One of the year’s buzziest titles is Orion’s American Fiction, the directorial debut from Emmy-winning Watchmen writer Cord Jefferson that has picked up accolades on the festival circuit, including the people’s choice award from the Toronto Film Festival (a major bellwether for the best picture race).
Based on Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, the film stars Jeffrey Wright as Monk Ellison, an underappreciated novelist frustrated with his career, the marketplace’s ideas of the kinds of books that Black writers should publish and the success of a “Black” novel that he believes flourishes in stereotypes. Following the sudden death of his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross), Monk returns home to care for his dementia-addled mother (Leslie Uggams). While dealing with his out-of-control brother (Sterling K. Brown) and sparking a relationship with a neighbor (Erika Alexander), Monk channels his frustrations into a pseudonymous novel, My Pafology, for which Monk poses as an ex-con on the lam. But what begins as a joke turns into a hit — the biggest of his career — and soon Monk must grapple further with his identity and place in the publishing world.
Jefferson spoke with THR about his personal connection to the story and pushing back against the imposed limitations of Black storytelling.
What about Percival Everett’s book spoke to you?
All of the professional stuff — what people believe is in the realm of possibility for Black creatives is what I’ve been thinking about since I was working in journalism. But more so than that, I have two older siblings, and we’ve had weird relationships over the years. We have a very overbearing father who looms large in our life, and always will, even after he passes. My mother died of cancer, and there was a period when the responsibility for her care fell to the brother who was living in the same town; he shouldered that responsibility when my other brother and I were gallivanting around the world, living our lives. There were all these crazy, weird coincidental references to my life [in the book]. If it would have just been a satire, I probably would have been excited enough. But there was so much overlap with my life that it felt eerie. I really did feel like somebody sat down and was like, “I’m writing a novel specifically for Cord Jefferson.”
In 2014, you penned an essay for Medium called “The Racism Beat,” about having to cover Black pain as a journalist. How much of that experience informed this film?
So much. I used to think, “This makes sense — this is journalism and we have to hew to reality, and a lot of the reality people see is Black trauma, poverty and violence.” When I got into film and television, I thought, “This is going to be great! This is fantasy, I can write about whatever I want.” And then executives were like, “What about a slave movie? How about a movie about a drug dealer or gang members?” I once got a note from an executive to make a character “Blacker.” I told my manager, “Get her on the phone and have her tell me what ‘Blacker’ means, and then I will consider that.” Of course, she’s not going to do that — she knew she’d put her foot in her mouth and sounded insane. But I felt like, even though I’m in the world of fantasy and fiction, we’re still so limited in these people’s minds as to what we can accomplish, what we’re interested in, what our lives look like.
As a satire, American Fiction directly pushes back on that thinking.
What the film is showing is: Here’s the way in which you want us to depict Black life. [Monk’s alter ego] is a fugitive, coming from intense poverty, having been imprisoned, having had a deadbeat father. Here’s the way you prefer the depiction of Black life. Parallel to that, you’re seeing what an actual Black life might look like. It’s not lacking in tragedy. The point is not that everything needs to be joyful and comedic. Monk goes through a lot of bad shit. Why can’t his story just be about different problems? I’m not saying I only want to write about happy-go-lucky Black people, because there’s no drama. But why does the story have to be about slaves or drug dealers or an absent father?
The film is both a social satire and a comedic family drama. How did you settle on the film’s tone?
I’m very inspired by the work of people like Alexander Payne, Nicole Holofcener and Noah Baumbach. They try to depict the reality of life — comedy and tragedy all together on the same day. At my lowest lows, I’ve had moments of real beauty, joy and laughter. The idea that we need to be morose about serious subjects does a disservice to what human beings are actually like. We’re resilient. We find ways to laugh at morbidity.
The supporting cast really grounds Jeffrey Wright’s performance. While he’s misanthropic, we see that the women in his life in particular look past his flaws.
I used to live like Monk — very closed off and isolated. The people who tolerated and loved me despite that behavior, who worked to get that out of me, were always women. I didn’t anticipate how Jeffrey would play the character. I knew that we needed to surround him with women who were charming and effervescent, actors who could elicit smiles and laughs from him. Even Sterling K. Brown, who is such a charming, naturally buoyant person, would be a good foil for Jeffrey and Monk’s grumpy demeanor — like [The Odd Couple’s] Oscar and Felix. But the women in my life have always saved me from myself, and it was important for me to put that in the movie.