Cord Jefferson wants to tell a quick story. It involves something that happened to a friend of his, although the writer-director of American Fiction is quick to point out that the incident in question could have easily happened to any number of Black creatives he knows, or for that matter, himself. This friend was an aspiring screenwriter who took a meeting with studio executives. They asked her what she was interested in doing. I want to write a rom-com, she answered. Maybe an erotic thriller. Great, they said. Love it. We’ll be in touch.

“A few hours later, they call her back,” Jefferson says, tucking into his eggs at a breakfast place. “‘We have a project that’s perfect for you! There’s this blind slave that works on a plantation, and then they become this world-class concert pianist…’ I don’t remember the name of the project — I want to say it was Blind Tom, but I could be wrong — or if the benefactors who helped this slave achieve musical greatness were white, but: gonna go out on a limb and say yes.” He smiles as he shrugs. “When people see the movie and say, ‘All this is exaggerated, right?’ Not really. It’s usually a lot worse.”

American Fiction, an adaptation of Percy Everett’s novel Erasure and Jefferson’s feature directorial debut, follows a Black academic and author named Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (played by Jeffrey Wright), who’s frustrated that his career is going nowhere. No one is interested in his new novel. He’s been partially estranged from his brother and sister (Sterling K. Brown and Tracee Ellis Ross), and his mother (Leslie Uggams) has just been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s. And he’s incensed that other writers such as Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) — a Wesleyan grad who’s become the literary world’s Hot New Author with a debut work entitled We Lives in Da’ Ghetto — are selling beaucoup books by selling out the culture.

In a fit of rage one night, Monk pens a fictional “hood” memoir My Pafology that checks off every negative stereotype imaginable, under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. It’s not only taken seriously by prospective publishers and sells for a six-figure deal — more if you count the film rights. The book, eventually retitled Fuck, becomes a voice-of-a-generation instant bestseller, forcing Monk to put on an act and slowly transform into his own worst nightmare. (The film opened wide on the 22nd.)

A former journalist-turned-TV writers’ room MVP, Jefferson had been looking for something to direct after a TV project had fallen apart “at the very, very last minute” when he was reading a book review on Interior: Chinatown, a novel by Charles Yu. The reviewer had namechecked Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, which Jefferson remembered a friend recommending to him several months earlier. He tracked down a copy and began reading it, at which point he jokingly started to wonder if Everett had somehow been bugging his phone or reading through his diaries.

“I mean, it really was like he was writing scenes out of my life,” Jefferson says, laughing. “I’ve got two siblings, and we’ve had our difficulties. Our mother didn’t have dementia, but she was sick with cancer, and there was a lot of ‘I’m not home to help’ guilt on my part. Even the small stuff, like the fact that I went to William & Mary, a small liberal arts college in Virginia, and there are references to William & Mary in the novel! There were so many weird, specific overlaps that made it feel like someone had gone, ‘Say, do you know Cord Jefferson? Think I’ll sit down and write a book just for him.’”

But it was the story’s over-the-top satirical take on the representations of Black life on the page and onscreen — and the way the market dictates what gets represented and what doesn’t — that made him think he’d found something that genuinely struck a chord. “It was what it’s saying about what it means to be a Black writer and a Black creative, and the expectations that people have for what Black artists should make,” he says. “I mean, this is a conversation my friends and I had been having for years. Look, movies like 12 Years a Slave are important. I love New Jack City and Django Unchained. ‘Oh, Boyz n the Hood is on? Let’s watch it!’

“The important question that needs to be asked, the question I’m asking now, is: Why is this stuff being made to the omission of everything else?” he adds. “Why is this what we focus on solely when it comes to what’s deemed ‘pristine Black art?’ Why is it always the tragedy and the misery? Abuse and violence, cross burnings and lynchings, shootings and murder and death and drugs — why has Black life become reduced to just that onscreen? To me, it suggests an inability to see Black people as complex and nuanced and full of interiority in the same way as everybody else. And that’s just fucked up. Fucked up and wrong.

Sterling K. Brown, Erika Alexander, Jeffrey Wright and writer/director Cord Jefferson on the set of ‘American Fiction.’

