Cord Jefferson's first film is about a Black writer who is told that his work isn't "Black" enough, and so he writes a book full of blatant stereotypes about the Black experience. Much to his consternation, the book is a hit; white book publishers, movie producers, and readers eat it up. American Fiction is a social satire about race, yes, but it's got a lot more on its mind, too. Still, Jefferson admits, "I wondered if white people were going to feel, like, attacked."
For the writer and director, that was never the point.
"I didn't want this movie to feel like it was only for Black people. I didn't want this movie to feel like it was only made for people in New York and L.A. I didn't want people to think that it was made for cool young people who wanted to make fun of old people," Jefferson says. "I wanted this movie to feel like it's a big tent and you can come in and enjoy yourself and laugh and have a good time."
That seems to be the case, so far: American Fiction won the top prize at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. Not bad for someone who was convinced he would never make a movie at all. But then Jefferson, a former journalist and Emmy-winning TV writer (for HBO's Watchmen), read author Percival Everett's 2001 satirical novel, Erasure. "Within 20 pages, I knew that I wanted to adapt it," he says.
Jefferson's adaptation stars Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, a disillusioned Black intellectual who grows increasingly frustrated when he can't get his latest book published. After watching rival author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) rise to the top of the bestsellers list with her book, We's Lives in Da Ghetto, Monk mockingly writes his own "ghetto" novel, My Pafology, under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. ("It's got deadbeat dads, rappers, crack," he tells his agent.) Much to Monk's horror, the book garners a $1 million book deal, while a movie producer (Adam Brody) swoops in to option the film rights for what he guarantees will be an awards contender.
"Yeah, maybe you'll laugh at yourself a little bit," Jefferson tells A.frame. "Maybe you'll find yourself cringing at a joke that feels too close to home, but that's great. Lean into the discomfort."
That's only half of the movie, anyway. American Fiction is also a family drama, as Monk returns home to help care for his mother (Leslie Uggams), who has Alzheimer’s disease, alongside his estranged brother (Sterling K. Brown) and sister (Tracee Ellis Ross). And there's also a romantic comedy subplot for good measure, as Monk begins an unexpected romance with his neighbor, Coraline (Erika Alexander).
A.frame: Part of me is still surprised you adapted this and it wasn't an original screenplay. When you read Erasure, what was it about the book that not only spoke to you, but made you want to turn it into a movie?
When I read this book, it was truly like somebody had personally written me a novel as a gift. And it wasn't just the satirical themes about what it means to be a Black writer and a creator of color, and the expectations that people placed on you because of that. It got much stranger. I have two siblings, so I related to that dynamic. We have a very overbearing father figure who looms large in our life, the way that the father looms large in the film, despite the fact that you never meet him. My mother didn't die of Alzheimer's, but my mother had cancer and slowly died over the course of a couple of years from 2014 to 2016. My oldest brother was the one at home taking care of her when that was happening; he shouldered that responsibility the way that Lisa does in the movie. And then at a certain point, I had to go home and take care of my mother during her last six weeks of her life.
So, there were all these weird overlaps between what was happening in the book and what had been happening in my personal life. And 2020 was a s**t year for me — the same way that it was a s****y year for everybody — but besides just the pandemic stuff, I also had this really big professional failing that year. I was very close to getting a TV show on the air, and then it was killed at the last minute. I was kind of adrift wondering what my next creative project was going to be and feeling like maybe I was never going to get to make anything, and then I read this book in December of 2020 and it just felt serendipitous. Within 20 pages, I knew that I wanted to adapt it. Within 50 pages, I started thinking maybe I wanted to adapt this and direct it. And then at a certain point, I started reading the novel in Jeffrey Wright's voice. That's how early I started picturing Jeffrey as Monk. It was almost instantaneous.
You were already directing it while you were still reading it.
Yeah, basically! [Laughs] Exactly.
What was it about Jeffrey as an actor or Monk as a character that made them right for each other?
