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What does it mean to be Black enough? Cord Jefferson explores this 'American Fiction.'

A Black man with a beard wearing glasses and a white button-down shirt walks in front of a large house on a beachfront.
Claire Folger
Orion Releasing LLC
Jeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison in American Fiction.

In the satirical film American Fiction, a frustrated writer named Thelonious "Monk" Ellison (played by Jeffrey Wright) can't get his latest book published because editors say it's not "Black" enough. Monk's editors want clichéd stories about Black life — something screenwriter and director Cord Jefferson says he experienced first-hand as a writer in Hollywood.

"People would call me and they would say, 'Do you want to write this TV show about a Black teenager murdered by the police? Do you want to write about this movie about a slave? Do you want to write this movie about crack dealers?'" Jefferson says. "It just felt like there's still just such a hugely limited perspective as to what Black life looks like."

Jefferson got his start as a journalist before becoming a TV writer for Succession, The Good Place and Watchmen, among others shows. American Fiction is based on Percival Everett's 2001 novel, Erasure, which Jefferson says he "devoured" in 2020.

"It felt like it was a book written specifically for me," he says. "About 50 pages in, I knew that I wanted to try to adapt the script. ... About 100 pages, and I knew I wanted to adapt it and direct it."

The film, which has been nominated for a Golden Globe for best comedy, follows along as Monk writes the kind of "Black" book the publishers want, using every tired and offensive trope he can think of. He submits the manuscript under a pseudonym, and, to his surprise, is offered a $1 million book deal.

Jefferson says using satire to tackle racism was both fun and cathartic: "You're talking about these serious issues, but you're talking about them in a way that makes you laugh ... [and] makes other people laugh," he says. "I think that there's a power in that that other kinds of art don't have."

Interview highlights

On being a journalist covering racism — and its "revolving door of misery":

I started out as a journalist for about eight or nine years, and then I started working in film and television in 2014. ...

When I was a journalist ... toward the end of my career, it had started to feel like there was this revolving door of misery that I was expected to write about. And so sort of on a weekly basis, they would come to me and say, "Do you want to write about Mike Brown getting killed?" "Do you want to write about Trayvon Martin getting killed?" "Do you want to write about this unarmed Black person getting killed?"

It just felt like there was this constant churn of just violence and misery.

A Black man with a shaved head and closely cropped beard looks at a monitor with headphones around his neck and sunglasses hooked onto the neckline of a white t-shirt.
Claire Folger / Orion Releasing LLC
Orion Releasing LLC
"The realities of my life are a lot of the things that I put into the film," Jefferson says of American Fiction.

On working as a screenwriter and being told to make a character more "Black":

Three months before I found the novel Erasure ... I got a note from an executive about this script that I had written, [and] they said that we want you to make the character in the film "Blacker." And so that note came through an emissary, and I told the emissary, "I will indulge that note if the person who gave you that note will come to me and tell me what it means to be 'Blacker.'"

And guess what? That note went away. Because I'm sure that that person knew that if they were going to have that conversation with me, that they would be probably committing a civil rights violation. ... But the realities of my life are a lot of the things that I put into the film.

On knowing he wanted to direct American Fiction:

I think that my ignorance about the industry sort of helped me in guiding the career that I have. When I first started working in ... television, for instance, I didn't know that people who write for television generally choose one: either drama or comedy. That is the path. And so when I got into it, I just thought that, well, I want to do both. I feel both happy and sad in my life. ... Life is neither comedy nor tragedy. And so I just wanted to work on things that felt like life. ...

And then when I started working in it more ... a friend of mine suggested that I try directing out. ... I hadn't gone to film school, so I know nothing about cameras or lenses or lighting. [But my friend said] you don't need to have gone to film school. You just need a vision and to be able to articulate that vision to the people that you hire to work on the film with you.

And so that kind of planted the seed. And so I started considering that, and [it] took me about four years until I found the book that I ultimately knew I wanted to direct.

On watching the 1987 comedy Hollywood Shuffle as a kid and realizing that humor could be used to address racism:

I saw that movie when I was about 9 or 10 years old, probably, and it just changed my life. ... I certainly didn't know the word "satire" back then. I didn't know what that meant, but I knew how it made me feel. And 9, 10 is [when] you're right in the thick of learning about slavery and civil rights and sort of the origins of this country and the ways in which people teach you these things is basically by showing you horror movies. ...

I remember watching this movie called Mississippi Burning. ... It's about the Mississippi murder of the three civil-rights activists. ... It's a great movie, but it gave me nightmares. I remember specifically waking up in the middle of the night worrying that the Klan was going to come to my house and harm my family like that.

That is how we were teaching these lessons to children. And I really like those movies. I think that they're important. But when I found Hollywood Shuffle, I was like, wait a minute, this is talking about racism the way that those other things are talking about racism, but it's doing it in a way that is making me laugh every three seconds, like in a way that's hilarious and accessible and not scary.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley is a co-host of Fresh Air. She's also the host of the award-winning podcast Truth Be Told, and a correspondent and former host of Here & Now, the midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR.