Inside the Making of ‘American Fiction’: A Q&A With Cord Jefferson

Writer/director Cord Jefferson on the set of American Fiction. Claire Folger

Cord Jefferson is troubled by the cultural fascination with stories about Black trauma and suffering. It’s an observation that the Emmy-winning writer first made during his days as a journalist, when he would regularly be asked to write an essay about the latest Black tragedy that was making headlines. Even after venturing into writing for TV and film and pursuing a career in Hollywood, where he believed executives would be interested in telling different kinds of stories, Jefferson was approached to write narratives about slaves, gang members, and drug addicts and dealers.

Jefferson’s frustrations, in some ways, helped fuel his feature directorial debut, American Fiction, which premiered to critical acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival last September and has been getting Oscar buzz ever since. Adapted and helmed by Jefferson and based on Perceval Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, the comedy-drama film stars Jeffrey Wright as Monk, a frustrated novelist and professor who is fed up with the establishment commoditizing and profiting from “Black” entertainment that relies on tired and offensive tropes. One night, Monk uses a pen name to write an outlandish “Black book” of his own called My Pafology, which turns out to be a critical and commercial hit. Before long, Monk is forced to reckon with his own hypocrisy and deal with a monster of his own making.

“I want to make it clear to people that I’m not critiquing those movies [about Black trauma],” Jefferson tells Observer. “I’m happy that those movies exist because, as Issa Rae’s character says in the film, these are some people’s lived experiences. There are people who are trying to erase slavery from American history right now. It’s important for people to remember that there were slaves and that they weren’t learning valuable skills, as Ron DeSantis says. It was terrible. I’m not saying those movies shouldn’t exist, and I don’t want people to walk away from this movie with that idea.

“The question is, why is this the most valuable work to these people who are greenlighting these movies and these stories, the vast majority of whom are not people of color? Why is that the most interesting thing to them?” Jefferson asks. These are questions that the filmmaker has discussed at length with his Latino friends as well. “For instance, why is every story about Mexico about a drug cartel or somebody fleeing their miserable circumstances in their home state? What is it about the salaciousness of [those stories] that really appeals to people?”

Below, Jefferson — who has worked on acclaimed series such as Watchmen, Succession, Master of None, and The Good Place — explains the process of writing and casting his directorial debut, why he doesn’t think anyone has the answers to the film’s lofty questions, and the key conversation between Wright’s Monk and Rae’s Sintara in the film.

Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison and Sterling K. Brown as Cliff Ellison in American Fiction. Courtesy of Orion Pictures

You’ve said that there is a real “poverty of imagination” when it comes to people’s perceptions about what Black life can be. Why do you think stories about Black trauma and suffering are considered the standard for prestige Black art in America, and how did you want to go about making those incisive critiques that you and your colleagues have long had about this business?

Cord Jefferson: I don’t have an answer for that. I think this movie asked that question because it’s something that I’ve been rolling over in my mind since I started writing. Why are we seemingly most interested in Black teenagers when they’re killed by the police? It just feels like there’s so much more to these groups of people than we’re letting on. I think that it’s a question that I would like to ask some of these studio heads and the publishers of these books: Why are we most interesting to you when we’re going through some violent trauma or trying to work our way out of poverty, or when we’re addicted to crack? Why is that the most interesting thing to you?

This is an honest thing that I’ve done before, and this has happened more than once. It’s not like it happens every day, but it has happened a couple of times where I’ve written a script and I’ve gotten a note back from people saying—and they never say this directly, but it’s like, “This character doesn’t really feel Black enough. How can we ‘Blacken’ this character up?” I would say, “Well, how would I make them ‘Blacker’? What could I do to make the character ‘Blacker?’” And guess what? They never answer the question because they know that they would put their foot in their mouth if they say, “Oh, well, here’s how this character could be Blacker.”

Imagine if somebody was saying, “I’d like this to be more Asian.” It’s like, “Well, what does more Asian mean to you?” It just sort of erases the spectrum of humanity that exists in all of our groups. What are we trying to say here? I think that is a question that I asked that I’ve never had answered. It’s literally a question that I’ve asked and nobody was willing to answer me because I think that they realize how ridiculous they sound if they try to answer that question.

It’s funny that you mention that you’ve had this conversation with other people of color, because I’ve had a version of this conversation with my friends and colleagues as well. We’re always approached to write stories about people from our ethnic or cultural background. But at a certain point, we want to tell different kinds of stories; we want to be able to write about more than just what we know.

A lot of people have this conversation, and I really appreciate you sharing that because I want this to not necessarily be about a Black family. It is about a Black family, but I think it’s also just about how a lot of people feel like they’re pigeonholed despite their unique personhood.

You’ve said that you initially read Monk’s lines in Jeffrey Wright’s voice. When did you know, during the writing or pre-production process, that you wanted him as the emotional heart of the film? And how did you go about finding the supporting actors to service the rest of this story?

Jeffrey brings a real gravity to the role. That’s why I had my heart set on him, and the movie became more real in a lot of people’s minds when Jeffrey signed on. That’s when the financiers were willing to part with more money; that’s when it started becoming much easier to get other actors interested in the project. So he was going to be the emotional center of the film because I just knew he was going to bring a weight to that character. He’s a very funny comedic actor, and people don’t really recognize that, so I knew that he was going to be funny in that part. 