Jeffrey just has this gravitas. He has this presence that feels professorial and intelligent and always whip smart. He feels like a college professor; I've always felt that when I've seen him. But then beyond that, I also thought he has the ability to be very funny. He's not offered a lot of comedic roles — I think that he's starting to get them, and he's starting to pop up in more Wes Anderson movies and stuff — but I was watching the film Game Night a year ago, which I had never seen before, and Jeffrey Wright pops up in Game Night and he's funny! You wouldn't expect to see him there, and I think one of the reasons he's funny is because he seems so out of place. So, I felt like he had the gravitas and that energy where you're like, 'This guy has read every single book in the world,' but he also has this ability to be funny and charming and it felt like he had the ability to be a lovable grump. I actually think that's a difficult role to play, because if you err too far to the side of grump, then you can lose people. People are going to be like, 'Well, I'm not going to root for this guy. Screw him! He's an a*****e.' I felt like Jeffrey had that ability to walk the line between those two things and not come off as somebody that you didn't want to watch for two hours and who was going to annoy you instead of worm their way into your heart.
How close is his portrayal to what you'd imagined while reading the book?
Almost exactly. The thing that he really brought to it that I appreciate — that I think owes to his intelligence as an actor and his dramatic chops — is he never went too broad. I always wanted the movie to be satirical without becoming farcical, and my concern was that a lot of satire movies end up intentionally or unintentionally bubbling over into farce, and they become kind of silly. I never wanted it to feel silly, and I never wanted it to feel like it was collapsing under the weight of the comedy. So, what Jeffrey did really well and that we worked on was making sure that it never got too big. It never got too silly. And his natural inclination is to play it subtle and play it a little bit more understated, which I think was exactly right. It was exactly what I was looking for.
The tone you're striking here feels like a high wire act. It's heightened satire. It's a social problem film. It's also a family drama. Talk to me about your approach to threading the needle of tone and making these tones that could seem disconnected on page fit in one movie.
When I was writing it and then when we were shooting it, I always wanted to make sure that it was toeing the line between these two poles. My goal when I set out was, I want it to feel like life. Life is neither comedy nor tragedy. Sometimes it's both of those things in the same hour, and so I want comedy and tragedy in the same scene, sometimes. We didn't always achieve that when we were shooting, and so we achieved it in the edit. In the edit, there was some things where I was like, 'This is too broad. We sort of overshot here.' So, we went back and shaved some things down to make sure that we were hitting that tone. Other times, things got a little too dramatic and morose and sad. There would be moments when it was like, 'This is really depressing, and it's hard to get out of this!' I think a lot of it was in the script and a lot of it was already baked in, but then when we overshot a little bit, we were able to find ways in post to make sure that we nailed the tone. But it was something that we worked at, and sometimes it's just a single line or two that feels like, 'Oh, this goes too far.'
A perfect example: A scene that I was obsessed with but felt like we would've taken the movie into farce was Miriam Shore and Michael Cyril Creighton as the publishers. They improvised a scene where they convince one another to call the book F**k, and it was so funny. It was so funny. Then I watched it in the cut, and I was like, 'It's a little too much.' It was too much of a good thing. In a different movie, we'd probably find a way to include this. But this was not the movie. I'm very happy that you said it, because it is a high wire act. It was a difficult thing to nail down, but I think we finally threaded the needle that we were trying to thread.
[The remainder of the conversation features spoilers for the ending of the movie.]
The ending of the movie, in particular, feels so bold. I thought of Clue while watching it, where you almost get to eat your cake and have it too. Erasure also plays with form in the last chapters, so how early on did you know your ending?
Oh my God, not early on at all! Very late actually. The ending to the novel is the first ending in the movie. Monk comes up to the microphone and then the novel just ends, and you have no idea what he's about to say. I knew that was not going to be a satisfying, cinematic ending. The original ending to the script is the second ending, when he goes to Coraline's house, but even when I was writing it, I knew that it wasn't right. To be honest, I just thought it was a clever turn of phrase for him to say, 'I'm sorry, I haven't been myself lately.' I thought that was kind of a punchy little witty ending. I kept it there as a placeholder knowing that it wasn't right, and then it was about a month or two before we started pre-production, and I was driving to a wedding in Palm Springs and was thinking on the long drive about the script. I called one of the producers to chat, and he said, 'Listen. Try to come up with an ending that feels as audacious as the rest of the movie.' He was like, 'The movie's a big swing, so try to make an ending that feels like a big swing and go for it.'
I slept on it that night and woke up the next morning and I wrote the ending in 15 minutes. I'm a very, very slow writer normally, but for whatever reason, it started pouring out. It felt right. The only difference was that I initially had myself in the ending. It was me and Jeffrey sitting there, and we even considered having Percival sitting there with Adam Brody, but everybody was like, 'That's a little too crazy. They'll have no idea who you are.' So, it's just Jeffrey.
