How Cord Jefferson’s big break with ‘American Fiction’ may be a breakthrough for others

Despite what many would consider notable success in Hollywood, Cord Jefferson says he started to believe that his dream just wasn’t going to happen for him. Jefferson has an Emmy Award for writing an episode of “Watchmen” and two WGA Awards for that miniseries and “Succession” in his possession, but those were honors for contributing to other people’s shows. When he would propose his own projects, he found himself failing over and over again to get a pickup from streamers or networks.

He began to wonder if he’d just end up as a co-executive producer on some other showrunners’ series and that would be that. Life took an incredible turn when he met with T-Street, Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman’s production entity, to pitch the feature film “American Fiction.”

“When they told me they were going to greenlight the film, I started crying,” Jefferson says. “I was so just overcome. I really thought that I might never get to make something that I wanted to make.”

Jefferson had fallen for “Erasure,” Percival Everett’s 2001 novel skewering publishing industry attitudes about Black literature, after reading it in December 2020. With Everett giving his blessing, Jefferson spent four months during the pandemic adapting it into a screenplay. The film landed in theaters almost exactly three years from his reading of the book, a rare speedy turnaround in the film business, let alone for someone’s directorial debut.

A man and woman walk amid tall grasses in "American Fiction."

Erika Alexander and Jeffrey Wright star in “American Fiction.”

(Claire Folger / Associated Press)

The social satire centers on Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a professor of English literature at a well-respected West Coast university. After finding himself at odds with his students and peers, Monk takes a leave of absence to return home to Boston to assist his mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), who is suffering from dementia. As he deals with a fractious relationship with his brother (Sterling K. Brown) and sister (Tracee Ellis Ross), he becomes increasingly frustrated that his latest novel cannot find a legitimate publisher.

Raging at the success of a competing author whose work he judges as pandering, he decides to write a stereotypical novel about the Black experience as a way to vent his anger. Written under a pseudonym and filled with inner-city clichés, he insists his agent submit “My Pafology” to all the major book publishers. When he gets a massive financial offer that could assist his mother’s care, he finds himself forced to go along with its publication.

“To me, it was very, very important to have those family moments and those more grounded, poignant moments in order to make sure that the film didn’t collapse under the weight of the comedy and the satire,” Jefferson says. “I never wanted it to feel silly. That was deeply important to me.”

Despite progress made in the 20 years since “Erasure” was first published, the material is still so relevant. Jefferson notes that fact is a “little heartbreaking,” but more so when you consider his “spiritual predecessor” for “Fiction,” Robert Townsend’s “Hollywood Shuffle,” was released in 1987. “It was sort of a real epiphany for me, because it was one of the first movies that I saw that was like, ‘Oh, OK, this is a serious issue. This guy’s talking about race and racism and these painful issues for him, but it’s really, really funny,’” he says.

In that context, the audition process for the role of Agnes provided one of the most “gratifying” moments for Jefferson while making the film. Jefferson recalls, “One of these actors [auditioning was asked], ‘Do you have any questions for Cord before we start?’ And she said, ‘No, but I just want to say I cannot believe they’re letting you make this movie.’ This is a Black woman in her 70s and she said, ‘I’ve been doing this for half a century, and you’re talking about things that we’ve been talking about for half a century, but they’ve never let us say. I just can’t believe that they’re letting you make this movie. I’m so delighted that this is going to be in the world.’”

After initially just being thrilled to have his film accepted into the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, Jefferson saw the Amazon MGM Studios release receive an awards season jump by winning the festival’s prestigious People’s Choice Award, an honor that has often led to a best picture Oscar nomination.

Awards often bring a larger spotlight, and Jefferson is hoping that any continuing success “American Fiction” earns allows someone else to make a film that “right now people think is crazy and outlandish” down the road.

“Hopefully, what this movie can do is crack the door open so that in 2033 or 2043, somebody out there who’s seen this film is then allowed to make a thing that people think these days is preposterous to make. I’m here because of the legacy of those kinds of people.”

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