius Smith Jr. star in "Five Days at Memorial."

Thanks to the magic of computer-generated effects, viewers can watch winds from Katrina rip off the roof of the Louisiana Superdome; in other scenes, we see cars floating down streets and desperate people breaking into stores for supplies.

The tension ratchets up slowly, showing staffers' growing dismay as flood waters knock out the hospital's backup generators and efforts to evacuate patients hit serious challenges.

Ridley, a Black man who has focused much of his work on exploring the intersection of race, prejudice, privilege and oppression, says he wanted to show how systemic bias led to poor, often non-white patients getting left behind.

"Even if it's not criminal blame, nobody wants to accept the blame... particularly when there is systemic bias involved," he says. "[People want to say] it just happened that it was Black and brown just happened that it was poorer folks. No. There are issues. The thing that's really frustrating to me more than anything: Can you present a story where the system is the bad guy?"

The series tells that story by focusing on Black staffers and patients caught in the disaster, including Emmett Everett – a good-natured paraplegic weighing nearly 400 pounds. Prosecutors alleged he was euthanized.

In one scene from the series, as investigators apologize for the loss of her husband, Everett's wife objects: "I didn't lose him," she says. "He was taken from me."

The hazards of 'bottom lining' human life

"There's a very 'bottom lining' of human life," Ridley says. "Once you do that, once you get into that idea that these aren't really people, they're numbers or statistics, they're acceptable losses, are we really surprised that something like this would happen?"

Five Days at Memorial almost didn't get made at all. Based on a 2013 book developed from the original article, the project was championed by several Hollywood heavyweights, including producer Scott Rudin and, later, Ryan Murphy, who considered making it an installment of his American Crime Story anthology series at FX. But all those efforts failed.

Ridley remains angry that some TV executives seemed skittish about developing a story centered on terrible allegations against doctors while a pandemic was transforming the world in real life.

"Content providers were like, 'Oh, we can't tell this story,'" he says. "That was very painful. In a world where there's so much media and there's so much storytelling, that people are averse to anything that challenges, averse to anything that may take a little bit more to get an audience to come around to it. I mean, no spoiler alert, there's no happy ending."

Ridley credits fellow executive producer Carlton Cuse — whose credits include Lost, Bates Motel and Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan – with spearheading the project. Cuse originally asked Ridley to join the production and kept pushing to get the series made until they found a home for it at Apple TV+.

Five Days at Memorial presents a fairly sympathetic portrayal of Dr. Pou, who has denied wrongdoing. But it also provides compelling evidence that she and others at the center were involved in euthanizing patients. In real life, a grand jury declined to indict Pou, leaving open troubling questions about the ethics of it all.

Ridley accepts that the series' approach may be unsettling for some viewers. Particularly when he admits serious doubts that much progress has been made in addressing the issues unearthed by the tragedy.

"You know, you can turn on almost any broadcast network any day of the week and get a procedural where you're going to get that sort of [definitive] outcome," he says. "But for us, in this environment, why try to gild this? Why try to turn it into something...when that's not the reality?"

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.