How ‘American Fiction’ Grew Out of Cord Jefferson’s Own Experiences of Being Piegonholed as a Black Writer

TheWrap magazine: “The subtext of all those conversations is an inability to see Black life as being as complex and dynamic and broad and deep as anybody else’s life,” Jefferson says

Cord Jefferson
Cord Jefferson on the set of "American Fiction" (Credit: MGM)

Before he made his directorial debut with “American Fiction,” Cord Jefferson was a Tucson-born journalist and then a television writer for “Master of None,” “The Good Place,” “Watchmen” and “Succession,” among others. But now he’s also the director of the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award winner.

The film, which is simultaneously very funny and very serious, is an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” about a Black novelist who tries to mock the way he’s been pigeonholed by writing a ridiculously over-the-top “urban” novel full of the most offensive caricatures and stereotypes.

Jeffrey Wright plays the novelist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, who becomes unexpectedly successful when (largely white) publishers, readers and Hollywood producers eagerly embrace the work he thought was a joke. 

While you were writing for TV, had you been thinking about directing?
The first time I started thinking about directing was on the TV show “Master of None.” I was working on Season 2 of that show and Aziz (Ansari) said, “Have you ever thought about directing?” I said, “I didn’t go to film school and I don’t really know anything about cameras.” And he said, “I went to NYU for business school. I’ve never been to film school. But I’ve been on set a bunch, and I’ve paid attention to what people are doing. I am able to come in and say, ‘Here’s what I want from the scene.’ That’s really all you need to do.”

That planted the seed in my mind. I promised myself then that I would try directing as long as I felt in my bones, “This is the first thing that I have to direct.” And when I found this novel, it spoke to me in that way. 

So did you immediately think that you wanted to direct it?
Within 20 pages of the book, I knew that I might want to adapt this novel into a screenplay. And within about 50 pages, I thought, OK, maybe I wanna do more than just adapt the screenplay. Maybe I wanna direct the film as well. And then, soon after that, I started reading the novel in Jeffrey’s voice. I literally started thinking of Monk as Jeffrey Wright, and it started to come together.

As soon as I was done with the book, I was thinking, I want to write the script and I want to direct. So when we took it out to people, it was conditional. I wasn’t just shopping the script, I was saying, “If you want the script, I come along with it as director.”

Isn’t it dangerous to be reading the book and hearing Jeffrey Wright’s voice before you’ve even approached him?
Yes, that is absolutely correct. It’s very emotionally dangerous. I read it and I was like, this has to be Jeffrey. And then I kept thinking about that as I was writing the script, and then I had friends read the script and I told ’em, “I think Jeffrey Wright would be great for it,” and they all said yes. So my hopes were very, very, very high. Had he said no, I don’t know what I would’ve done, to be honest. I didn’t really have a second option. I would go so far as to say like, I wouldn’t have wanted to make the movie if it wasn’t Jeffrey.

I’m very, very happy that he signed on early in the process, because when Jeffrey signed on, the financiers were willing to come up with more money and other actors were easier to get. I will be forever indebted to Jeffrey’s willingness to trust me. You know, Jeffrey’s in Batman, Jeffrey’s in 007, Jeffrey’s in Wes Anderson movies. And for him to come on to this project, me having never written a film before, never having directed anything before, his, his trust in me really allowed other people to trust me and believe in me.

It makes me a little emotional to think about it, to be honest. He took this risk early in the process, and him taking that risk made everything much easier. He could have just said, “Nah, kid,” and gone and done another Batman movie, I’m sure.

As a first-time director, is it intimidating when you’re on the set directing a guy like Jeffrey Wright?
Absolutely. The first two days of the film, especially the very first day of shooting, were rocky because I was terrified to give Jeffrey notes. What am I going to say to one of the greatest living actors? I equate it to giving Michael Jordan notes on his jump shot. But the great thing is that once I got over that fear and was just like, “We are collaborating on this,” it was a great working relationship.  

In your own career, have you faced people wanting to limit the stories you can tell or what you’re asked to write because of the color of your skin?
It’s been huge since the beginning of my career. I started out as a journalist and toward the end of my journalism career, I actually wrote an essay called “The Racism Beat” that was about this place I had found myself in, where people were coming to me frequently to write about racism: “Do you wanna write about this racist thing that this person said about Obama? Do you wanna write about Trayvon Martin being killed? Do you wanna write about Mike Brown being killed in Ferguson?”

It just felt like, “Is this all I have to offer? Is this the most interesting thing you think I can do as a writer?” And I started to feel resentful of that. 

So when I got into film and TV, I was excited because it felt like, I’m in the world of fiction. I can do whatever I want. But people still came to me and they were like, “Hey, do you wanna write this story about a slave? Do you wanna write this story about a gang member? Do you wanna write this story about a drug dealer?

I had people give me notes that in so many words said, “Can you make this character blacker?” I would respond, “Well, what does it mean to make a character blacker to you? What does blacker look like?” And then of course, they clam up because they realize that they’re about to put their foot in their mouth and say something insane. 

Some of the satire (in “American Fiction”) is taken from the book, but a lot of it is taken from my direct experience working in creative industries and the expectations that people had when they saw me as a Black writer. The subtext of all those conversations is an inability to see Black life as being as complex and dynamic and broad and deep as anybody else’s life. That was something that I was always trying to push back against, sometimes unsuccessfully. 

And also, this isn’t just Black writers. I’ve got Latino friends who say, “Why does every story out of Mexico have to have this dusty orange-brown tint to everything, and be about drug cartels and somebody escaping their miserable circumstances in their small town in Mexico and running for the promised land that is the United States?” 

I’m not saying these stories shouldn’t exist. Particularly in a country where a lot of people are trying to rewrite the history of race and slavery and Jim Crow laws and everything, I think these movies should exist. That being said, my question is, why do these movies exist to the exclusion of every other story that there is to tell about these groups of people?

A version of this story about “American Fiction” director Cord Jefferson originally appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap awards magazine.

Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

Sandra Huller Race Begins 2023
Sandra Huller shot for TheWrap by Jeff Vespa


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