It's A Wonderful Life

Nashville's favorite film critic may be gone, but he'll never be forgotten

By Laura Hutson Hunter

Illustration by Laura Walks

Illustration by Laura Walks

The day Jim Ridley collapsed in his office at the Nashville Scene, I was sick in bed at home. I’d found out I was pregnant a few weeks earlier, and a series of colds mixed with increasingly awful morning sickness made going to work unbearable. I felt lucky, then almost immediately guilty, that I wasn’t there to witness what I know was a horrific moment for my co-workers. I had been looking forward to telling him I was pregnant, and I imagined what his response would be when I gave him the news after he came back to his job as editor of our city’s beloved alt-weekly. But it never happened — 11 days later, after realizing he was truly gone, Jim’s family took him off life support. He was 50.

People who knew Jim often said that if he’d had more ambition, he could have been a nationally known film critic — another Roger Ebert or Peter Travers. But that’s only half true, because while he absolutely could have been famous, the fact that he never left Nashville doesn’t have anything to do with lack of ambition. He began writing about film while he was still in high school, and became the Scene’s editor because, I’d argue, nobody else cared about his hometown’s weekly paper as much as he did. So to describe Jim as anything less than ambitious is incorrect — if anything, he was ambitious to a fault. He just focused that ambition onto things aside from personal fame — like family, comradeship, hometown pride.

Jim’s death came at a critical moment for news media, print journalism, and Nashville in general. The Nashville Scene is not the only news organization that’s suffered in the past decade, but among Nashvillians it’s definitely one of the most important. Yes, I’m biased. I worked under him and learned that ferocity doesn’t have to be mean, and that honest criticism is essential for creative growth. He would often give his staff pep talks with this unexpected ability to transform from sheepishly modest worker bee — how he saw himself, I’m sure — to how the rest of us saw him: a chest-beating, passion-filled hero, pronouncing that journalism was a big bat we were all swinging with, as if we could pile on top of each other like some cartoon about mice forming the shape of a dog to scare a cat away.

The disappointment we continue to feel that he would never be able to tell us what he thought about new movies like Black Panther, for example, is pretty far down on the list of emotions felt in his death’s aftermath, but it’s a disappointment that stings nonetheless. I’m sure he would have loved Get Out, with its inside-cinema references to The Shining and North by Northwest. It would have been wonderful to hear him bellow from his office about the menace of the Trump presidency, and I would love to be able to talk to him about whether the legacy of Pulp Fiction can withstand the black cloud of Harvey Weinstein.

During our last meeting together he told me that my essays reminded him of Joan Didion — a comparison he undoubtedly made after assessing my cubicle wall, which had a photograph of Didion tacked up next to other heroes I looked to for inspiration. Jim loved to flatter, and after you learned this about him you could see rays of kindness coming through every conversation — the comparison to Didion has far more to do with him than with me. But try to compliment Jim and you’d quickly be met with a red-faced aw-shucks deflection that would have been obnoxious on someone less sincere.

Walk into the Scene’s office in the Gulch, and a framed photograph of Jim is likely the first thing you’ll see. Future journalists of Nashville will surely follow suit and tack his smiling face on their cubicle walls, perhaps hoping that one day someone might compare their writing to his.

This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of The Line, a publication of Noelle.