Claire Folger/Orion Releasing LLC

Had you told Jefferson a decade ago that he’d have a chance to add “filmmaker” to his resumé, he might have laughed at you or shot you a quizzical look. At that point, he’d been a journalist at Gawker for several years, having turned a freelance career writing articles while working at a nonprofit in Venice Beach, California, into a full-time gig. He’d always assumed he’d eventually get a graduate degree at some journalism school, but he was beginning to feel burnt out over the limitations and the grind of the fourth estate. Jefferson points to an essay he wrote around that time for Medium, titled “The Racism Beat,” in which he talked about constantly being asked to weigh in on every news story involving murdered Black men — what he termed as having a niche in “writing about hate over and over.” It was the sort of Faustian bargain that Monk would have recognized.

It was around that time that Mike O’Malley reached out to Jefferson. The writer-director-actor had read some of his pieces, and thought that he’d would be a good fit for the writing team he was putting together for a show called Survivor’s Remorse. Cord worked 13 weeks on the show, and found the transition to TV writing suited him. Soon, he found himself pitching script ideas on The Nightly Show with Larry Willmore, Master of None, and The Good Place; the latter’s showrunner, Mike Schur, happened to mention Jefferson’s name to Damon Lindelof, who was looking to stock up the writers’ room for his bold, unique take on the Citizen Kane of revisionist superhero comics, Watchmen.

“I think the phrase Mike used was, ‘Run, don’t walk to hire him, he’d be perfect for your show,’” Lindelof recalls. “He’d mostly worked on comedy at that point, so I wasn’t sure he’d even be interested in a drama. But I’d met him briefly at Mike’s house and then had dinner with him, and you could see exactly why he’d suggested Cord. He’d heard of Watchmen but didn’t know much about it — which was a feature, not a bug. He’d been a journalist, which I knew would be good since we were mixing a lot of American history into the show. And Cord was already full of ideas. Before the dinner was even over, I kept thinking: I have to do everything I can to convince him to work on this with me.”

Roughly halfway into the writing process, Lindelof mentioned that he was looking for an origin story for Hooded Justice, the silent superhero whose costume included a pointed hood and a noose around his neck. A few days later, Cord came and pitched “to a room that was already infamous for not letting any idea sail through without a high amount of scrutiny. And he essentially gave us what was more or less the entire hour that actually aired, right there in the room, and within three sentences everybody was just nodding.” That episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” won Jefferson an Emmy. The night of the awards, both he and Lindelof accepted together via Zoom. He thanked his therapist, as well as HBO for “not batting an eye when we submitted scripts with squid rain and Jeremy Irons farting in space.”

Suddenly, Jefferson had become that much more of a name in the industry; having his name attached to Succession (as a writing consultant) and later, the critically praised show Station Eleven, added to his profile. Yet he still found himself running into roadblocks in terms of his own developed projects; when Jefferson talks about that TV show he was about to start production on in 2020 getting the plug pulled, the disappointment and frustration still seems fresh. He mentions that when he finished the script for American Fiction and began sending it out, he met with “over a dozen distributors” who all told him essentially the same thing: We love the script. It’s so funny, so smart, so moving. We’re so sorry we can’t make it.

“I found myself going, so, wait — you just said this is the best script you’ve read in years… and you can’t make it?” Jefferson remembers, before pivoting his question toward the rhetorical. “Can’t or won’t? Which is it?’ These are places that are making movies for $200 million, but they won’t touch this. OK.”

Eventually, the script made its way to T-Street Productions, the company run by Rian Johnson and his producing partner Ram Bergman, which jumped on it. “You could immediately see the film he wanted to make, right there on the page,” Johnson says. “And there was a real confidence in what he wanted to say, and how we was going to say it.” It also helped, of course, that Jefferson had one of the finest American actors working today attached to play Monk.

Erika Alexander and Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction.’

