‘American Fiction’ Writer-Director Cord Jefferson on Confronting Black Stereotypes With Biting Satire 

Cord Jefferson can fully relate to the main character of his blisteringly funny directorial debut, “American Fiction.” The same could be said about any viewer from an underrepresented community who walks in to witness the hilarious trials of its main character, Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright). As a former journalist, Jefferson comprehends the suffocating weight of stereotypes. Monk channels that feel as a Black American writer who doesn’t comprehend why publishers are puzzled by his manuscripts. He is an intellectual, genuinely inspired by the Greek classics, but they want something more “Black.” Monk can only watch in frustration when a writer like Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) gets big sales and applause with another novel about absentee fathers and drug dealers, titled “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.”

Life has a way of pushing us into a corner and when Monk’s mother (Leslie Uggams) needs constant care, he throws caution to the wind and writes a stereotype-packed slice of Black trauma porn, “My Pafology.” Instantly, white publishers want it with bold claims that it is an “authentic” voice. Monk’s agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), pushes for Monk to simply invent an alternate persona with a criminal record, or better yet, one where he is still wanted by the authorities. But for how long can Monk keep up the façade before losing his sanity? Brilliantly adapted from the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett, “American Fiction” ranks with essential and stinging commentaries, like Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.” Jefferson sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss “American Fiction” and confronting perceptions and clichés in a shifting cultural landscape. 

Let’s start with what appealed to you about “Erasure” as the starting point for your directorial debut.

This is a conversation I’ve been having with colleagues, friends and family members since before I started working in entertainment. I was a journalist for about eight years before I started working in film and television. The journalism stories that people were always sending me were about Black trauma, violence in the Black community, police killing young Black people who were unarmed. It just felt there was this constant churn of misery. I started thinking, isn’t there more I have to offer? There must be more I can do with my writing skills. So I jumped into film and television. I felt I could leave that behind and tell any story about Black life. But when I got there people still wanted me to write about slaves, police killing Black people, violence in the inner city. It just felt like, oh, even here in the world of fiction there are these limitations to what people feel are the stories Black writers should tell. 

When I read “Erasure” I saw how it touches on these things and also a million other things. There are a lot of family angles in the book and film that resonated with my own family story. This was this whole swirl of things where the more I read the novel, the more it resembled my life and what I was going through at the time.

As a Latino writer, ‘American Fiction’ impacted me because any underrepresented group faces these challenges. 

Of course! “Write about the cartels, write about drug violence.” 

Exactly. So how do you hope ‘American Fiction’ speaks to that issue of any underrepresented group that feels entrapped by stereotypes?

To me one of the main themes of the film is freedom and all of our desires to be individuals with our own unique passions and identities and goals. It’s about what happens when we don’t allow people that freedom to be themselves. What happens when we limit people’s freedom and the strange things they will do when they feel that limitation. As you said, it affects so many people. I’m from Arizona so I have a lot of Mexican friends who wonder, as you just said, why does every story set in Mexico have to have that weird, brownish, orange sheen to every shot? Why does it always have to be about drug cartels or people fleeing their horrible circumstances in their village for the promise of the United States? Why is that always the story that they tell? I have queer friends who always ask why it always has to be about getting kicked out of home by your parents or some other miserable circumstance. Why is it always only about one’s identity and not the million other things going on in one’s life? 

For me, I wanted to make a film that, yeah, stars Jeffrey Wright and it’s about this Black man and his life and his family, but I wanted to make something that felt big tent. It invites different people inside. Hopefully more people can find something to empathize with in the narrative. 

When developing the project, did you ever face some of the funny pushback Jeffrey’s character faces with his novel?

Absolutely. The vast majority of people who read this script told me that they loved it but couldn’t make the movie. I had people say, “This is the best script I’ve read in years” and then I would say, “Great, let’s make the movie,” they would reply with, “Oh, we can’t do that.” It could be because I had never directed before and they didn’t trust me. Maybe they didn’t think the actors were bankable. Maybe the material was too dangerous. I don’t know, because no one would clearly tell me why they couldn’t make it. It was just the reality the vast majority of people who came across it would react with, “We just can’t see this existing in the world.” So that is an uphill battle. I’ve had executives tell me that the script I wrote “needs to be Blacker,” that a character I wrote needs “to be Blacker.” I would ask “what’s Blacker?” No one would be able to answer that question because they know they would probably commit some civil rights violation (laughs). So a lot of my own experience as a writer and person of color exists in the movie.

Jeffrey Wright again just fully transforms into his character. Was he always your first choice to play Monk?

I started thinking of Jeffrey Wright so early on that I read the novel in his voice. I’ve always been such a fan of his. I think he’s one of our greatest living actors and when it came down to it, I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing the part. I went to him first and was very fortunate that he signed on. But working with him was intimidating. It’s like trying to give basketball notes to LeBron James. He knows what he’s doing. But I also realized LeBron James has coaches. Michael Jordan had a coach. Jeffrey brought that spirit to the role. He’s not a great actor because he ignores everyone and does what he wants to do. He’s a great actor because he comes on set to collaborate and work with the director, the costume designer and producers to find the story we’re trying to tell. He’s inviting people in.

He’s such a versatile actor who has embodied so many different kinds of roles. But even someone of his caliber has probably faced some of the same weird situations as Monk. Did he ever share about how he could relate to Monk? 

Absolutely! But what Jeffrey actually shared that he could relate to more was Monk’s personal life. He told me, without getting into too much detail, that he’s been living a very “Monk-like life now.” He’s been taking care of some ailing relatives. He really felt a connection to the material in a personal way more than in a professional way.

Cinema is itself a form of documentation as art form. How has your journalist side influenced your work now as a director?

It guides you when you’re writing. When you’re writing journalism you tend to ask, “Why now? Why does this exist in the world?” You have to go to your editor and argue why out of the 200 articles in development, this one deserves to be on the front page. That has guided my decision-making with film and TV. I don’t sit down to work on anything until I can come up with a good reason for why this story needs to be told. 

And, what can we expect from you next?

Well, we’ll see.

American Fiction” releases Dec. 15 in select theaters and expands Dec. 22 in theaters nationwide.