Monk is such a closed-off, isolated, prickly grump that I knew the people around him needed to be buoyant and lively to play off of that, to be formidable foils to his energy. So people like Issa, Tracee Ellis Ross, Leslie Uggams, Sterling K. Brown, Erika Alexander are buoyant and lively, and I knew that they were going to bring that to the roles. They were the perfect casting to accompany that. Leslie Uggams is just incredible in the movie. I think she plays it so deftly and subtly, and I think that, at the age of 80, to be able to still do that and get out there and perform incredible work is just a testament to her abilities.

Tracee Ellis Ross as Lisa and Leslie Uggams as her mother Agnes in American Fiction. Claire Folger

It’s very common for family members to have a lot of similarities, even in terms of the way they speak, but in this case, you decided to create a number of distinctive voices.

One of my pet peeves when it comes to writing is writing every person the same. I think there are writers who do that, and it’s their style, and that’s fine. It’s just not my style for every character to speak the same, and then you can tell that they were all written by the same person because they’re all witty geniuses. I love watching it sometimes, but I never want to write that way. So, I wanted to make sure that there was a range of characters and that these people felt like real human beings.

For instance, if this movie were more plot-driven and focused on just getting these main themes across, there’s no reason to have Lorraine and Maynard get married. There’s no reason to have that storyline at all. In some ways, there’s no reason to have those characters at all, right? Because it’s not like they’re driving the plot forward. And yet, I would lose a huge part of what I really like about that movie if those characters weren’t there and that storyline wasn’t there. I think that’s what rounds it out and makes it something that was very special to me.

Did you ever receive any pushback about that storyline, considering that it wasn’t exactly, like you said, driving the plot with Monk?

Early on in the script, there were some people that I talked to that were like, “Well, what’s this about? Why do we have to go into the wedding and this love story?” And I was like, “Well, sometimes when you’re going on with your life, this weird thing happens where this person in your life falls in love and wants to get married and move away.” That sometimes happens, and you have to deal with that.

I don’t know if you agree, but I actually think that I wanted to make sure that this movie was satirical and funny, but without turning into farce. Actually, a lot of the family stuff is what grounds the satire so [that] it doesn’t become farcical, so it doesn’t just become this silly satirical take where it’s slap-sticky. I think those family moments make it feel more authentic and real instead of just being this crazy, wild comedy.

Sterling K. Brown, Jeffrey Wright, and Erika Alexander in American Fiction. Claire Folger

You’re absolutely right. Besides the really touching storylines with Monk’s extended family, I was really interested to see this mini-showdown between Monk and Sintara, the author of the bestselling book that Monk thought played into every offensive trope about the Black community, because Sintara doesn’t know that Monk also wrote My Pafology to poke fun at her in a way. What did you want to convey in the dialogue of that scene?

That scene is not in the book, so when I was reading the novel, I was like, “Oh, I can’t wait until these two characters meet and have this debate about their different ideologies.” But when I got to the end of the book and that scene never arrived, I was like, “Oh, I need to include this when I make the film,” just because I was so desperate to see it.

I think what I want people to walk away from understanding in that conversation is that I don’t even know how I feel about that. I don’t even have an answer as to who’s right and who’s wrong, and those are my favorite scenes. I read an interview with Christopher Nolan one time where I think he said, “Every time that you write an argument, make sure that nobody wins.” And that, to me, is the most interesting filmmaking.

That’s an interesting way to think about it, and I think that ambiguity is what will make viewers uncomfortable and more willing to have these difficult conversations, since both characters make some valid points.

A lot of people, but Americans especially, have a difficult time with nuance and complexity, and they think there should be a definitive answer to everything. But with these issues of identity and race, there is no easy answer. These are all very complex and difficult things that people have literally been thinking about for thousands of years, and nobody’s come to a conclusion about it. Nobody’s been able to say, “Yes, this is exactly what we need to do when it comes to these kinds of issues of race, identity, class, gender, and sexuality.” I really want this to be a film that feels like the only way we’re going to solve these problems is by talking about them in the open and acknowledging that they’re there and addressing them through civil conversation with each other.

I love that scene because I think that it gives voice to this important discussion, and it was important that the movie not say that there’s a right way to be Black, to be a Black creative, to represent your race. I never wanted this movie to feel like [the book] The Talented Tenth, and like we’re finger wagging like [when] Bill Cosby [said to young Black men], “Don’t sag your pants. You need to look good in front of white people.” That was the thing that Jeffrey and I talked about at length when we first met to discuss the film. I said to him, “I want to make clear that that is not my goal.” Part of why that scene was important was because I never wanted people to walk away saying, “Oh, Sintara is a villain. She’s bad, and Monk is the right one.”

I think that we probably will be talking about this 20 years from now, unfortunately, but hopefully we’re a little bit closer to the conclusion of that conversation in 20 years, and the only thing that we can do is try to get there. And hopefully, this movie does at least pave the way for more nuanced conversations.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

 

 

Inside the Making of ‘American Fiction’: A Q&A With Writer-Director Cord Jefferson


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