Claire Folger/Orion Releasing LLC

When Jefferson was reading Erasure, he kept hearing a very specific voice in his head as he read Monk’s dialogue: Jeffrey Wright. He had no idea whether the award-winning actor from Basquiat, Angels in America, Ali, and dozens of other projects ranging from Wes Anderson comedies to James Bond movies would be interested in playing this contentious man of letters, but he sent Wright the script anyway. Soon, Jefferson found himself talking to the star on the phone, fielding dozens of questions about the character, the tone, what kind of film Jefferson wanted to make and why he wanted to make it. “Good questions,” the director says. “Smart questions. Insightful questions. Questions that made me think that Jeffrey would not be someone you just hire, or someone with more clout than you. Questions that suggest you’re talking to a collaborator.”

“Oh, it was the first scene — it drew me in from the beginning,” Wright says, calling in from Montreal on a shoot. He’s referring to American Fiction’s opening sequence, in which Monk and a student in his Southern literature class engage in an argument over a certain racial epithet. “Right from the start, you could tell that Cord was fluent in social commentary when it came to race, to identity, to history and context, to talking about the things we don’t like to talk about — like, really talk about. The movie basically starts off with a conversation that’s being had across the country, but it’s not being had well. We lack the language for it, honestly. And then here’s this script where you just go, ‘Yeah, this gets it.’ Jefferson had a clarity of vision around all of this. It was like I was already looking forward to playing those scenes, you know?”

As Jefferson and Wright began to talk more about how the film would deal with the blend of satirical elements and more straightforward drama, they both agreed what they didn’t want the movie to be: a lecture. “Neither of us wanted this to feel like we were just handing out ‘Talented 10’ respectability politics,” Jefferson says. “You know, that Bill Cosby pull-up-your-pants stuff about how to behave ‘appropriately’ as a Black person in America. Neither of us wanted to be classist about this. Neither of us were into the idea of policing Blackness, or essentially telling people, ‘You’re doing it wrong.’ It was more about the frustration about having our experience reduced to just the spectacle of suffering — and that being the only thing that quote-unquote sells.”

It was more about the frustration about having our experience reduced to just the spectacle of suffering — and that being the only thing that quote-unquote sells.

And the idea that Jefferson wanted to bring not just the source material’s satirical jabs at the media but also the family melodrama that plays a big part in Everett’s book was something that resonated with both of them as well. Jefferson had lost his mother in 2016. Wright’s mother had passed away about a year before the American Fiction script came across his desk, and the scenes between Monk and his family felt palpably real to him. “There’s this kind of Frankensteinian thing that happens to Monk as this prank he’s created threatens to consume him,” Wright notes. “But the other side of it shows you that he’s just another guy trying to deal with what life’s dealt him. It’s like, if both of those sides are there on the screen…”

“Yeah, the family stuff was what scared me initially,” Jefferson admits. “I knew how to handle the satire: Don’t make it too broad, don’t make it slapstick, don’t turn it into a farce. I couldn’t wait to start writing those scenes. But the family stuff was like, this is going to be a slog. Then the more I began writing, the more I fell in love with those sequences — maybe even more so than the satirical bits. I realized that they were grounding the film in a way that felt necessary to me, and actually brought this closer to the sort of work that I love.” He namechecks Noah Baumbach and Nicole Holofcener as two filmmakers who’ve been able to strike the sort of balance between the ridiculous and the sublime, before adding: “What has more tonal swings than life? Life isn’t a comedy or a drama. It is what it is.”

And it’s the way American Fiction uses pathos and absurdity to tackle both bigger-picture issues and explore the ties that bind, taking on the concept of “selling out” and the self-righteousness of those “who direct anger at individuals instead of the systems we’re all part of,” that has made it one of those rare comedies that’s equal parts funny and empathetic. Jefferson has not just taken on the IRL ridiculousness regarding the constrictions put on Black artists if they want their work to reach audiences — he’s proven that there are more stories to be told.

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“I’ve heard this from my friends who are Latino as well: Why are movies only about cartels or coming to America?” he adds. “Or from Muslims: Why is it all stories about terrorists? The world tries to pigeonhole everyone and act as if we aren’t complex, nuanced people. But we are. And all of our experience deserves to be up on that screen.”

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