It's funny that you said Clue. I hadn't thought about Clue but I love that movie and I'm sure it probably influenced me in some way. We were actually calling it The Player ending — you know, the Robert Altman movie — where the description that the writer's giving is his life, and he's coming home and he's got the wife and the kid and the white picket fence now. But as you said, Erasure has this meta-textual quality to it that Percival likes to play with in his novels, so having that kind of meta feeling that you're now inside the film, that was something that I really wanted to do. There were a couple of people who were a little hesitant, but by and large, the vast majority of people, as soon as they read the new ending, were like, 'Oh yeah, this is it. This is what it needs to be.'
I like that your producer said, 'Take a big swing,' and the big swing you took is a big shot at Hollywood and a certain type of producer. It expands the scope of the satire beyond the publishing industry to the entire entertainment industry.
Exactly! But it worked. It felt like the rest of the movie. None of those other endings felt like the movie. It felt like there was some people who wanted him to get up there and give this big speech dressing down the entire audience, and I told people, 'I understand why you have the impulse. I understand that you think this is going to be satisfying, but I promise you it's not going to be satisfying to see him do that. You'll think it will be, and we'll shoot it and it won't be.' So, I'm really happy we ended up where we ended up, because I think that it does feel like the rest of the film.
You've gotten to take the film around to screen at a number of festivals now. How have you seen the movie play differently with different audiences?
That's the thing that's been interesting, is that we have taken it to a ton of different festivals, we've shown it to a bunch of different screenings — we've shown it to predominantly white audiences, we've shown it to predominantly Black audiences, we've shown it to audiences that are older and younger — and the great thing for me has been to see that people of all shapes and sizes like the film. The thing that I was always wondering is if white people were going to feel attacked and feel like this is a movie that's not welcoming to them. And my friend, who's also the costume designer on the movie, his name's Rudy Nance, was doing a panel and he wrote me a text and said, 'This older white woman came up to me and said, 'I realized as I was laughing and applauding that I was one of those white women I was laughing at. I was laughing at myself, and it felt so good.'' To me, that's really beautiful. I think that was the intention.
What makes me think that we got the tone right was that it doesn't feel mean-spirited. It doesn't feel like it's finger-wagging or scolding anybody or telling people, 'This is how you should think, and this is how you should behave, and this is how you're to be a good person.' I wanted to avoid all of that and making any of it didactic. I just wanted people to come in and have fun and leave with a smile on their face. That has been the most heartening thing to me, is seeing that all kinds of people are coming and finding something to relate to and finding something to laugh with and engage with. And that has been really, really nice, to be honest.
As prepared as you could be, and as much as you could get ready, what is something you could only learn from having made your first feature?
Oh, man! I think I learned how much I like it. I was really worried that I was going to hate it, because I'd never directed anything before! I'd heard horror stories, and it's a terrifying thing to convince all these people to do this thing with you, spend millions of dollars, and then I was worried that on the first day, I was going to be like, 'Oh my God, I hate this, and now I have to do this for years of my life. This is a nightmare!' [Laughs] I was afraid that it was going to be the worst experience ever, so I was really, really happy to see that I loved it. I had some great TV jobs, and I don't begrudge doing any of that — I love writing for TV and I want to do it forever — but that being said, the thing that I didn't know that I was missing until I was there was that I really liked being on set and being in the thick of it. I liked it being midnight on a Tuesday and you're cold and it's rainy and you're kind of miserable, but you're out there with 50 other people who are making this thing and you're all together and doing it together.
There's something about being in the trenches and getting your hands dirty that really, really felt good to me. You feel really connected to the material, and you really feel connected to the final product. That was something that I didn't really realize that I was missing. Largely, TV writing is sitting in air-conditioned offices on the Universal lot and ordering expensive salads for lunch and then leaving at 6:00 p.m. and then you do it all the next day. But this was like, you're just there. You're in it, you're together, and the camaraderie of that and the fellowship of that was lovely. I've got relationships with these people that I know are going to last forever. And some of them, I worked with for five weeks and that's it, but it is such an intense five weeks that I feel so connected to them. So, I think the thing that surprised me was just how much I really loved it and how much I'm aching to do it again.
I have a feeling whatever you do next will also be a big swing.
Yeah, it's a cowboy movie. I'm writing a Western right now.
By John Boone